Artist Spotlight: Deftones

Founded in 1988 in Sacramento, California, Deftones’ ever-shifting sound has seen the band evolve from a so-called “nu metal” act to one of the most ethereal and transcendental acts in the heavy music scene today, endearing them to both metal fans and others alike. Their long and sprawling career has seen them soldier on through in-fighting and the tragic loss of a core member alike, with almost every release of theirs in the past two decades earning them a significant critical acclaim in the process, spawning multiple side projects (of vastly differing sounds) and a fiercely loyal fanbase. Sadly, many people continue to lump them into the “nu metal” scene alongside a slew of questionable acts, but those who’ve given them an honest chance and experienced the spine-tingling emotional resonance of their music have come to know them as one of the most unique acts in the industry today.

To understand where this misconception of genre comes from, we need to go back to their first release, 1995’s Adrenaline (this was technically preceded by a 15 track demo, Like Linus, but for the sake of simplification, I’m going to begin with their first “official” album). This album incorporates many characteristics of the unfortunately-labelled sub-genre, including downtune guitars, turntable scratches and elements of hip-hop (along with the lack of guitar solos; something the band have still yet to do in 7 studio albums). While arguably one of the band’s weakest releases, one can still hear flourishes of the more experimental attributes the band would later hone in on, and the album still stands head and shoulders above the work of their contemporaries at the time.

Despite the infantilism that made the genre the punchline to so many jokes, Deftones were still arguably pioneers of what was – at the time – a new and unique sound. This was perhaps due to the vast differences in music taste between each of the band members, with guitarist Stephen Carpenter being described as “the kid who wore a different Iron Maiden shirt to school every day,” bass player Chi Cheng being primarily influenced by funk, and frontman Chino Moreno having grown up on post-punk and shoegaze (elements of the latter genre slowly worming their way into Deftones’ sound in later releases). Korn may have received more mainstream recongition for “creating” nu metal, but the similarities in their sound were purely coincidental (both bands started up in different places around the same time, and their reaction upon hearing one another’s music was essentially “hey, these guys are doing what we’re doing!”), and they quickly became touring buddies. In regards to the nu metal labelling, frontman Chino Moreno would later be quoted as saying “We told motherfuckers not to lump us in with nu metal because when those bands go down we aren’t going to be with them.”

1997 saw the release of their second album, Around the Fur, to a much more positive critical (and commecial) reception. While the aforementioned “nu metal” elements are still undeniably present (namley in tracks like Headup and Lotion), the end results are far more experimental, with songs like Mascara, Lotion and MX (featured above) placing increaed emphasis on atmospheric components, thanks in no small part to turntable and keyboard player Frank Delgado, who began trading turntable scratches for more ambient samples. Chino Moreno also started to come into his own as a vocalist, and while there’s less variation in his voice compared to the band’s subsequent output, the otherworldly way he uses his voice to compliment the undercurrents of the music (along with his highly minimalistic and ambiguous lyrics) are very clearly beginning to take form. This album also featured the tracks My Own Summer (Shove It) and Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away), which garnered notable radio play at the time; the latter of which being one of the their most accessible songs to date.

Following a world tour, the band returned to the studio with a new approach to music, producing 2000’s White Pony, which to this day is regarded by critics and fans alike as one of their most mature and high-quality releases. White Pony saw the brand trade in their former restrictive sound in favour of something far more electric, working in elements of genres such as dream pop, shoegaze and trip hop (genres that Chino Moreno would later explore far more thoroughly in his side project Team Sleep). The nu metal sound is perhaps only notably present on the single Back to School (which was not included on the original release, and is regarded by many fans as a b-side), an alternate version of the album’s closer, Pink Maggit, written in a matter of minutes after the band’s label demanded another single for the album. Presumably, they didn’t consider any of the other tracks as commercially viable as the well-known Change (In the House of Flies).

White Pony is arguably the beginning of Deftones’ more ethereal sound, and kicks off the unacknowledged tradition of alternating between predominantly soft and predominantly heavy releases (which isn’t to say the album isn’t still “metal” – tracks like Elite and Korea showcase some of the band’s most aggressive work), along with the band’s unique approach to executing rock music with a soft-heavy dynamic. Many bands alternate between soft verses and heavy choruses (and vice versa); Foo Fighters and System of a Down built entire careers on this approach, not to mention virtually every grunge band in existence and the vast majority of 00s era post-hardcore. But Deftones are different, in that rather than alternating between the two, they merge them into a single sound, producing music that is simultaneously heavy and soft.

