20 Years With(out) Deftones
A CoC Retrospective of the Recorded Works of the Alt-Metal Masters
by: Dan Lake
In their shared twenty years of existence, Chronicles of Chaos has never covered a Deftones record. I will pause now for your gasps. Take all the time you need.

Or maybe you're not surprised. Maybe Deftones don't really qualify as chaos worthy of chronicling, having spent their career writing whipsmart songs that hang together better than 80% of the spastic animal aggression that we usually give our full attention (deficit). Maybe we are right to spill adjectives and hyphenated unwords in the service of what amounts to auditory terrorism, ignoring anyone who brings distorted ravings to their otherwise straightforward rock rebellion. Maybe you still think Deftones play nü-metal. Maybe the rock you're living under offers all the comfort you could want.

We (or just I?) disagree. It's time we credit the Sacramento band as the alt-metal innovators they've (almost) always been. Sure, death metal has gifted us with an embarrassment of genius music, and black metal is admirable in its distillation of negativity to its grimy, hollowing essence. But let's not forget Deftones' amazing feat of treading the razor boundary between brute headbanging force and pop allure. It's all the more jaw-dropping for being completely organic -- Deftones arrived at their formidable sound after years of teenage badass attitude and drunken abandon, rather than through the conscious bonding of marketable qualities.

Let's take a moment to celebrate a band that deserves full metal acceptance. The paragraphs that follow are not proper reviews, but a meager attempt to fill a long overlooked coverage gap.

_Adrenaline_ (1995)

I don't actually listen to _Adrenaline_. I mean, I'm listening to it now so I can write about it with some credibility, but I don't see making it a habit. The basic Deftones template is in place here, the operative word being "basic". Everything on _Adrenaline_ is pretty simplistic, a couple baby steps away from being unrepentantly bro-tastic. There's a lot of energy here, a substantial amount of raw, unfiltered groove thump chillin' with some edgy metal darkness courtesy of Stephen Carpenter's guitar tone. Chino Moreno's sigh-to-scream vocal dynamics are clearly established even on the band's debut, but he would grow along with his bandmates in artistry and ability on later recordings. Even a rabid song like "Nosebleed" feels a little flat, with it's completely unlayered approach and sparse production quality. Regardless, _Adrenaline_ feels like a young band full of spit and nascent ideas. Makes you think they might be a band to watch, if they decide to give those ideas time to reach full potential.

_Around the Fur_ (1997)

Two years along from their debut, Deftones take every quality of _Adrenaline_ and pump it the fuck up. _Around the Fur_ still spends a bunch of time in the grip of Korn-flavored nü-metal ("Lotion", "Headup", etc.), but that shouldn't be confused with being categorically useless. There's sonic depth on these recordings, and honestly, ain't nuthin' wrong with bouncing around like a blasted idiot once in a while. "Mascara" and "Dai the Flu" don't really land like they could, and as a top-to-bottom document _Around the Fur_ can leave discerning listeners wanting, but it's also the first real peek into Deftones greatness. "My Own Summer (Shove It)", and that video with the fucking shark attack? Body-rocking brilliance. And I regularly chop my head off with "Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)", if only because it came into my life when I was knowingly entangling myself with a person who was a pale approximation of the woman I really wanted. "I dressed you in her clothes, so drive me far away... I don't care where, just far." And who needs to drive? That guitar part is the perfect getaway vehicle.

_White Pony_ (2000)

This is the moment it all came together. Some will say that 2000 saw Deftones' first and last pure statement, a timely firestorm of creativity in which fully realized songs met file-sharpened lyrics and an absolute command of the recording studio. _White Pony_ became the stick against which every other Deftones accomplishment would be measured, and many who were smitten with this album have found everything since wanting. I'm less inclined to dismiss the power of later efforts, but there's no denying that _White Pony_ delivers a few tons more awesome than was ever promised by earlier records. Deftones feel liberated and empowered here, opening themselves up to songs like "Teenager" without getting sappy or losing momentum. "Digital Bath" knocks aside the old _Adrenaline_ tropes by grooving without ever invoking their inner frat bro. "Knife Prty" simultaneously rocks and flickers with eerie shadows, and that female sing-scream section absolutely sets the song on fire. "Elite" splits skulls, and I dare you to try not dancing to it. The inclusion of Tool's Maynard James Keenan on "Passenger" turns the song into an audience-bridging masterpiece. "Change (In the House of Flies)" wrote the next chapter for the band, as the single took rock radio hostage that year and the band continued to play with songs like it over the next few years. And "Pink Maggit"... Holy shit, there might not be a better album closer in all of rock, or at least, none quite so chilling. Detractors will argue that the appended "Back to School (Mini Maggit)" desecrated an otherwise perfect album with its crude rap-rock sensibilities, but the foil it provides for its more hermetic twin gives _White Pony_ a Möbius strip quality, almost circular but irreparably twisted by its end. Some people still busy themselves with crowning achievements like _White Pony_ (and _OK Computer_ or _Nevermind_) as perfect artefacts of rock history while denigrating everything else as less; but Deftones continued making music, and their discography is all the better for it.

