|Side One:||Side Two:|
I was never much of a fan of the other two bands, indeed, rarely listening to either, but I'd not yet been introduced to "real" metal, and the strange reflexive responses ingrained in me from my father's distaste (Iron Maiden seemed like some distant, scary-like-a-horror-movie thing for many years, for instance) didn't encourage changing that. So this was the genre that, as its popularity was at its height, managed to ensnare my aggressive leanings, musically. Many of the bands I listened to at the time will actually make appearances here--some surprisingly, some less so, but this is one of the ones I tend to get least nervous about. If anyone really and truly outgrew the (intentionally disparaging) moniker of "nü metal" (as opposed to both not doing so or becoming the example of "the good kind"), it is and was Deftones. Indeed, they'd left most of the sound behind on their second album (the aforementioned Around the Fur) after exorcising the great majority on 1995's Adrenaline. Small wonder--the band actually started in 1988 (!), and never really injected rap into their style, certainly not in the fashion that was so common at the time.
White Pony established them firmly as both popular and critics' darlings for some time to come,² releasing them (almost) completely from the derogatory shadow of the genre that is still (occasionally) applied to them. While White Pony is typically considered the masterpiece of the group, and I know that, at 16 or 17 at least, I certainly couldn't be found disagreeing. I ended up known in some contexts for playing that album nearly to death in those days, often without realizing it--apparently earning the expectation that any time I brought an album to play in a class where it was allowed that it would be that (I surprised someone with a different one one day, apparently).
It's been thought of by others as their greatest work for long enough now that this opinion is starting to become old hat--but this is starting to change, and become less a consensus as time goes on. Deftones, then, is the follow-up to that, no longer constrained by the expectations of a "genre" now in its effective death-throes (2002 or 2003 was a real decline in its visibility--or maybe I just imagined that as I'd started to leap off in every musical direction at the time!). Maybe, though, it was that I was now in college and had access to both record stores in walking distance and even nice, sealed new vinyl like this very album, which the sticker on the front implies I picked up the year of its release from one of the stores in the town I went to college in.
The album opens with what would be the release's second single, "Hexagram", which dances with a rather sunny set of guitars over a similarly bright low end introduction, which pounds downward after only a few bars as Abe Cunnigham's drums smash in with Chino Moreno's scream--"Paint the streets in white!" but there's still an interesting edge to the music: as thumping and powerful as it has become, it's still using that sunny riff as its primary focus, but the chorus changes that: "Worship! Play, play..." Chino sings, almost mockingly, Stephen Carpenter's guitar and Chi Cheng's bass hammering out staccato, halting riffs that rock and roil but stop suddenly, eventually coming back out to an open spread that re-introduces the verse's sound. Chino works the verses up at the first and third lines to extended, periodically "catching" screams, and exhausted second and fourth ones. It's fascinating that it hits on the down-tuned aggression of their early days and the sounds they became associated with, yet marries them to the curious sounds of Carpenter's interesting opening riff. There's a bridge where an electronically-affected vocal from Moreno is followed only by a lone guitar, but it all swings back to "the same sound"...
"Needles and Pins" does not relent in terms of energy, but the sound is almost more spare, Cunningham's ever-interesting drum style would be skittering if it weren't too deep and low to be called that. Carpenter's guitar seems to be stuck in a locked groove, circling around and around as if it was only a sample (not an impossibility with the talents of Frank Delgado--but he had moved to keys instead of turntables). Moreno lodges himself in his airiest mode for much of the song, pushing his voice down for the verses, half-bored, half-sarcastic, until he reaches out with it: "I'm here, if that's what you want"--launching into the chorus, a second voice barking out accompanying answers to the empowered version of Chino's bored vocals, which he takes to their point of dry, rasping breaking point to yell out the finish of the chorus. The song centers on that strangely alluring rhythmic guitar and metronomic but "stumbling" drum beat, which seems as though it should relent at the song's end, but instead seems to keep cycling and repeating in the way it feels as though it would demand against expectations.
The first single from the album, "Minerva" struck me in my then-semi-nascent post rock phase: the guitars are walled up and enormous, an absolute tidal wave against Abe's steady, deliberate beat, Chino's voice all curves and rounded edges, Carpenter's guitar occasionally drifting out in anticipation of the crashing waves. Of course, now I've read many more comparisons that suggest, instead, the influence of shoegaze like My Bloody Valentine, and the idea makes sense, in that it sounds like that same heavily layered, shimmering guitar sound Kevin Shields fancies, but I stand by the post rock (think mid-period Mogwai, if that's something you're able to think) association, as the weight of the tune is beyond the appealing float of MBV's preferences, which don't at all attempt such heaviness. It's a clear declaration of sound for the group--not an encapsulation of the album and those that would follow it, but a flag in the sand, a firm watershed that clarified that, even when they looked backward, it would be from at least this vantage point. The vaguely discomforted solo guitar (not guitar solo) of Carpenter slowly takes the song outward, and drifts off ambiguously.
