Korn Concerts Remain a Powerful Emotional Release

Jonathan Davis and co. wear their vulnerability on their sleeves like few other metal bands

Korn perform at Jones Beach
Korn at Jones Beach, photo by Jon Hadusek

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Korn invented a new genre and then outgrew it. The boys from Bakersfield, CA, established the original commandments of nu metal: Thy guitar shall have seven strings, and thou shalt downtune it; thy chords shall be syncopated and chunky; and thou shalt honor thy influences, whether thou lovest hip-hop or blues or ‘70s funk.

Korn’s signature style influenced a generation of rock stars, including Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, Linkin Park, Papa Roach, Staind, P.O.D., and more. And, now, after 13 studio albums and 25 ferocious years, Korn sit in that sweet spot of being able to take stock in what they’ve meant to so many while also continuing to forge a path forward, especially on stage. It’s a legacy fans will get to see in action as Korn and Breaking Benjamin take North American venues by storm beginning later in January.

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The band with the fibrous name was born in 1993, rising from the ashes of a funk metal outfit called L.A.P.D. After that project turned in its badge, the core members — including guitarist James “Munky” Shaffer, bassist Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu, and drummer David Silveria — enlisted some help in the form of a new lead guitarist and new vocals. With Brian “Head” Welch’s seven-string in the fold, the next evolution of heavy music was only missing its voice. They found it in the demonic operatics of Jonathan Davis.

While Fieldy’s funky bass gave the band its swagger, and the dual downtuned seven-strings lent the heavy proceedings some additional weight, Davis is the band’s beating heart. It starts with technical chops; Davis sings in four or five distinct voices. He has a songbird’s song and a lion’s roar, a sneering tenor and a powerhouse baritone. He also does a decent impression of an Archdemon beatboxing. As heard on “Freak on a Leash”, “Twist”, “Ball Tongue”, and more, Davis has patented a wordless expression of violence and pain, like jazz scat filtered through a metal sieve.

That impressive vocal array helped Korn stand out in the crowded mid-’90s rock scene. But it was the violence and pain — especially the pain — that earned the band the adoration of millions. In the macho world of hard rock, Davis stood out for his vulnerability. Everyone in metal feels anger; Davis told us why. He sang about childhood abuses, physical and sexual. He winced at the bully’s jeers and cried out in fear of a rapist. His experiences were darker than most of his fans’. But his lyrics helped the world make sense to a lot of people in pain, myself included.

(Buy: Tickets to Upcoming Korn Shows)

Korn was my first musical love, the thing that got me through middle school. In 1998, as the band reached the pinnacle of their Follow the Leader fame, I was bullied daily. I found acceptance in a scraggly band of black-clad and eyelined outcasts, and together we shared in musical healing. Korn didn’t make our problems go away, but their songs were a way to honor our feelings before letting them go.

On an overcast October day, three boys and one girl piled into one of our parents’ vans and made the long drive to the big city, which in our case meant Milwaukee. The sky started spitting as we pulled up to the arena, and we ran across the parking lot hooting with laughter and yelling for the sheer joy of yelling.

Family Values Tour Poster 1998

Family Values Tour Poster 1998

This was the great “Family Values Tour”, Korn’s itinerant hip-hop and hard rock extravaganza. A few years later, the business model collapsed as the market flooded with competing copycat tours like “Summer Sanitarium” (Metallica) and “Anger Management” (Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach, and Eminem). But in 1998, the “Family Values Tour” was a revelation, with the lineup of a killer festival and the great convenience of the festival coming to you.

That night we saw Ice Cube, Orgy, Limp Bizkit, Rammstein, and Korn. I recall Ice Cube joking with the fans and Rammstein’s spectacular pyrotechnics. Limp Bizkit and Orgy didn’t make much of an impression, I’m afraid. Today, a little over 21 years later, my clearest memory is of Korn: Fieldy’s bass popping, Head and Munky headbanging, and the towering presence of Jonathan Davis. He sang: “Here I am different in this normal world/ Why did you tease me? Made me feel upset/ Fucking stereotypes feeding their heads/ I am ugly. Please just go away.” As he did so, he contorted his torso and writhed in agony, suffering as we had suffered, a heavy metal martyr dying for our sins.

We rode home that night in the back of the van, tired and happily empty. The concert stayed with me over the weekend, and on Monday morning I wore it to school like an aura. The best concerts charge us with this magic, and our first concerts are particularly potent. The magic of that show stayed with me for weeks.

Much would change over the next 21 years. Drummer David Silveria left the band and was replaced with Ray Luzier. Welch exited the band and then re-entered. There were solo endeavors, film scores, DJ sets, and a few projects that led to more good stories than good songs. There have also been a lot of good songs. Just last year, Korn’s The Nothing sent a thunderclap through the heavy metal scene, garnering praise and earning a place on our Top 30 Metal and Hard Rock Albums of 2019. Over 25 years into their career, Korn continue to experiment without straying far from the essence of their appeal. They’ve grown older as we would all like to grow older, without losing ourselves and while gaining some wisdom.

Today, I listen to the old songs with a new optimism, enjoying my perch in the future, knowing the pain will pass. Korn’s most recent songs turn me into a giddy fan all over again. Now, too, Korn’s influence can be felt in the next generation. Today, I hear Korn’s hip-hop percussion in the Boston band Vein; I hear Fieldy’s bass in Turnstile’s funky interludes; and, in Code Orange, I hear the omnivorous approach to the past, where nu metal is just one more reference in an encyclopedia of hardcore sounds.

All of these fresh experiences have the power to move me. But that power is connected to a rainy run through a parking lot, the screams of the mosh pit, and the potent hush of the van ride home. Sometimes those magical evenings can linger for weeks. Sometimes they stay with us forever.

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