The Spice Girls were still a thing. We were beginning to see the emergence of boy bands such as Five and The Backstreet Boys. Britney Spears was on the horizon.
My 10-year-old self owned a few albums at that time; namely, Aqua’s Aquarium and The Spice Girls’ album Spiceworld. (Spiceworld was the first album I’d ever bought with my own money and FYI Posh was my favourite). Saturday mornings meant watching RAGE, Video Hits or Recovery.
Apart from the occasional Silverchair song (this was the era of ‘Freak’), I lived blissfully ignorant of rock music or the trendy ‘nu-metal’ scene. I had also not awakened to an almost maddening and effervescent obsession with 60s and 70s anything. (The closest was growing up with Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, but I never took any real notice. In fact, Pink Floyd used to freak me out. My mother used to isolate herself in darkness listening to Pink Floyd albums. I used to ask Dad what was going on behind the closed doors and he would just say, ‘Don’t bother Mum.’ Now I understand why she went the Waters-Gilmour cloister, especially in the midst of raising children and self-employment: you’re likely going to want some reprieve, right?).
Suddenly this video clip emerged of a bullet that travelled from an animated world into the real world, obliterating whatever it passed through (in slow-motion). This band, ‘KoЯn,’ jumped around a room of bullet holes. Eventually the bullet would enter the room while the singer did a weird gobbledygook vocal spot which ended in GO!!! The music then got super heavy and the bullet travelled back to the animated land from which it came. This was Freak on a Leash.
I bought the single, which was the first single I ever owned that had a ‘Warning: Explicit Language’ label. Having this label on an album at this age felt like a badge of honour; a bit like it was to watch MA or R-rated films at such an early age (something I now regret doing as an adult). I remember at the school disco we’d danced with the girls and then gone to the DJ and requested KoЯn. The DJ kept replying, ‘Haha, no boys, I’m not playing that Manson stuff.’ We weren’t asking for Manson, we wanted KoЯn.
A year later I owned the album Issues.
At that time there weren’t many ways to hear what a band had done before apart from buying an album, and that was difficult because none of us had the money to do that. Spotify wasn’t a thing and Napster hadn’t yet landed. So it was a few years later until I’d heard KoЯn’s first two albums KoЯn (1994) and Life is Peachy (1996).
At risk of sounding arrogant and elitist in my musical taste now, KoЯn is a band that I sometimes take guilty pleasure in despite not really having any interest in the nu-metal sound anymore. Unfortunately, the band have devolved into a form of self-parody. The lyrical content is still ‘I hate you’ and ‘Paaaaain,’ which sounds fine as an angsty person in their late-teens or early 20’s, but silly when you’re in your 40’s. So why am I writing about them now? Well, KoЯn have remained part of the heavy scene for over 20 years (which is a prophecy I had when I was around 13 years old. My mum laughed at the suggestion, yet who’s laughing now, Mum???), and surely they contributed something to music apart from the now laughable nu-metal genre.
Upon revisiting the first two of their albums, you have to put yourself into a position of music in the early to mid-90s, especially coming out of grunge with the death of Kurt Cobain. Nirvana (and other grunge and indie bands) opened up a whole new way of expression and lyrical ground. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers were also a thing with their funky/rock mold. I see this period as a desire towards self-reflection and authenticity, which was occasionally transgressive as lyrical content dove deeper and deeper into the songwriters’ soul.
Then KoЯn breaks onto the scene, with their brutal self-titled album. I can imagine hearing this for the first time: something darker, edgier, funkier, rawer and heavier than anything out. Thanks to the producer Ross Robinson (whom for most of my sheep-like youth I thought was a magician that did nothing but cast fantastic spells with the bands he produced) with an analog production, nu-metal was now a thing and a dark thing at that. KoЯn’s first album had the classic songs ‘Blind,’ ‘Ball Tongue,’ ‘Clown,’ ‘Faget,’ ‘Shoots and Ladders,’ and ‘Daddy.’ Jonathan Davis’s lyrics in these songs explore themes such as bullying and abuse, which for anyone that has felt like an outsider in this way is deeply medicating. Upon re-listening to this album I was struck by how creative David Silveria’s drumming was. The bass player, ‘Fieldy,’ always slapped when he played which sometimes works really well in its percussive and rhythmic effect alongside Silveria’s drumming. The guitar work by ‘Munky’ and ‘Head’ and their 7-strings is often really creative with dissonant cords and eerie hooks. (Side note: one of the things about their first album, that later albums had problems with, was that there weren’t many filler tracks. Tracks are either better or worse, but never feel completely skippable and uninspired. Later albums would be filled with strong songs and many uninspired duds.)
In 1996 KoЯn releases Life is Peachy: an album which I didn’t listen to as often when I was younger, but now understand it as a far darker, funkier and more aggressive album. The album opens with ‘Twist,’ a Jonathan Davis gobbledygook moment followed by ‘Chi’. ‘Chi’ is an interesting song as it has sudden changes and fun breakdowns. I don’t think Life is Peachy is as good as the KoЯn, but it stands as an interesting album in terms of a logical continuation of a band exploring its sound and adding new musical textures. There are more melodies present with the album that hint at the band’s later sound and far more experimentation than what came before. The album is heavier, with sudden breaks in style. It really grooves at times (just listen to the instrumental ‘Porno Creep’: a short funk jam (which may go on a little longer than it should and ‘Low Rider’). The single ‘A.D.I.D.A.S.’ (All Day I Dream About Sex) had an unusual video clip of the band dead in the boots of several cars that had nothing to do with its subject matter. Its a song I used to giggle over with mates.
(A short KoЯn anecdote: I had this girl I really liked when I was in year 7 at school. It turned out she went to the same church my family had started to attend. Around this time my parents allowed me to buy a KoЯn shirt. The funny thing about this shirt was that it had Adidas stripes on the shoulders – something only a true KoЯn fan could understand. I remember siting in a small group and constantly shifting my body to make the ‘KoЯn’ logo visible, as if that would make me mysterious and edgy and attractive. It didn’t work. Nothing did. She never said ‘yes’ to dating me even after asking about 3 or 4 times within a 6 month period).
It was KoЯn’s song ‘Freak on a Leash’ start brought me out of my 90s pop bondage. The thing about that song was that isn’t on either of the albums mentioned but rather on their 1998 album Follow the Leader. However, revisiting that album I noticed a much more refined and polished sound – and more filler. I think Issues was probably their most creative, however everything that followed began a trend of them running in circles with their sound. As much as I enjoy some of the songs that followed, it isn’t anywhere near as interesting as KoЯn’s first two albums, which even in 2017 are interesting to look back on.
Perhaps you need to attempt to forget how formulaic and polished KoЯn have become to appreciate how innovative and interesting they were when they first burst onto the scene and defined the nu-metal genre – a genre that has practically become extinct.
Even though you may want to erase that period of your adolescence where you thought you should look up to Fred Durst, hate everything and believe anything that sounds heavy is good, it is worth going back to listen to KoЯn’s first two albums.
You might be surprised by what you hear now.