One of my favourite tracks on the album, "Good Morning Beautiful" hammers itself off with a riff and drumbeat that continue the heft of the Deftones' sound but keep that shiny edge most recently heard in the opener, "Hexagram", giving an oddly "friendly" tone to "Good Morning" that carries on through much of the track. The way Chino sings the verses is an emphatic example of why I like his vocals so much: "One of these days, you'll break me of many things/Some cold white day, but you're crazy if you think I would leave you this way..." an opening he uses to turn the song to not only the chorus--his vocals now more pleading and insistent, less cooled, but the throbbing guitars and drums that mark it--stripped of the high, friendly edge, but not intimidating, or aggressive. Abe throws in some wonderful fills when the verse returns, as Delgado's keys add a peculiar skittering edge to the top of the track. The bridge manages to, interestingly, bridge the two vocal stylings Chino uses, the cooled verse and the nervous, semi-harried chorus, and works its way into a final set of choruses that is ended with a sustained version of that friendly riff, shiny and distorting into the distance.
The first side of the album is largely focused on, if not aggression, at least uptempo and forward-moving numbers--perhaps "loud" would be a good word. But "Deathblow" seems to mark an end to this trend: an isolated and somewhat somber low-end guitar lick (low enough--the low tunings are the only retained element of "nü-metal") that nudges at the sound of "Change (in the House of Flies)", one of the biggest singles from White Pony, but with a more deflated, resigned atmosphere--not the ominous nature of that first song, but one that is exemplified by the sudden blare of the chorus: "And the ropes hang to keep us all awake I should have known..." But the verse returns, with its low energy, and the peculiar sounds dropped in from Delgado--whines and skipping reverberations. If there's a "mean" to the album, it's a combination of the sounds of perhaps "Minerva" at the higher end and "Deathblow" at the morose and low one. The way it sort of fades and dissipates at the end is as if it is slowly vibrating all of its sections out of sync, leaving finally Delgado's electronic manipulations as the only echo past Cheng's bass.
"When Girls Telephone Boys" might seem to be a cap on the aggressive and louder end of the record, but it's only a cap on the first side. A rather difficult to hear or understand sample of a woman's voice that becomes clear enough to easily understand "It's hella sensitive" sends the song charging headfirst into your ears (perhaps a deliberate trick with the obscure sample, while also being somewhat "meta" in its reference to being "sensitive"). It's almost like being dropped into a song already progress, but it's stopped short with the chugging, punctuated chorus, Chino's scraggly screams over the song violent in sound and intention, trawling the depths of anger to convey an overt aggression that the rest of the band makes most clear in the thudding stripes of sound that define the musical backing of the chorus. It eventually squalls outward into a strange bridge of squawks from Delgado, the lovely deep, pounding drums of Cunningham and only eventually the returned descending chords of Carpenter's guitar and Cheng's bass. The song never relents--it just turns to cycling repetition of Chino's cries of "And I hope we never do meet again!" and that riffing chorus that just fades off and away...
You might think from the title that "Battle-Axe" would be a continuation of the aggression of "When Girls Telephone Boys", but it starts with an open-ended guitar lick that quavers its way into Abe's thumping entrance, carrying the rest of the band on able shoulders. Though now buried, that opening lick continues to define the song, before it becomes the verse's sound just a few bars before Chino enters: focused on a bend, the riff is, like that of "Needles and Pins", tight and restrained for the verses, open again as the chorus enters, which also smooths out Moreno's voice, but when his words change from descriptive ("Still you love to think you have always been this way...") to definitive ("...But you're wrong"), the straps tighten again and the band scrunches back down into that tight bending riff.
While many an album is front-loaded, Deftones is interesting because some of its best and most interesting tracks are those that end the album. This string begins with "Lucky You", a heavily electronic track co-written and dominated by DJ Crook from Moreno side project Team Sleep. An all electronic beat, filled with unusual sounds and strange, warped scratching and "wubs" (for lack of a better term) backs Chino's voice rather ominously, unease-inducing backing from guest vocalist Rey Osburn whisper out "If you feel lucky...if you feel...loved..." as Chino's voice climbs up the chorus: "You've crossed the walls/Excelled/Further along through their hell..." The song is strange in its usage of multiple vocalists (not a foreign thing to the band to that point, nor since), like a strange sound collage in some ways that works more toward atmosphere than distinct tune, building on the rather uncomfortable but pleasing feeling implied by the curious beat.
