Call it whatever you like – Nu Metal, Alt Metal, Rap/Rock – but the undisputed kings of the genre are without a doubt Korn! Like a bullet through a lava lamp (or a water cooler), Korn’s trajectory was already impressive before they delivered what would become their seminal offering, Follow the Leader, on Tuesday, August 18, 1998. Nu Metal, as well as Metal in general, would never be the same!
Formed in 1993 in Bakersfield, California, Korn made their impressive debut onto the music scene in 1994 with their self-titled opus. Turning nursery rhymes to sonic chaos and injecting bagpipes into Metal, the band were guaranteed to make a lasting impact almost from the get-go. While 1996’s Life is Peachy met with mixed reviews from fans and media alike, one thing was always abundantly clear: this band was doing something unique. With Follow the Leader, the band’s third full-length, they found themselves poised on a precarious precipice, wherein they would either fail to rise further in their career or they would travel at light-speed to new heights of mega Rock stardom. Sitting here today, it’s pretty easy to guess which future awaited the Cali-quintet!
Korn, in the Follow the Leader era, was composed of its original line-up: Vocalist/Bagpiper Jonathan Davis, Guitarists Brian “Head” Welch and James “Munky” Shaffer, Bassist Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu, and Drummer David Silveria. Whereas, for their previous two full-lengths, Korn had worked with Producer Ross Robinson (Slipknot, Limp Bizkit), on Follow the Leader they broke with this trend (though Robinson was kept on-board as a vocal coach) and turned toward Steve Thompson (Guns N’ Roses, Madonna) and Toby Wright (Metallica, Alice in Chains). Mixing was handled by noteworthy Brendan O’Brien, who had worked with Stone Temple Pilots and Incubus.
As with many seminal offerings, the collection deals with a myriad of topics and sounds, from the distorted, crunchy bangers that the band was known for (“It’s On!,” “Freak on a Leash,” “Got the Life”) to weighty topics such as child abuse (“Pretty”). Additionally, it was a highly candid and confessional collection for the band, who were going through an admitted “party” phase at the time.
Interestingly, Follow the Leader starts at Track 13 (reportedly due to Davis’ superstitious nature) and ends on Track 25, though there is a not-so-secret hidden track. In the days before the almost necessary inclusion of feature artists, Korn brought in the truly diverse likes of Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst, Tre Hardson of The Pharcyde, Ice Cube, and Cheech Marin to contribute. Each guest received a writing credit, and contributed to a diverse array of new material that would provide the backbone for Korn’s career-altering masterpiece.
Follow the Leader begins with the distorted guitars of “It’s On!” leading into their massive second single, “Freak on a Leash.” The video for the song – featuring animation from its director, Comic Book Artist Todd McFarlane (who also created the album’s cover art) – was groundbreaking at the time of its release, a cohesive and colorful storyline that featured a speeding bullet and some very lucky children. Released on Friday, February 5, 1999, the video would go on to win multiple awards, be retired from MTV’s Total Request Live, and lead the song to chart in multiple locations, including the UK Singles Chart and the Mainstream Rock charts. It was, by no stretch of the imagination, the band’s biggest success, so far as singles go.
Similarly, the album’s first single – and the album’s third track – “Got the Life,” was the first video ever to be “retired” on MTV’s Total Request Live after a successful and lengthy run on the then-popular show, placing Korn amongst the likes of Britney Spears and N’Sync. The video featured a slew of guest appearances, from Limp Bizkit’s Durst to Orgy’s Jay Gordon, to The Pharcyde’s Hardson.
Sitting tight as Track 4, the sludgy “Dead Bodies Everywhere” dealt with daddy issues, while “Children of the Korn,” which features the legendary Ice Cube, prided itself on the corruption of fans via the band’s music, while still taking a moment to cast a weary eye towards itself. Here too, Davis reflected on his bizarre rise from bullied nobody to music idol, someone with a platform who could speak, and others would suddenly listen.
“B.B.K.” is an acronym for “Big Black Kock,” which, reportedly, is Davis’ nickname for a Jack and Coke. Despite the phallic title, here, he reflected on his own self-loathing and self-destructive tendencies, the band’s newly found fame, and what it might all mean. This paved the way for the dramatically haunting “Pretty,” which deals with one of Korn’s recurring themes of child abuse, here, more specifically, the case of a 1-year-old infant that Davis experienced first-hand in his work as an Autopsy Assistant in the Bakersfield Coroner’s Office. Outrage pours from the vocalist, who never once flinches from painting a heartbreakingly traumatic and macabre scene.
Stepping past the halfway point, “All in the Family” is a Rap duel between Fred Durst and Davis, a trading of insults that bounces between witty (including slams to Hanson and Winger) and just plain ridiculous and feels like an ad for the band’s Family Values Tour – which, aside from Korn and Limp Bizkit, featured Orgy, Incubus, and Rammstein in its initial run. Next, the autobiographical thump of “Reclaim My Place” leads to the frenetic “Justin,” dedicated to a fan who sadly lost his battle with cancer, and whose dying wish was to meet and hang out with Korn.
As the collection begins to wind to a close, Korn dip into the meandering, dark confessional “Seed” before The Pharcyde’s Hardson guests on the experimental “Cameltosis.” They end on the bagpipe-laden “My Gift to You,” a deranged fantasy dedicated to Davis’ girlfriend of the time and a clear example of “be careful what you wish for.” Of course, ultimately, fans know that there is a “secret” fourteenth track, the Cheech & Chong cover “Earache My Eye,” which features a guest appearance from Cheech Marin himself.
An outstanding success for the little band from Bakersfield, Follow the Leader charted No. 1 in multiple countries – which included a Billboard 200 debut at No. 1 – and hit the Top 10 in nearly a dozen. To date, the album has sold upwards of 14-million copies worldwide, is certified 5x Platinum, and was a clear mainstream break-out for the band. In short, without Follow the Leader, Korn might not be the household name that they are today!
In fact, much in thanks to their early successes, Korn continue to break new boundaries today, most recently with 2016’s The Serenity of Suffering. With the band continuing to explore new musical ground and their fan-base larger than it has ever been, Vocalist Davis recently released his first solo album, the experimental Black Labyrinth, which arrived in May.
For a band that has always refused to follow any leaders, defied the odds, and paved their own path, Follow the Leader stands as a testament to their talents and, despite the two decades passed since its creation, remains a vitally important album in the history of Rock and a necessary addition to any Metalhead’s collection.
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