A Week With: Deftones

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With quarantine keeping the whole world on lockdown for nearly two months, my days have mostly consisted of gaming, catching up on films from last year, and most importantly, music. As a means of keeping myself busy, I decided to expand my musical horizons a bit and to step out of my comfort zone by dedicating a full week to listen to one artist/group I’m not that familiar with, picking what I think are their best works, and doing my best Anthony Fantano impression by analyzing them.

Based out of Sacramento, Deftones have been one of the leading voices of alternative metal since 1988 with 8 albums under their belt, first blowing up in the late ’90s during the nu-metal movement. They strike the balance between heavy and artistic rock, something that easily distinguished them from their nu-metal counterparts that dominated the scene. Their music is unusual, to say the least. The contrasts between both elements were quite jarring at first but I’ve slowly learned to appreciate them in the past week. Namely stemming from Chino Moreno’s soft croons over the band’s heavy production. I’ve heard about Deftones vaguely, but never really considered listening to them. My familiarity with metal/rock/etc has never really evolved from my mainstays such as Linkin Park, Nirvana, and Slipknot just to name a few. Not to mention having read about Deftones’ style as being a bit strange left me a bit uneasy yet curious. So I figured now that I’m stuck at home, why not give them a listen and see what they’re like?

Out of their entire discography, I’ve picked four albums that have stuck with me throughout this past week and given each of them a mini-review. A thing I noticed with each project is that they are products of their environment, each album has something that distinguishes themselves from one another whether it be the sound or the lyrics. It’s because of this I’ve come to the conclusion that Deftones is a band that can’t really be set to a specific genre, transcending what we think of alt-metal music by constantly experimenting with different ideas and styles. Each album I describe will hopefully explain this transition from the typical nu-metal sound into a more boundary-pushing aesthetic that retains a level of heaviness.

4.) Around The Fur (1997)

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Starting off with their second album, Around The Fur is more or less a strict nu-metal, late 90’s sounding album if that makes sense. Certainly, an album that would fit well with their contemporaries at the time like Limp Bizkit or Korn. Having grabbed the attention of the metal scene with their 1995 debut, Around The Fur was the album that gave them even more exposure. Hard-hitting tracks such as “My Own Summer”, “Headup” and “Be Quiet and Drive” fit this nu-metal mold perfectly, Moreno takes the time to switch between screeching howls, harmonizing and rapping on this album. It’s an intense listen that had me headbanging for its hour-long runtime. I’d say this was them trying to compete with other bands at the time perhaps? The comparisons are justifiable, mainly with the whole rap-rock notion of the record.

It would also set the tone for the direction that Deftones would go in for the duration of their career. As I said before, this balance between heaviness and the ethereal is what characterizes Deftones for me, and never was this more apparent on Around The Fur. This would be the last time we hear the band delve into this sound, as later projects would see them travel into a more experimental and melodic route. In typical nu-metal fashion, the lyrics range from angst to carelessness. Moreno is a vocalist that uses his lyrics to make you paint pictures in your head, as opposed to blatantly describing what’s in front of you. An aspect that he would carry out throughout each album on this list, it’s almost poetic in a sense. Overall, Around The Fur is an aggressive record front to back, highlighting a band getting adjusted to newly found fame, just having fun and being as chaotic as possible.

3.) Saturday Night Wrist (2006)

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The same can’t be said for this next album though. Conceived during a dark time of drug addiction, heartbreak, and disbandment between the band, Saturday Night Wrist perfectly captures this feeling of tension and confusion. Moreno lays his issues out for all to see on tracks like “Beware”, in which he uses water and the act of drowning as a metaphor for the vices that control him, figuratively warning others of “drowning” in them. He details his frustrations with his bandmates and those around him on “Hole in the Earth” and leaves nothing left to the imagination on the track’s bridge (“I hate all of my friends, they lack taste sometimes”). He personifies his battles as literal demons that haunt him on “Kimdracula” and “Rivère”. I could keep going on but you get the point, it’s pure doom and gloom on this album.

The production here is extremely heavy on Saturday Night Wrist, I’d go on record by saying this might be the heaviest album in their discography. exquisite drum grooves, sludgy/chunky riffs, and haunting synths aid in creating this eerie atmosphere that is tense and dreadful. They tap into elements of stoner rock and post-hardcore with breakdowns on the aforementioned “Beware” and “Rats! Rats! Rats!” respectively, the closest they’ve come to those sub-genres and further showcasing their experimentation. If anyone felt Deftones were getting too soft, I’d easily point them to this record. It certainly lacks cohesion in some parts, some tracks feel so out of place with everything else but nonetheless, Deftones did it again on this one.

