chino moreno – voice, guitar
abe cunningham – drums
chi cheng – bass
frank delgado – turntables
stephen carpenter – strings
With “White Pony,” their third Maverick album, Deftones have made a record as erotic as it is brutal, as dynamic as it is hushed, as relentless as it is gentle, as hooky as it is experimental, and as lush as it is tight. Firmly grip your nerves and prepare for the defining sonic rush — this “White Pony” offers an emotional ride, with great rewards for those who survive it.
“I see boundaries more clearly now than I used to,” says singer Chino Moreno. “I’m better at toying with people cerebrally than I was a few years ago. I’m better at fucking with your head.”
Back in 1995, we met Deftones with “Adrenaline,” a combustible compound of razor-blade riffs, rumble, rage, and rap-ish delivery. The record, besides selling a half-million copies, laid the foundation for the heavy movement that followed and continues today. Even then, we heard hints that this was not a band concerned with traditions or bothered by musical borders. Around the tempestuous bursts of hardcore were passages of eerie quiet and vulnerability. There was something pretty in the skirmish of feedback and cymbal wash, a mermaid surfacing in a mossy swamp. Chino knew from the get-go that nothing enduring is ever obvious and so opted not so much to outright tell a story, but rather cloak it in imagery for your imagination to undress. As he sang in that album’s “7 Words,” “You and me are here alone, face flat along the edge of the glass.”
“I get letters from kids talking about how a certain song affected them or comforted them,” Chino says. “Their idea of what it means is completely different from what I was feeling, but I would never tell them that. If something affects you at all, it’s good.”
Two years, countless packed houses, and one major riot in Arizona later, the guys delivered “Around The Fur.” No less ferocious than its predecessor, the album was pure passion and well evolved beyond the standby whisper-to-scream trick. Deftones spread to both extremes, seeking the logical limits of guitar savagery while flirting with a Gothic or New Wave sense of spook and haunting sparseness. Chino was more aware of himself and better able to translate what obsessed or enraptured him into his words. “There’s still blood in your hair and I’ve got the bruise of the year but there’s something about her long shady eyes,” he sang in “Mascara.”
Rock and alternative radio played “Be Quiet And Drive (Far Away),” and MTV played the video for “My Own Summer (Shove It),” a creepy clip (and apt analogy) showing the band playing atop floating cages while hungry sharks circled below. Ceaseless road work followed, including stints on both Warped and Ozzfest. Somehow in there they found time to cut a mesmerizing version of Depeche Mode’s “To Have And To Hold” for an album saluting the synth-pop progenitors. When they played Detroit with Black Sabbath on Valentine’s Day, 1999, they were unfazed when all their gear was stolen in a van robbery. “Around The Fur” went Gold. Eventually, Deftones returned to Sacramento and began the soul mining and arrangement experiments that would become “White Pony.”
By this time, the neo-hardcore sound the band had been so instrumental in pioneering was the toast of our nation. Countless acts ran to the proven formulas, but the Deftones saw no need to revisit the past in creating “White Pony,” only a need to satisfy themselves.
“We’ve never talked about it, about finding a ‘Deftones sound,'” says bassist Chi Cheng. “We don’t want to find a certain sound, and settling on a certain sound is not a good thing. I think that’s why our albums keep progressing, because we’re going with what we feel is right at that moment, not what we think we’re supposed to do.”
Co-produced by the band and Terry Date (who did both of their prior efforts), “White Pony” was cut at Sausalito, CA’s legendary Plant Recording Studios and at Larrabee Sound in Hollywood. The process was not speedy, but the results, musically and emotionally, are stunning. Stephen Carpenter’s wall of wash and wail stretches from here to the cosmos; Chi’s bass falls like a ten ton anchor; Abe Cunningham’s drums are beaten senseless; and Frank Delgado dots the landscape with found sounds and needle drops while Chino unleashes surreal tirades and unloads his cargo of uncertainty and longing.
A siren riff opens “Feiticeira” (“a game show I read about in Brazil. If you win, you get to drink milk from the host’s navel. Somehow it evolved into a pretend scenario about being kidnapped,” Chino explains), and you’re off on a volatile, visceral journey. Stops include a blood raw hail of bullets (“Elite”), a warm slab of murderous love (“Knife Prty”), and one ascending and ambling album closer (“Pink Maggit”) that manages to be simultaneously infectious, progressive, expansive, and claustrophobic.
Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan co-wrote and volleys vocals with Chino on “Passenger,” an aphrodisiacal road trip of echoes and twinkling keys punctuated by explosive choruses.
“It’s about being the passenger in a car with a girl who’s taking you around the world, literally, sexually, in a whirlwind of time,” Chino says. “I can barely tell where I end and Maynard begins.”
Chino’s hallmark abstractions paint even richer pictures than before. They float from his mouth when he hushes, and fly from it when he howls, and in both cases, they’re something for the deepest corner of your mind to untangle. In “RX Queen” he sings, “We’ll fly farther cause you’re my girl. And that’s all right if you sting me, I won’t mind. We’ll stop to rest on the moon and we’ll make a fire.”
Of Chino’s challenging, visual sense of lyricism, Cheng asks, “What’s good about listening to a song and knowing exactly — to the word — what the singer is talking about? It’s like a good painting or a good book. I never ask Chino what something means, I want to know what it means to me.”
Midway through “White Pony,” you’ll encounter the most beautiful thing Deftones have ever done – a song called “Teenager.” Built of swirling loops, dripping, trip-hop beats, and a delicately plucked guitar, the song flickers like so many midnight stars on a night of sad nostalgia for the innocence of high school love. Chino’s voice floats and climbs softly around the interwoven textures of a track that will surprise you in the best way.
“I love to look back at times like that,” Chino says. “That was when you could take a true, deep breath. You didn’t have anything to worry about except ‘does this girl like me?’ That was as intense as it got back then.”
“White Pony” has nothing to do with trends or cliques or market surveys, and everything to do with five guys’ unswerving commitment to follow where their hearts and heads take them, be it somewhere abrasive, angry, seductive or scary. Deftones have an unquestionable passion for music, for the release you feel in booming drums, screeching feedback, and gut-born screams and the headspace created by moments of stillness. If you can’t feel that desire and intensity on every second of this album, you’re numb beyond repair.