Like Soundgarden in their heyday, The Deftones have always been one step ahead of their alternative metal peers, whether it is using different (heavy) guitar tunings to keep their tunes fresh, or bringing in more melodic influences into their sound. It doesn’t always translate into grade A songs and records, but in this business, you get points for trying (if your critics and fans are fair-minded).
No one would question that the band’s restless and hyper-aggressive 1995 debut Adrenaline and follow-up full-length hit Around the Fur album are classics in alternative metal and ’90s music in general. And while the band may have lost some hardcore fans with 2000′s White Pony, it too was a classic. But it was a turning point for the band, as it was a mix of raw, heavy hardcore metal (“Elite”) and moody, Smashing Pumpkins-esque dark rock “Change (In the House of Flies).” Play that track beside SP’s Machina record and instrumental “Pale Scales” that came out in the same time period and you’ll see the similarities.
But ensuing Deftones records have been uneven. Their self-titled 2003 record and Saturday Night Wrist (2006) had their moments, with guitarist Stephen Carpenter utilizing 7-string guitars exclusively for the band’s songs to explore new sonic and songwriting territory. But there was not a lot of memorable metal grooves/riffs or melodic gems like “Change” to be found, and there were too many ones that just plodded along, into one ear and out the other.
2010′s Diamond Eyes was more consistent but still not in league with the band’s first three releases. That said, compared to what passes for good heavy metal/hard rock these days, it was a rather solid LP, led by the massively popular (and brutal) single “Rocket Skates.” With Carpenter inspired by Swedish metal titans Meshuggah to upgrade to ultra heavy 8-string guitars for that release, it was a success that was bittersweet in light of the fact that it was written without longtime bass player Chi Cheng, who got in a near-fatal car accident four years ago and who is still slowly recovering from it, having been placed in a coma and now living in a minimally conscious state. (Sergio Vega, ex-Quicksand, has ably filled in for him since then.)
The highly anticipated seventh Deftones album Koi No Yokan (Japanese for “Premonition of Love”) came out a couple of weeks back and I am happy to say that it continues where their last release left off, but with better results.
While Diamond Eyes had a bit of Meshuggah-influenced math metal (“Cmnd_Ctrl”), this new release wastes no time getting into straight-ahead, skull-pounding songs, such as lead-off track “Swerve City.” True, it has ethereal guitar lines (courtesy of Carpenter) and near-mid-Eastern-style vocals by Chino Moreno, but at under three minutes, it was a statement song—no bullshit meandering, just balls-to-the-wall rock.
Elsewhere, Moreno’s vocals in the chorus to the super heavy dirgefest of “Gauze” get up to a high register but do not (as one mainstream magazine reviewer said) resemble Billy Corgan. They are more like Jared Leto of 30 Seconds to Mars. As nasally as Corgan’s voice is, his vocal range is not as high or emo-sounding as Moreno’s, Leto’s, or Jeremy Enigk’s (of Sunny Day Real Estate) for that matter.
Moreno though, stands apart from most rock singers in his generation, with his ability to alternate between sick, spot-screaming, occasional rapping (in the old days), and soaring vocals, many times within the same song (ex. “Leathers”). Followers like Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington have this same talent, but not the vocal range Moreno has. What’s truly amazing is that after nearly 25 years of singing with the Deftones, Moreno has overcome nearly destroying his voice over 10 years ago due to too much screaming, and sounds as strong and powerful as ever on his band’s two most recent records. He showcases his soothing-to-soaring side on the album’s dark, aching ballad, “Entombed,” which as a whole is even better than the previous album’s resident (and pretty good) ballad, “Sextape.” I personally dig this cut so much – from both a listener and guitarist’s point of view – due to the beautifully artful main melody Carpenter does, two-handed finger-tapping style (which I believe is rather new for him).
And as far as hardcore vocals are concerned, he still does enough of them to keep the longtime/loyal fans happy, especially on album highlight “Goon Squad,” which contains some truly sick, choking-simulating sounds.
With Carpenter’s style of overloaded distortion coating his chord choices and progressions, it at times sounds similar to what dream metal band Hum – a Chicago band who was also compared to the Pumpkins – did in the mid-’90s. “Knife Party” from White Pony and the light, quiet and yearning guitar parts that start “Goon Squad” from this new release are the most clear instances of the Deftones’ Hum-isms.
Not everything works on the new record. “Graphic Nature,” despite its scary minor-second guitar runs and heavy crunch, dirges on and never takes off into an exciting direction. And if there’s one thing fans can expect from a Deftones record, it’s a bit of experimentation and sudden twists and turns. “Goon Squad” is a perfect example. Just when the quiet guitars have lured you into a rather sleepy state of consciousness, the band explodes into a super heavy groove—provided mainly by Carpenter riffing on the lowest strings of his 8-string axe. But even when such twists do occur, as on the quiet-loud-quiet “Rosemary,” it drags along for too long (at nearly seven minutes).
Those tracks aside, Koi No Yokan is the best and most balanced record the Deftones have released since White Pony. With the band celebrating its 25th anniversary next year, it’s quite an achievement that this veteran band is still able to show the kids how the balance of melodic and ear-shredding alternative metal can and should be done.
Check out the official website of the Deftones for more info on how to purchase the new album (which is now available worldwide), current tour dates and other band news.