With their eighth studio album expected in 2015, and the landmark ‘White Pony’ celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, the time’s right to look back at the catalogue of Sacramento-formed five-piece Deftones. Rarely a band to follow fashion for the sake of the quick buck, they’ve transcended early pigeonholing and, today, stand as an outfit reliably bringing originality to mainstream rock.
They’re also one of my favourite bands ever, so, indulge me.
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Nu-metal’s emergence in the mid-1990s, and the band’s associations with the likes of Korn, meant that the debut Deftones record was, inevitably, marked by frontman Chino Moreno what he could to rap his way through proceedings. Results were pretty mixed, but with producer Terry Date on board – his past credits included albums by Soundgarden and Pantera – there was never any fear that ‘Adrenaline’ wouldn’t pack some considerable volume beside its varying levels of vocal confidence and lyrical naivety (hearing Chino say “bitch” is just, eww).
Obviously the work of a young band still finding its most satisfying groove, ‘Adrenaline’ has its moments of muscly magic – ‘Engine No. 9’, ‘Bored’ and ‘Nosebleed’ pack a bloody punch to this day – but is what it is: the sprigs of a group that would grow into a much bigger creative force before long.
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‘Around The Fur’ (1997)
The breakthrough, spawning a couple of MTV-courting singles, and also the album that brought electronics man Frank Delgado into the fold to expand the band’s sonic palette. Again, Date is the man at the production controls, delivering a sharp end product – but Deftones’ ambition was now bubbling over, and they were ready to remove themselves from the nu-metal equation entirely.
True, the likes of ‘My Own Summer (Shove It)’ and ‘Be Quiet And Drive (Far Away)’ will always be synonymous with the genre that gave us Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock, but compared to ‘Break Stuff’ (for example) they’re wonderfully detailed, texturally deep songs that can still electrify the senses. Which certainly cannot be said for much that Red Cap and company put out during the same period.
Chino’s singing voice was becoming a potent part of the band’s arsenal, his ability to switch between soft tones and terrific shrieks a force to be reckoned with. Palpable emotion was now right at the forefront of his lyrics, revealing a softer heart to this band compared to many of its contemporaries. That, and incredible drumming from Abe Cunningham, saw ‘Around The Fur’ propel its makers to previously unattainable critical acclaim and commercial success.
‘Be Quiet And Drive (Far Away)’
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‘White Pony’ (2000)
As great as ‘Around The Fur’ was, few predicted that Deftones would surpass it in quite the way they achieved with ‘White Pony’. This album changed everything – not just for Deftones, but metal as a whole. Electronics were now woven throughout songs that convulsed with amplified aggression but also stepped back to reflect on the bruising, guilty but enthralled.
A distinct air of progressive rock descended, with the track ‘Knife P(a)rty’ going so far as to actually riff on Pink Floyd’s ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ with its soar-away vocals from the guesting Rodleen Getsic. Elsewhere, ‘Teenager’ leans on smoky trip-hop beats, the melancholic ‘Change (In The House Of Flies)’ became the band’s biggest single to date (and it still is), and ‘Elite’ won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance in 2001. The judges must have had a thing for Transformers.
Kerrang!’s third-best album of 2000 remains a favourite amongst Deftones fans, many of whom feel the band’s never bettered this third studio set. I remember how divisive it was at the time, though, with Select magazine awarding it a dismissive one-out-of-five review, and friends of mine not feeling its sometimes cold, threatening soundscapes. Beneath them was evident heart, if you dug deep enough, the overall impression more like The Cure than Korn – and Deftones never once looked back to nu-metal in the wake of this absorbing collection.
‘Change (In The House Of Flies)’
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A record that quite clearly took its leads from the experimental edge of ‘White Pony’, ‘Deftones’ didn’t quite hang together in the same cohesive manner of its predecessor. It’s got its share of evergreen songs – ‘Minerva’ is a spine-tingling anthem which, seen live, can reduce a man to tears of joy – but somehow this eponymous collection couldn’t reproduce the impact of album three.
Perhaps it’s just too bold for its own damn good. ‘Deathblow’ is an affecting grind through romantic distress – the album’s original title was ‘Lovers’, and matters of the heart take centre stage throughout – but it’s followed by the devastating tumult of ‘When Girls Telephone Boys’. Individually, these are impressive tracks; together, their contrasting approaches unsettle the overall atmosphere of ‘Deftones’.
It’s not a happy listen – Chino’s repeated screams of “I hope we never do meet again” which close out ‘…Telephone’ are absolutely vicious – and Spin commented on its darkness: “(They’re) sad as hell, and they’re not gonna take it anymore.” But ‘Deftones’ is an essential part of this band’s catalogue, marking a point of reflection, refracting personal-life damage, and preceding a between-albums-proper B-sides compilation, which emerged in 2005.
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‘Saturday Night Wrist’ (2006)
Album five came from a period of strained relationships in the band, and it shows: ‘Saturday Night Wrist’ is limits pushing, sure enough, but also patience testing. Many collaborators were experimented with during the record’s gestation, from Dan the Automator to eventual producers Shaun Lopez and Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Lou Reed), and the result is a collection that doesn’t take the band anywhere new.
Moreno jumping ship midway through recording to focus on Team Sleep – not to mention sorting out various addictions, and picking himself up from divorce – must play a part in the stuttering quality of ‘Saturday Night Wrist’. The singer’s called the making of this album a “seriously unhealthy experience”, and he was unsure if he’d even return to Deftones. In the end, though, this isn’t an LP without appeal, even if you have to skip more tracks than you’d like to find it.
