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Deftones – Diamond Eyes

January 30, 2011

I was introduced to music as a young boy mainly by my elder brother. He was, and is, primarily involved in the dance and electronic sides of music, and was a breakbeat DJ for many years. In this context it is only slightly less strange that as a 9-year-old, my first proper musical experience was, um, Experience by The Prodigy. That was the first album I ever listened to the whole way through, and for some reason my brother thought that someone half his age would like this kind of music. It took me a little while (it sounded pretty scary at first!) but I eventually understood what my brother saw in it – well, maybe not everything, but I sure did like it. When it came to their next album, Music for the Jilted Generation, I found it a little too dark for my ears and could never get my head around it. By the time their greatest album came out, The Fat of the Land, I was 11 years old, and ended up playing that record over and over and over again on my little tape walkman (remember them?). I really didn’t listen to much else – Prodigy were my favourite band and that was what I listened to, and was literally as far as my musical horizons stretched.

With new bassist Sergio Vega

Some months after I had played FotL to death, I ventured into my brothers room to raid his CD collection. He had hundreds of them on his shelves – I spent a few minutes flicking through a few of them, not really penetrating far, and somehow I ended up walking out of his room with just two CD’s – Green Day’s Dookie and The Offspring’s Smash. I really have no idea what my rationale was – I had no idea about music at all really, I didn’t know what my friends were listening to (if they were at all), or what was cool, or what was on top of the charts – I think I just liked the covers. Lucky me I guess, because I ended up falling in love with Smash.

Now my musical horizon had widened to include one other band, The Offspring, though The Prodigy were still my favourite. I didn’t listen to music a whole lot until I was 16, but whenever I did it would invariably be one of those two bands. At 16, however, everything changed – I started hanging out with friends who were way more interested in music than I was, who knew all these bands that I’d never even heard of, and they ended up introducing me to dozens of bands and heavily influencing my musical tastes. In that first year, our musical tastes were hugely homogenous, and for the only time in our friendships there was one band that we all agreed was our favourite – and that band was Deftones.

Be Quiet and Drive – Around the Fur

When I started listening to Deftones they had already gone through some fundamental changes – from their Adrenaline soaked debut they matured ever so slightly for Around the Fur, incorporating less pseudo-rap and more melody and catchier hooks (My Own Summer was a blockbuster, as was Be Quiet and Drive on the link above. In fact it was this very song that inspired me to play guitar) but the album that really highlighted their positive evolution was White Pony. It was their most recent release at the time I started my love affair with the band and soon overtook it’s more immediate predecessors in my affections. It was also the critics choice, and today remains their most critically acclaimed album with good reason – it was experimental, brave (being “quiet” was a huge departure for them) they had managed to merge the supposedly diametrically opposed worlds of metal (let’s not get dragged into any nu-metal debate) and pop (wait for it!), and did it with intelligence, subtlety and integrity. Bear with me, as that last sentence may strike some as preposterous – listen to the Change or the teenage anthem Back to School from one of the many versions of the album (it was re-released with extra tracks by a record company sweating it’s assets) and tell me they don’t have great pop sensibilities. Deftones were always a more approachable ‘metal’ band (I use the term loosely) in many ways, mainly due to Chino’s unique singing style which avoided many of the metal cliches (when he wasn’t barking like a madman, that is).

Digital Bath – White Pony

Up to the point of White Pony, you could chart Deftones’ progress in direct correlation to the amount of time Chino spent ripping his vocal chords to shreds – and I felt they had the balance almost perfect on WP. So it was with both great surprise and some regret that I greeted their next self-titled offering – in many ways it was a step backwards for them. Now, I’m hesitant to suggest that any band playing ‘heavier’ music are less intelligent or meaningful, but I’m going to do it anyway – if you are screaming your lyrics, how on earth is anyone supposed to understand what message you are trying to convey? And is heavy music a useful medium for tackling anything other than angsty, emotionally charged subjects that teenagers seem to be drawn to? I don’t think so (the same reason you aren’t going to find a dance anthem that deals with the political situation in Somalia). It seemed as if Deftones were almost a little embarrassed by WP – as if they had let their hardcore fans down by ‘growing up’ and making a more mature record. However, I did love the album – while it was heavier than WP in most places, it never went back to the simplicity of their first two albums, and Stephen Carpenter in particular had nailed his now signature wall-of-sound guitar tones. The songs were good, and in Hexagram and Minerva they had two of their best ever singles, but it could never hit the heights that WP did.