While some have called "Hexagram" or other tracks the best example of it, the way that "Bloody Cape"'s free-floating guitar introduction suddenly turns downward into a punishingly heavy riff that is even further emphasized by the upward saw of the end of its axe-blow entrance makes this, so far as I'm concerned, the most wonderfully heavy song in the Deftones' catalogue, even if it is not as consistently so as some others. There's an easiness and a lightness to both the music and Chino's voice as we enter the verse, but the jagged, focused stabs of guitar in the chorus strike their way right through it, snarling with Moreno's cries of "First we are, ever to fall off of the Earth/We must be the first ones in the world to fall off of the earth..." but it's that second appearance of the chorus and the way the riff suddenly gets even nastier, Abe's drums now less flowing and more concretely rhythmic, guitars and bass stabbing violently through the track, bereft of tune, and eventually matched by the rasping screams of Chino: "God help, God help..." that suddenly end the tune.
Seemingly an agreement with my own notions, Deftones follow "Bloody Cape" with the contemplative and piano-based (!) "Anniversary of an Uninteresting Event", as if to relax everyone following the bloodied thunder of the preceding track. Percussion is all cymbals, tambourine, with bits of plodding bass-snare here and there to draw the essential frame. But it's the grand piano and accompanying toy piano that define the track--but for the lovely washes of splash cymbal crescendo. "But not since you left have the waves come..." Chino sings forlornly, though the track is more bittersweet than outright sad. Perhaps it's that toy piano, or maybe just the key they play in, maybe even the peculiar sounds inserted around it all, like the lightest fuzz in the background--I'm really not sure. I've listened to the song possibly more than any other on the record, as it fits the bill for the relaxed, semi-sad sound I often find appealing for much sitting and listening. It's a beautiful track, thoroughly unexpected, but shot through with enough touches (particularly Moreno's distinct voice, to be fair) to keep it uniquely Deftones.
The anticipatory riff that opens "Moana" is brooding and suggestive of something to come, but Chi's deep, resonant, and simple bassline is even more ominous, as Abe stalls it all with a single "ting", letting the group pause before launching into a song whose closest relative would be "Minerva", not aggressive but huge, Chino's voice soaring but tuneful, climactic and scene-establishing: "As she walks onstage...". The chorus is a flurry of fills from Abe between the nailings of a deep riff, like streaks through water--possibly with the impression that they are the trails of bullets. Chino's voice is here used to its most peculiar effect: close and chilled, despite the energy of the music, yet the only appropriate match to it. Letting the last riff hang, only to drag it back in with a pick slid up the coils of a guitar string was only right as the way to end the track and the album
While many are now finding 2006's Saturday Night Wrist an apex moment for Deftones as a band, there's a certain immediacy and experimental nature in Deftones that marks it as a unique stopping point along the progression of their sound. It has the hallmarks of it: atmospheric, alt-rock-cum-post-metal guitars, sharp, clear and interesting drums, deep, bassy sounds and the inexplicably not incongruous moans of Chino's incredibly appealing voice. Yet, it also has curiosities: "Bloody Cape"'s riff is couched as it is to sound all the more cutting, while "Anniversary" is an almost complete anomaly, yet neither of them feels out of place next to each other, nor in the album as a whole--it's a moment that, in reflection, only seems strangely varied, even as it progresses quite naturally through a variety of moods and sounds, tinged as they are with some sun, despite the feelings of some.
It's not the iconic "must have" record in the sense of their place in the canon of music, nor of my own personal experience, or even any re-evaluated notions of apex in exclusively their own work, but it remains a record I'm very pleased to listen to, and enjoy having available in this format. Listening to it is nostalgic in ways music--oddly, I suppose--rarely is for me: it's a feeling of summers and pasts and moments that could at least feel free of responsibility.
One Love for Chi.
Rest in Peace.
- Next Up: Depeche Mode - Some Great Reward
¹Am I supposed to capitalize the "R"? I really don't know.
²In large part, on into the modern day--I like to imagine the whole "Actually, they aren't nü-metal..." intro has finally been retired--but my intention here is to be readable for anyone, so a little background is helpful, I like to think, so I included it.