The masturbatory album title isn’t an indicator of puerile content as, again, this set takes Deftones into some dark territories. ‘Rats!Rats!Rats!’ feels like an echo from the ‘Adrenaline’ era given amazing clarity by the band’s subsequent years of experience, and ‘Mein’ brings another musician who successfully escaped the nu-metal mulch, System Of A Down’s Serj Tankian, into the mix on guest vocals. ‘Pink Cellphone’, with Giant Drag’s Annie Hardy, is a tedious misstep into hold-music electronica, but ‘Cherry Waves’ is as big on atmosphere as anything these men had made before.
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‘Diamond Eyes’ (2010)
A serious car accident of 2008 put founding bassist Chi Cheng into a coma – he eventually died in April 2013, having never recovered from his injuries – meaning that there was no guarantee of ever having a sixth Deftones LP. But when ‘Diamond Eyes’ did come out, with ex-Quicksand man Sergio Vega filling in for Cheng, it wasn’t just a welcome return – it felt positively revelatory.
After the dragged-out, drugged-up sessions of ‘Saturday Night Wrist’, ‘Diamond Eyes’ needed to be handled in a wholly different manner, and it was: with Alice In Chains and Foo Fighters producer Nick Raskuliecz on board, recording of this album was completed within just two months. The speedy turnaround gave the set a zest that the previous two collections had lacked, and Moreno’s decision to focus on the positives in the wake of his friend and bandmate’s awful accident gave ‘Diamond Eyes’ a most appealing narrative drive. Tragedy brought the band together, and here they were stronger than they’d ever been before.
Pop nous, a progressive zing, vulnerable of heart, and with shadows of The Cure and Cocteau Twins: a lot of what makes up ‘Diamond Eyes’ wasn’t remarkably new to this band, but it fitted together with uncommon neatness. Personally, ‘Diamond Eyes’ might be my favourite of their catalogue, better even than ‘White Pony’. That had its eyes on the stars, sure, but here Deftones are looking closely at what made them great, and distilling it into an even more potent concoction. Charting higher than ‘Saturday Night Wrist’ in the UK and US, this was a return to be cherished.
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‘Koi No Yokan’ (2012)
Actually Deftones’ highest-rated album according to Metacritic, I didn’t feel the same about this set as I did ‘Diamond Eyes’. It pulls many of the same moves, and is a solid, sometimes spectacular collection – but in a vein akin to ‘Saturday Night Wrist’, it doesn’t really push the band forward from their previous release. Then again, not every new album needs to do that – and if this is a kind of consolidation, at least it’s from a starting position of excellence.
Album-preceding cut ‘Leathers’ suggested a tempestuous parent LP – but in numbers like ‘Entombed’ and ‘Romantic Dreams’ it strikes a more measured tone, which can feel a little one dimensional over repeat listens. ‘Tempest’, however, manages to be both gooey and gargantuan simultaneously, and comprises the centrepiece of an album that, when it’s really hitting its stride, is up there with Deftones’ very best. It just doesn’t reach those heights with true consistency.
Which, again, is not to suggest ‘Koi No Yokan’ is bad – nothing Deftones have put out has been. It’s just unlucky, I suppose, to follow the striking comeback that was ‘Diamond Eyes’, and suffers for the comparison. In ‘Gauze’ it strikes with white knuckles, blood pumping furiously, and ‘Goon Squad’ matches compelling melody to churning riffs capable of upturning any lunch. Throughout, there are the usual triumphs, but I guess that’s the issue: they’re expected by now. What a ‘problem’ to have, eh?
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Other releases of note
1998’s ‘Live EP’ followed ‘Around The Fur’. It collects a series of live recordings that first featured as B-sides to ‘My Own Summer (Shove It)’.
As the band’s (then) label Maverick worried about the shortage of potential singles on ‘White Pony’, they requested the band record a reworked take on ‘Pink Maggit’, which became ‘Back To School (Mini Maggit)’. Available on an EP featuring bonus live and acoustic tracks, ‘Back To School’ was regretted by its makers, Moreno claiming they’d compromised and that fans would feel bad about it. But, truthfully, ‘Back To School’ is a great little song, offering a middle finger in its lyrics to those who ordered it in the first place – “Who ruined it? / You did” – and stirring memories of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ with its school-set video. Apparently it only took half an hour to write (nice work!), but its popularity endures amongst those happy to mosh mindlessly for four minutes.
2005’s ‘B-Sides & Rarities’ did what it says on the tin, pulling together covers of tracks by Helmet, Sade, The Smiths, The Cure, Cocteau Twins and Duran Duran – quite the list of band favourites, there. Included in the package was a DVD of videos from the band’s first four LPs, including ‘Mini Maggit’ (which made it onto the tracklisting of later ‘White Pony’ presses).
Record Store Day 2011 saw the band expand on their covers repertoire, the appropriately titled ‘Covers’ featuring their takes on ‘Ghosts’ by Japan and ‘Sleepwalk’ by Brooklyn duo Santo & Johnny, a number one from 1959. Two years later, Deftones marked Record Store Day 2013 with ‘Live: Volume I’, a four-song set with numbers taken exclusively from ‘Adrenaline’ alongside a B-side from the period, ‘Teething’.
‘Back To School (Mini Maggit)’
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Related: Charlie Simpson on ‘White Pony’