Years before Internet chat rooms enabled disenchanted youth to connect with one another, music remained one of the most prominent means of experiencing community and catharsis. This contingent, the teenage result of early ’80s quality-time parenting, seldom articulated these emotions because it didn’t possess the language, or societal permission, to do so. It was left to stew in isolation.
The primal scarring that singer Jonathan Davis mined on Korn’s 1994 self-titled debut — the fear, the pain and the fury spawned from traumas like adolescent bullying and sexual abuse — was a harrowing snapshot of the torment that can churn sight unseen within anyone.
Thankfully, Davis reached for a microphone instead of a gun to banish his demons, and the rest of Korn set his at-times incoherent howling and manic scatting to a creepy, dropped-tuned background of guitar whines, bass slaps and hip-hop beats. Their first album was a jolt of light that exposed the dark corners of its listeners’ psyches, revealing angst those teens didn’t know how to verbalize.
This is one reason why Korn still matters, and why the record deserves the victory lap the band is taking it on for its 20th anniversary tour. The quintet played Irving Plaza on Oct. 5, and the already-intimate space was packed sardine-tight with the thirty-something audience who grew up on Korn. Like its audience, Korn has inevitably changed, too, but kept the back-in-the-day vibe by opting for minimal stage production and a simple backdrop to adorn the stage. (Davis even refrained from using his custom-designed H.R. Giger microphone stand until the encore; the piece’s value probably eclipses the budget that was allotted for Korn.) The crowd, primed to hear the album played from start to finish, was detonated into a sweaty mass of surfing bodies and stomping feet with the growled battle cry of “Are you ready?” that launches first track “Blind.” But instead of being hopped up on the rebellion and illicit substances that fueled early Korn shows, the crowd was pumped with excited nostalgia.
The same could be said for Korn. No longer kids struggling to realize a dream, its members are now successful adults, ones who have weathered changing lineups, spiritual conversions, chemical dependencies and controversy. Getting to sink their teeth into the album that made it all happen for them was a dream gig, even if the mixing board had a few major fails that caused the bottom in the sound to occasionally drop out and render Ray Luzier’s drums and Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu’s bass flat.
So far, Korn’s songs are wearing their years well, and the band’s delivery of them was equally self-assured. It could be heard in songs like kiss-off diatribe “Divine”: When it was recorded, Davis’ mid-song rant was defensive and frustrated. Now, in concert, his confidence as he tells his opponent to fuck off is evident.
Korn’s disjointed aesthetic of buzzing, sinister tones and anthemic breakdowns upheld their weight in concert gold, from “Blind” to “Daddy,” and continuing through encores like “Falling Away From Me” and “Freak on a Leash.” The tribe was united in hollering all the album’s most quotable lyrics (every man in the room was clearly living for the moment to shout, “You’ll suck my dick and fucking like it!” during reclamation song “Faget”) and riding the emotional high of the predictable set list. Korn has shucked its once-trademark tracksuits and braids for facial hair and higher-end musical gear, but the guts and unconventionality of its debut are intact.
And the elder children of the Korn — as seen by their delightful shouting of “Knick knack, paddy whack, give a dog a bone” during the black nursery rhyme “Shoots and Ladders” — are still gleefully following their bagpipe-playing leader.