Pregnant With All This Space: Deftones’ White Pony at 20
Why the art metal band’s third album is still their best
People love to do the Radiohead = Deftones thing, and you could do worse; Radiohead wasn’t a bad thing for an alleged nü-metal outfit to be in 2000, and Deftones weren’t so bad themselves.
The brake-and-gas fizgigs of Adrenaline and its more Loveless-aware companion Around the Fur, from 1995 and 1997 respectively, had the diminutive Chino Moreno finding new, sexier ways around Stef Carpenter’s blunted, drop-D riffs that suited Madonna’s new label. At its heart, you could hear the skate-punk metal of Suicidal Tendencies and later-1980s Black Flag, the underwater-pedalboard washes of Ride and Swervedriver, and the freeze-dried soul of Sade in the foursome’s mysterious attack, but you wouldn’t have been able to separate these threads until White Pony, which added trip-hop and, yes, Kid A, to the dream-sludge.
Moreno already came on like a more guttural Thom Yorke though, with his romantic sketches of inarticulate rage, and the band’s penchant for the odd texture — still maybe the best song they’ve ever made, “My Own Summer (Shove It)” strode a menacing riff that could be played with one hand if you nail your hammer-ons and pull-offs as Moreno whispered and shrieked about a Rorschach inkblot’s idea of acute senioritis. Like “Planet Telex,” you can taste it but it will not form. Longtime fans prefer the proto-blackgaze epic “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away),” which uses its parenthetical to “far” more redundant effect, and went further towards canonizing White Pony’s existence as the enlightened headbanger’s Heaven or Las Vegas. But, you know, “push back the square” and “I’ll steal a carcass for you,” like much of Kid A, can mean whatever you want them to as long as you squint.
VIDEO: Deftones “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)”
The latter, from “Rx Queen,” is of interest, though, because Moreno explicitly sings far more often about women and one-on-one relationships than Yorke does. “Feiticeira,” which is Portuguese for “sorceress,” and even the diverting sensuality of “Digital Bath” open the original version of the album with a litany of violent fantasies, starting with a kidnapped Chino “choking from gnawing on the ball” in someone’s trunk who’s named after a Brazilian TV host, before he drops a toaster into a woman’s bathtub. The latter is where Abe Cunningham’s spare drumming takes on D’Angelo dimensions and Moreno’s soft register mingles with Quiet Storm, but in the grand tradition of “Every Breath You Take,” the tenderness is all sound. On “Street Carp” he waffles out loud on giving a woman with sharp, gold fangs his new address, though when she points out her tendency to “snap at the walls and won’t calm down,” you get the feeling they’ve dated before. “Rx Queen” itself finds more familiar comfort, maybe even boredom, in these abusive relationships, as they run out the clock: “You’re my girl and that’s all right / If you sting me, I won’t mind.” That one’s harder to take now that its backing vocalist Scott Weiland is gone.
But one reason this torture porn isn’t so easy to dismiss as such, is that Deftones are so sonically arresting. “℞ Queen” and the skin-crawling hit “Change (In the House of Flies)” sport big-time choruses and late addition Frank Delgado’s studied, paranormal winds ensure that the verses don’t just wait around for them, either. Even the beautiful, cryogenically sealed glitch of “Teenager,” written when Moreno was one, is a bummer: “I climbed your arms and you pulled away.” They’d still do well to tinker with its talkative Delgado scratches and lo-res atmospherics; it’s one of the best things the band’s ever done. On the other hand, the six-minute “Passenger” has suffered for two decades from Maynard James Keenan at his most overwrought, and as usual, only Hayley Williams could fix it.
Then there’s “Back to School (Mini-Maggit),” which briefly upheld the tradition of being able to identify this band’s radio fare by their parentheses. Added to some editions of White Pony after release, it adds significantly more rap-rock to the album and rankles diehards by opening the thing and changing its shape entirely. The band themselves don’t love it but were too congenial to not allow the label to let it happen to them. I say “Back to School” makes White Pony better and fuller, that the bracing “Feiticeira” wasn’t a real opener because it lacks a true chorus, that the somewhat aimless “Pink Maggit” closer is given contextual purpose as a reprise and that this at-times gelatinous sonic excursion could use a firm sense of bookends. “Push back the square” is a classic Deftones garbled-anthem chorus and the tugging chords give it an anvil’s weight.
You don’t know what they’re talking about, but their conviction, their pharmaceutically slowed glances, and gauzed-needle interruptions like “Elite” (which won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance despite being the least Jethro Tull-comparable thing on the album) all harden like cement in an adolescent mind that’s trying to separate fantasy from reality, violence from romance. Deftones have done a better job of that than most of their ilk, but White Pony’s real legacy, and real link to Radiohead, is making artistic growth look cool to alienated men. The soothing overlay of Moreno and his attendant sonics felt reassuring that his interpersonals wouldn’t all be so fraught one day.
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