This era of Deftones’ career is also notable for the band’s exceptionally cryptic lyrics, as demonstrated by the following excerpt from the song RX Queen:
“I see a red light in June
And I hear crying.
You turn newborn baby blue
Now we’re all the virus.”

The band’s use of contrast isn’t just confined to their instrumental aspects either, with the same artistic approach seeping into the lyrics whenever possible; in particularly, juxtaposing imagery of love and death, and sex and violence.

White Pony was followed up in 2003 by the polarising Deftones (originally titled “Lovers,” the band opted to make it self-titled at the last minute, as they felt that title made the album’s unifying theme too obvious). Much darker and more savage in sound, many fans feel as though it was a step backwards due to the more simplistic songwriting (and, admittedly, the band’s transition in sound would make more sense had the album come before White Pony) – despite the presence of Lucky You and Anniversary of an Uninteresting Event, arguably two of the most avant-garde numbers the band would ever produce. The album’s lack of a successful single may also have contributed to its mixed response (despite actually being their highest charting album to date), though the otherworldly, prog-influenced Minerva remains a fan favourite to date.

Many consider Deftones to be the band’s most aggressive album, which is arguably the result some in-fighting amongst the band that had began to simmer around this time. It’s rare to find it at the top of any fan’s “favourite Deftones album” list, but it still has some staunch defenders, who cite the album’s relentless ferocity and prevelance of unique time signatures as major selling points. This album also has what many consider to be the last instance of the band’s aforementioned lyrical style, with Chino trading in his cryptic, minimalistic lyric-writing approach for more dramatic imagery in the band’s subsequent work. The title track Hexagram, in particular, is a huge source of fan debate, with interpretations of its subject matter ranging from abusive relationships to religious-based acts of terriorism.

Following the release of their self titled album, the equally unimaginatively-titled 2005 compilation B-Sides & Rarities was released, showcasing the band’s more tender side. The vast majority of the album is comprised of covers (the band would typically record a couple of covers during the recording session for each album), and the choice of songs covered is quite telling; this is clearly a metal band who aren’t primarily influenced by metal. Alongside covers of songs by The Cure, The Smiths, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Duran Duran (among others), the compilation also features some very gentle and soothing acoustic versions of tracks from Around the Fur and White Pony, along with collaborations with members of Far, and B-Real from Cypress Hill. Deftones have built up a reputation for producing fantastic song covers, which continues to prove itself today as more and more B-sides find their way online.

Back to the band’s original work, and the “official” follow up to Deftones came in the form of the 2006 album Saturday Night Wrist. The aforementioned hostility amongst the band had reached its boiling point now, with this album being largely produced by the band members recording their parts individually and sending them to one another online, which may sound like an absolute clusterfuck, but the end result has earned more than a few die-hard fans (it’s my personal favourite album of theirs), in no small part due to the increased emphasis on atmosphere and ambience. Saturday Night Wrist takes the foundations laid in White Pony and builds something absolutely soul-shaking on top of it.

The bitterness between the band members is evident only in the lyrics, often apocalyptic in nature and covering subjects like trust and betrayal (the intro track Hole in the Earth outright contains the lines “I hate all of my friends, they all lack taste sometimes”, while the later song Combat repeatedly features Chino Moreno screaming “whose side are you on?!”); Chino Moreno was also going through a divorce at the time, so was undoubtedly not in the best headspace, but it’s quite possible that the feuding between the band members may indeed have helped this album – every member is bringing their A game, even if the goal in doing so was to upstage the others. Musically speaking, the band’s sound grew even more eclectic with Saturday Night Wrist, with almost each different song dabbling in a different genre (ie. post-metal on Beware, progressive rock on the instrumental U,U,D,D,L,R,L,R,A,B,Select,Start, and electronica on the highly controversial number Pink Cellphone). Chino Moreno may also be in his absolute finest form in this album, seemlessly transitioning from fragile vulnerability to untethered aggression at the drop of a hat.

Realising they would no longer be able to function as a band in this state, the members of Deftones (most of whom had been friends since high school) finally sat down and had a heart to heart, and were able to work out all of their differences, agreeing they all wanted to continue doing what they loved. They had returned to the studio in 2008 to record their follow-up to Saturday Night Wrist, Eros, an album that was close to completion when tragedy reared its ugly head; bass player Chi Cheng was involved in a serious car crash in November 4, 2008 and went into a coma, remaining in that state until April 14, 2013, when he passed away following a cardiac arrest. Eros remains on the shelf to this day, with only one song and an instrumental demo currently having surfaced (though the band have expressed their desire to release it some day).

