We needed a Deftones LP like this masterful 9th offering from the Sacramento metal-gaze masters
As the first decade of the new millennium began to visibly wear on the assorted camo-shorted dudebros of nu metal, consigning them to irrelevance at best and endless punchline mockery at worst, a band once unfairly saddled with that cursed genre’s sneers and dismissals was quietly continuing to evolve and push the sonic envelope.
Only in hindsight are Deftones rightfully separated from the miserable chaff of every Darwin’s Waiting Room and Spineshank cluttering up the used CD bins of American record stores. While it’s true that the Sacramento quintet’s debut full-length, Adrenaline, has proved profoundly prescient considering all that crawled out of its considerable shadow, there was already a dreamy sensuality at play beneath the chugging 7-string riffs and hyper-kinetic drumming.
A couple years later, Around The Fur saw the group incorporate blissed-out melodies and open Siamese Dream worship between all the throat-shredding and sex-starved angst, and the stunning 2000 watershed White Pony delivered on this promise and then some, incorporating electronic and hip-hop inspired elements right along with Radiohead and several others proudly up-ending all tired definitions of ‘rock band’ as the 90s faded into history.
Label: Reprise Records
★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Since then, that simmering tension between bearded metal-hesher lead guitarist Stephen Carpenter and singer-songwriter Chino Moreno has only served to further push this band away from its rap-metal roots and further into avant soundscape territory. Moreno’s swooning wails and unapologetic appropriating of shoegaze and gothic post-punk’s lessons have been set square in front of the agenda since 2003’s underrated self-titled album. But not since that disc have Deftones sounded quite so aggressively unhinged as they do on their newest set of blistering barn-burners, Ohms.
Perhaps Chino and company are feeling that crushing weight of our current nightmarish American hellscape, and that exhausted hangover we’re all living with has wormed its way into the band’s lyrics and riffs. This is born out by a lyrics sheet littered with the harrowing wreckage of a burning late-capitalist Rome, from climbing scarred out of ashes at one end to meeting in the depths of a haunted maze at the other. In any event, Deftones have always trafficked in this specific species of melancholy and past-bedeviled regret, and the best politically-fueled music has always come by such raging catharsis organically. So whether this thematic underpinning was intended or subconscious, this album absolutely slays. It’s simply Deftones’ flat-out heaviest since Around The Fur, as if in implied or direct answer to any perceived naysayers fearing a rounding of rough edges. Yet remarkably, Ohms may also be the first full realization of an actually harmonious balance between Carpenter and Moreno’s perpetually-warring impulses. This unity results in a reinvigorated assault from a veteran band that’s never really offered a weak effort, always consistent to a fault. That a band as elderly as Deftones can pull off an album like Ohms this deep into their career is a minor miracle; that it’s their second all-out masterpiece and instant classic is more like staggering.
Ohms is everything you’d hope a Deftones record might be in this atrocious Year Of Our Lord, 2020, while still managing to walk the wider musical conversation forward a few necessary paces. The songs come out swinging early and remain relentless and laser-focused throughout. Opener “Genesis” is all lurching buzzsaw churn, Moreno screaming desperately for any sense of ‘balance’ over Abe Cunningham’s ever-nimble kit-work and Frank Delgado’s affectingly spooky synth-lines. Later, “Ceremony” delivers a aching, harmony-laden vocal bridge two-thirds into its furious and feral runtime, in that gloriously unexpected Deftones way, while “Urantia” and “The Spell Of Mathematics” roll out the swirling shoegaze drift that made Diamond Eyes and Koi No Yokan such essential late-night chill-out reliables. For those favoring such shattering and soul-rending moments over all the bone-shaking skullduggery, the album’s most gorgeously starry-eyed moment comes in the all-too-brief outro of “Pompeji”, where sampled ocean waves and seagull cries shimmer luminously like heartbroken spirits beneath more of Delgado’s spectacular synth-work, here nicely conjuring the eerie, compelling throb of Dead Cities-era M83. And Ohms stays refreshingly strong and committed right through the epic swell of its self-titled closer, a jam boasting one of the band’s most delightfully-hooky riffs at beginning and end, both mathy and somehow obliterating. This is an album that does not quit once its out of the gate. There’s no awkward and puzzling codas like “Pink Cellphone” or listless missteps like “Lucky You” to disrupt its streamlined, economical flow. This one plays to win.
Its no real secret to devoted followers of these folks that Delgado remains Deftones’ most potent secret weapon, his often-unsettling samples and pointillist synth counterpoints occupying more and more of the band’s conceptual framework as his original role as turntablist naturally diminishes. And while Chi Cheng is sorely missed (it’s another of those minor miracles that Deftones have handled the passing of a founding member with such grace and poise), Sergio Vega of legendary NYC post-hardcore OGs Quicksand continues to supply exciting elements of chaos and unpredictably in the late bassist’s stead.
It’s not enough to say that Deftones are aging gracefully, powerfully, its more that they’ve resisted the temptations of easy complacency, outlasting the trendy milieu that they inspired while remaining ever-curious listeners and curators, ensuring that their output never stagnates or dates itself. They could close up shop tomorrow and trade on their legacy alone (as the more mendacious colleagues of their era have without apology), but you get the sense that these dudes are true lifers, unable and unwilling to stop chasing whatever sound has recently caught their fancy.
And really, what better band to define a year such as 2020 than one made up largely of Chicanos and/or Asian-Americans, hailing from California but not the “cool” part, and who still somehow remain underrated, even as they continue to pioneer and inspire? Who better to give voice to that trembling anger and frustration the sane of us must live with for every wounding second of every wounding hour as our empire of sociopathic idiots continues to gleefully collapse? Ohms is a balm for that bloodied soul, and one that’ll be remembered in the coming decades (if there are any coming decades) as a perfect cracked-mirror reflection of its broken era, an atlas of pure entropy trapped in an amber of roaring jeremiads and percolating synths. Thank you, Deftones, for such a gift in these dark and dire moments.
I mean this profoundly, as a 36 year old man who recalls the lost sixteen-year old who suffered through droning high school pep rallies only because he had Around The Fur wired into his brain through concealed earbuds: We all needed Ohms badly.