_Deftones_ (2003)

Following the _White Pony_ tour de force and weighted down by the new expectations that they would save heavy rock, the band's self-titled return was almost destined to disappoint bandwagoners. And it did. Many saw the new album as a regression, the band drifting away from the art-rock heights back toward ham-fisted, chest-beating machismo. Low-hanging fruit, they said, calculated to ensure Deftones a safe audience of disgruntled middle class kids. Well, fuck those guys. _Deftones_ lays waste immediately with the jarring rhythms and thundering density of "Hexagram". Follow-up "Needles and Pins" rides a thick guitar wave, then "Minerva" updates the power ballad with a Deftones flair. The middle of the album might settle into a bit of a lull, with nothing sticking out as indispensable, but it's also true that none of the material is as mundane as anything from _Adrenaline_ or the lesser cuts from _Around the Fur_. "When Girls Telephone Boys" is actually pretty savage, and after the album's midpoint, songs flow into a discernible pattern: the burly "Battle-Axe" leads to the cold electro-beats of "Lucky You" which snaps back into the guitar-centric "Bloody Cape" which, in turn, dumps heaviness in favor of the contemplative piano-percussion lullaby "Anniversary of an Uninteresting Event". Even closer "Moana" -- though it's surely no "Pink Maggit" -- holds its place well. This isn't the same Deftones that treated us to the _White Pony_ spectacle, but no band that isn't AC/DC should be expected to repeat former glories. _Deftones_ remains a go-to record in my collection.

_Saturday Night Wrist_ (2006)

From _White Pony_ to the present, this is my least favorite Deftones album. Lots of fans will disagree with me, and that's fine. Maybe it's the timing -- the way these songs hit me during a particularly tumultuous period when I probably craved either accessible pop escape or untempered blasphemy. _Saturday Night Wrist_ offers neither. "Hole in the Earth" connects immediately, but that's probably because it feels like a "Minerva" rewrite. "Rapture" loses me, and "Beware", "Cherry Waves" and "Xerces" also appear to be groping toward recapturing the reverberating bliss/power balladry of songs we've already heard. The Serj Tankian collaboration "Mein" might be the most disappointing four minutes in the band's discography, with verses and choruses competing for least interesting bits of music to be recorded by an amazing band. The Konami Code song is cool, and if sandwiched between more engaging tracks might have felt more necessary. "Pink Cellophane" is a funky curiosity, but nothing more. The end of the album marks a moderate uptick in quality, but it's a bit too little, a bit too late to save _SNW_ from both first and lasting impressions. It's not clear what was happening in the Deftones songwriting camp at this point in their career. It's unfortunate that the band's return to greatness was punctuated by the loss of bassist Chi Cheng to a brain-debilitating car accident which eventually claimed his life.

_Diamond Eyes_ (2010)

Opening with discordant heft and saccharine "Hole in the Earth"-isms, this album's title cut makes a devastating impact right away, but it's not immediately clear that the ten songs to follow will be worthy of admiration. Turns out they are -- almost astoundingly so. "CMND/CTRL" brings back Deftones' monstrous grooves intended to shut up all haters, then "You've Seen the Butcher" slinks in with a bassy magnetism that only deepens when the lyrics kick in. Again, Deftones revel in the gorgeous melodies of "Beauty School", "Sextape" and "976-EVIL" without making them feel self-conscious or uncomfortably concocted. And then, when you worry the band might have melted into puddles of prettiness, "Rocket Skates" comes along with its invocation of "Guns! Razors! Knives!" to remind us the band's still got the heaviness locked down. The collection of songs that became _Diamond Eyes_ was not meant to follow _Saturday Night Wrist_ -- that honor was meant for the sessions that resulted in the yet unreleased _Eros_ record --- but out of respect for Cheng and a desire to shake off the dark cloud of their friend's dire condition, the band retreated to create _Diamond Eyes_. I'd love to hear _Eros_, but I'm grateful for _Diamond Eyes_ on its own merits.

_Koi No Yokan_ (2012)

Loosely translating from Japanese to "Premonition of Love", _Koi No Yokan_ expands on the slithery-pound power of _Diamond Eyes_. Together with its predecessor, this album appears to cut through all the bullshit hesitation and unsure overreaching that itched under the skin of all the previous records. Deftones are no longer groping for their place in the musical universe or tentatively stumbling on unrefined brilliance. This is the sound of intention, purpose and mastery of craft. From beginning to end, _Koi No Yokan_ refuses to make even a slight misstep. Rock purists will always value albums carved artfully but bloody from the raw, confused emotional swings of youth, so _White Pony_ will always look more enticing, but in 2012 Deftones were confident and in control of their creation. Melodies are more crisp and defined, heaviness and catchiness intertwine, paces ebb and flow through exquisite tension and well-earned release. "Swerve City" follows in the long tradition of impeccable Deftones openers. "Leathers" dallies in thought before slamming down its hand (spoiler alert: it's a royal flush.) "Poltergeist" is a disgruntled anthem -- "What can I say? I think your head's fucked!" -- before "Entombed" blisses out in a cinematic power pop lilt. "Tempest" and "Rosemary" succeed where "Mascara" couldn't fifteen years prior, blending the morose with the vibrant. "What Happened to You?" somehow feels inevitable, familiar, but simultaneously like a complete flight from the Deftones ethos. On the whole, _Koi No Yokan_ is another invigorated Deftones effort, a worthy partner for _Diamond Eyes_ and one of the strongest entries in a charmed catalog.

Based on recent news, we should see a new Deftones album in the coming months. More may follow, and _Eros_ still looms as a possible entry in the band's growing list of triumphs, so this will remain an incomplete account of the band's output. But "incomplete" is not "non-existent". Deftones, welcome to the Chaos.

(article submitted 1/8/2015)

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