Following a brief hiatus and some soul-searching, the band hit the road again in 2009, with Sergio Vega (bass player for the highly influential post-hardcore band Quicksand) filling in for Chi both on tour and on their subsequent work, eventually being made a full-time member following Chi’s death. They returned to the studio shortly thereafter to record a new album from scratch – 2010’s Diamond Eyes. The album is notable for its more raw, stripped backed sound, with many fans describing it as a cross between Around the Fur and Saturday Night Wrist.

Diamond Eyes is one of the band’s more confrontational albums, focusing primarily on the heavier elements of Deftones’ sound. It is notable for its lack of variation in riffs, initially coming across as being somewhat repetitive though growing less so on repeated listens – the atmospheric flourishes are still fully present, and arguably make the album much more than the sum of its parts. Much like Deftones’ self-titled album, it’s a definite grower, though unlike Deftones, it was instantly a fan favourite. This isn’t to say it’s a completely aggressive album – songs like Beauty School and Sextape still showcase the band’s softer side (and the film clip for the latter may be my favourite music video of all time; I saw someone describe it as “your first kiss, your first time having sex and your first drug trip all combined into one” which may be the most beautiful and accurate description of it, and while I’m generally not one for music videos, I find myself revisiting this one on a very frequent basis).

In late 2012, the band released Koi No Yokan (the title is a Japanese phrase similar to “love at first sight,” though more accurately, refers to the act of meeting someone and knowing that they’re someone you can potentially fall in love with, rather than actually doing so immediately), which welcomed more diversity and accessibility into their sound. The aforementioned elements of shoegaze, dream pop, progressive rock and post-metal which the band had previously dabbled in are brought to the forefront of their sound here, and while the fan reception has been relatively mixed, the album received near-universal critical praise as a result.

The album is perhaps most notable for the track Entombed, the band’s tribute to Chi Cheng. Many fans have theories about certain tracks on Diamond Eyes and Koi No Yokan being about Chi, but this one is undboutedly so. Featuring a mixture of electronic and more natural elements, the music symbolises Chi’s struggle for life as he’s kept alive primarily by machines (the way the song appears to end and then picks back up again is also theorised to represent Chi almost coming to at one point, only for his condition), and the lyrics are truly heart-breaking to read. It may also be the band’s most beautiful song to date.

Following some more touring (along with some releases from Chino Moreno’s other bands), Deftones returned to the studio to record their 8th album, Gore. The band have noted that the writing of this album followed a different process than usual, taking a far more collaborative approach; while most of their previous songs had generally been the creative vision of one or two band members, each song on Gore was written by the band as a whole, allowing every member having their creative fingerprint on each track. The end result saw the band leaning more into the “alternative” side of their “alternative metal” genre than ever before – delivering many songs that could easily be alternate/indie rock darlings if one were to remove the distortion.

This isn’t to say that the album lacked intensity, nor the tension that has spawned some of the band’s best work – there’s a notable dissonance between Chino Moreno’s vocals and Stephen Carpenter’s guitar work in particular which makes for a fascinating listen (Rolling Stone described it as Chino “playing Morrissey to the guitarist’s Meshuggah”). The album also sees the band trying out elements of space rock and progressive rock, in addition to further ventures in post-metal and shoegaze.

Deftones’ ever-evolving sound, rich with atmospheric soundscapes that make listening to them on a good pair of a headphones a truly revelatory experience, along with the crushing guitar riffs, sensual vocals and the coalescing of polar opposites has earned them a permanent spot in my top 3 favourite bands of all time. I hope this artist spotlight has perhaps painted a more intricate picture of them for those who thought of the band as “just another nu metal act” (because that label hasn’t even applied to the band in 17 years now), or at the very least, I hope my fellow Deftones fans enjoyed reading it. I think they’re producing some of the most majestic music I’ve ever heard, and it was a real pleasure sharing it with you.

SIDE NOTE: For those who’ve enjoyed what they hear, I would also recommend Chino Moreno’s other side projects – the aforementioned trip hop/dream pop act Team Sleep, the electronic rock band Crosses and progressive rock outfit Palms (coupled with some guest spots on other artists’ work, and a new band in the works titled Saudade, Chino may be one of the hardest working people in the music industry!).

ORIGINAL DISQUS THREAD (Written prior to Gore’s release)