Deftones jumped off the nu-metal train right before it crashed. Limp Bizkit was just starting to get obnoxiously popular, while Korn was continuing their run through grindy, drop-D tuned metal. Deftones, unsatisfied by relying on the growingly stale nu-metal conventions, wowed everyone with their third LP, White Pony, which had all the heaviness of their previous two albums combined with spacey and textured compositions sounding more like The Smiths or The Cure. White Pony is a finely crafted mix of rhythmic heaviness and dreamy synth experimentation that shows what Deftones would become later in their lifecycle. It’s a fantastic album that defines the band’s unorthodox influences and puts the waning nu-metal fad in its place.
The brief traces of melodic creativity seen on the band’s second album Around the Fur in songs like “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)” and “MX” are no longer just traces. White Pony is a very multi-layered journey in surreal metal/alternative bliss. Singer Chino Moreno flaunts his love for My Bloody Valentine and The Cure with serene and breathy vocals in the gorgeously atmospheric “Digital Bath.” The less aggressive songs like “Teenager” also let newly inaugurated DJ/keyboardist Frank Delgado show his chops in creating beautiful and airy soundscapes, something that felt limited during his guest performances on the past Deftones albums. On the album’s crowning achievement, the Maynard James Keenan-guested “Passenger”, the chorus restlessly bursts from a subconscious steadiness, one that stands as one of the best songs ever composed by the band. These lengthy moments of sensory fluidity are ambitious moves that turn out to not only make a great album, but also define the band’s sound entirely going forward.
But don’t think that the focus on dreamy trip hop influences means that Deftones have gone soft. These Sacramento metalheads are still masters of the rhythmic grind. Guitarist Stephen Carpenter still has a very distinctive playing style compared to the metal guitarists of thrash metal and when combined with bassist Chi Cheng’s thick and weighted beats and drummer Abe Cunningham’s steady drum pacing, White Pony is a monster of gravitational heaviness. “Elite” is a thunderous and ravenous metal track, where Chino Moreno belts out with “when you’re ripe, you’ll bleed out of control.” The band never goes overly intricate with their sound; there still aren’t any expansive solos, no polyrhythmic drum fills, nothing impossible to speak of. It just fits together so incredibly cohesively. The songwriting of White Pony demonstrates not minimalism, but fundamentalism, where the ideas of both nu-metal and alternative trip hop are stripped down and mixed together perfectly.
By stepping away from the genre they helped create, Deftones signified the looming death of nu-metal with White Pony. The fundamentals of rhythmic metal are still there, but Deftones defy the other musicians in the genre by never keeping themselves in one position. Alongside the dreaminess of “Digital Bath” and “Teenager” stand ferocious metal tracks like “Elite” and “Feiticeira.” This contrast is a bit sudden throughout the album, but you can see brilliant traces of cohesion in “Knife Prty” and “Change (In the House of Flies).” Though nu-metal may have been continuing further in bands like Linkin Park for years onward, Deftones showed that the fad had been drained of creativity and that more needed to be brought to the table. Deftones signified the beginning of the end of nu-metal, but with White Pony, they opened a brand new side of the brain for metal to explore.
Retro Rewind is a retrospective column by Pittsburgh Music Magazine contributor Alex Carlson.