2.) Diamond Eyes (2010)

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Diamond Eyes is the equivalent of making something good out of a horrible situation. Prior to its release, Deftones were working on an album known as Eros, which was meant to showcase the band’s aggressive/experimental side in full force. Things were looking good until November 2008, when bassist Chi Cheng was involved in a car accident that would leave him in a comatose state until his unfortunate passing in April 2013. In between this time, the band scrapped the Eros project entirely and worked on a new album, hiring Sergio Vega of Quicksand fame as Cheng’s replacement and recorded this new project within a span of 2 months.

The end result is an album that diverged from the angst and dissatisfaction with the world, rather focusing on hope and love at a time when the band needed it most, while still keeping that hard edge that Deftones had now been accustomed to. Instead of complaining about life, Moreno takes the time to speculate on reuniting with the late bassist, hoping that time will see them reunite once again on the title track “Diamond Eyes”. Embracing a higher power on “Royal”. He insists on his lover to show their true colors, to not be ashamed of who they are on my personal favorite “Beauty School”.

There is more emphasis on melodies with this album in comparison with the other albums listed before, getting to hear a slightly softer side to Deftones was a welcome treat on “Sextape”. Rest assured there is still room for that more sinister side on tracks like “Prince” and “Rocket Skates”, the band’s trademark ferociousness is still apparent throughout, it shows that they still retain that energetic tone without sacrificing it in the wake of dealing with tragedy. The guitars and drums are just as monstrous as they were on Saturday Night Wrist, I’d say that the band was probably channeling the same edgy/dreadful vibe from before on this record with a touch of melodic beauty. Diamond Eyes is an album created at a time when the band was faced with a difficult decision that would have caused other bands to call it quits right there. Instead, they managed to continue on without a core member, and the result is something that the late Cheng would have certainly been proud of.

1.) White Pony (2000)

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Of course, I was going to pick this for the number one spot. White Pony is the band’s magnum opus, the album that would set the course for the rest of their career. It’s the album that showcased their evolution from the nu-metal scene and placed them into the realm of artistic metal, experimental rock, and all those other buzz words. From start to finish the album is a moody trip based around euphoria, lust, and sadism, the sonic equivalent of a night consisting of pure ecstasy and cocaine.

White Pony relishes on its influences. From a production standpoint, it looks towards ambient music, hardcore, and trip-hop to create the band’s most ethereal and mature project to date. You can thank Frank Delgado who contributed his turntables and synths to help create this sonic realm. Think Portishead meets Nine Inch Nails and surely you’ll get an idea of how this album sounds. Its the product of a band who after years of being labeled as something they’re not, finally breaking free of that mold and showing the world exactly what they’re made of. It’s the furthest away they’ve been from traditional heavy metal and fits their style of blending hard edge with melody.

Lyrically, Moreno taps into territories that pair nicely over his whispered croons and howling screams. Chino uses White Pony to embrace a side of himself that hasn’t been seen since. It’s equal parts creepy and enticing to hear him fantasize about being kidnapped on the opener “Feiticeira”, becoming submissive as he puts his life in the hands of a stranger on “Passenger”. Eroticizing violent imagery and drug use as a means of sparking romance throughout “Digital Bath”, “Knife Party”, and “Rx Queen”. It’s an album built around imagery and metaphors, never is this more apparent on arguably the best track and dare I say the best Deftones song: “Change (In the House of Flies)”. Over a somber guitar and drum beat aided by hollow synths, Chino uses the imagery of a fly having its wings cut off as symbolism of him (perhaps) stripping the beauty and power away from a person or ex-lover. In doing so, this person that he once idolized changes (maybe physically, emotionally, etc) and it shocks Moreno, making him feel guilty for the pain he caused as the instrumentals explode during the chorus. It’s a melancholic, catchy tune that summarizes the overall tone of the album, and how fitting that it was featured in one of my favorite Dragon-Ball Z movies during a pivotal point in the story.

Overall, my time spent with Deftones really made me second guess my opinion on them. I felt like I’ve missed out on a lot of great music from a group that continually evolved with each new release. They’re certainly not a one-trick pony as the examples I’ve discussed elaborate on a constant change with sounds while still creating a consistent tone throughout. Handled by Chino Moreno’s vocals and lyricism that equally matches the band’s direction makes Deftones one of the most eccentric bands I’ve had the chance to listen to.

I won’t lie I had fun doing this, coming from the perspective of someone who isn’t a musician or even a music critic for that matter, being able to describe a band as genre-bending as Deftones was an interesting experience and one that I’d love to give a shot at again with another group or artist.

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