Combat – Saturday Night Wrist

Saturday Night Wrist would also carry the ‘not as good as White Pony’ tag, but by this point I think I had given up all hope of them carrying on with their previous traditions of breaking new ground and  growth – it seemed at this point in their career they had figured out what kind of band they were, what kind of people were listening to them, and they were happy with keeping the status quo. Not a terrible thing, but the potential that I saw in the band at the point of WP was not being fulfilled. SNW was by no means a bad album, in fact I now think it’s pretty good, though it took me a long time to get into it properly. This is partly due to the fact that I was by this stage in my life not listening to anything like this any more, and I probably had some hangups about listening to music that I now considered myself ‘beyond’. I think my friends had the same issue, but to a much larger extent – at this point it seemed like I was the only person I knew who still listened to Deftones. Before I move on to the point of this article, I should point out that I have just had ‘the tingles’* for the first time in ages from listening to Combat from SNW while writing this. It is possibly the least rewarding of the three post WP releases, but I still think it’s worth investing some time in, so start with this and Hole in the Earth.

976 – Evil – Diamond Eyes

So, to the point of the article – their latest album, released in May 2010, completely passed me by at the time. I didn’t know of it’s existence until Winter, and it sat on my iTunes for a couple of weeks before I even tried to listen to it. By now the excitement of a new Deftones record had completely evaporated, and after listening to it for the first time I thought it was more of the same post-WP stuff. While that is true to a point on a surface level, once I had delved deeper into the album through repeat listens I realised that this album was actually much better than that – in fact, it’s the best thing they have done since WP by a long way. Why now? The band members are approaching 40 years old, which usually doesn’t bode well for bands in my book, but in truth it might have something to do with a tragedy that hit the band in November 2008. Bassist Chi Cheng was involved in a serious car accident (he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt) and went into a coma. He is in a stable condition but is a shadow of his former self, being in a permanently minimally consciousness state. The band were in the middle of recording a follow up to SNW which was tentatively titled Eros, but that was stopped immediately following the incident. The band obviously had a hard time afterwards, and even considered stopping completely, but in the end decided the best thing for everyone was to carry on with the band. Sergio Vega replaced Chi and they started work on Diamond Eyes, and the whole ordeal seems to have brought out the best in the band.

Get well soon fella

The album can show Deftones at their most heavy (Cmnd/Ctrl, Rocket Skates) which usually makes me think of words like ‘dark’ to describe the sound, but actually this set of songs is one of their most uplifting yet. I find it hard to justify that statement, since I don’t know what any of the songs are about (it’s never easy with Chino’s lyrics, they have always been very ambiguous) but I get the feeling that even though a lot of the source material will have come from the terrible state of their erstwhile bandmate (the chances of him waking up are not great – also, his family are struggling to pay for his medical bills after his insurance company refuses to pay up due to his low chance of getting better, apparently), they have tried to be optimistic and take all the positives they can from the situation. There are fewer obvious breathing spaces in this album compared to their previous efforts, Sextape being one of the only really quiet moments on here, so I can see how someone not used to such loud music would find it heavy going, but there are enough tempo and mood changes to keep things fresh.

This album also sees Frank (keyboards / synths) take on a much bigger role than he usually does – only on White Pony has his presence been felt more keenly, and this has a lot to do with why this album surpasses the previous two. The added layer of synth on a lot of the songs takes them to places where more typical metal usually doesn’t go near, lending an almost cinematic feel at times. His greater integration seems at odds with Deftones taking a more old-school approach to recording this album – from WP onwards they used computer software to write a lot of the songs, with bandmembers often e-mailing their parts to each other, but here they jammed the songs over and over again in the same room. I would have guessed laying down all the synth parts would be easier with their previous computerised system, but apparently not, as the synths never feel tacked-on like they have done at times in the past.

I find Stephen’s chunkier riffs hitting the right chord with me a lot more often this time around – sometimes I found his metal tendencies a bit too much for me, but the barely contained aggression in the riffs in songs like Cmnd/Ctrl have me bopping my head every time. No surprises in Chino’s patented whisper / scream combo, while Abe’s drumming is great, though not as inventive or varied as he can be. The new boy Vega fits in seamlessly, but I do find myself missing thinking that he blends in too much with Stephen’s guitars, and doesn’t make the basslines stick out as memorably as Chi did – perhaps this was a conscious decision, and in the context of the songs it works most of the time, but I do find myself missing Chi’s presence.

It’s really hard to articulate why I like Deftones so much (I’m probably too much of a fan to analyse them objectively), and why this album is so good (it was a late arrival in my top albums of 2010 list) but I do, and it is. It’s not perfect (Rocket Skates for example goes on way too long) but it’s strengths far outweigh any missteps. Hopefully you will listen to the songs and they will speak for themselves. The You’ve Seen the Butcher video is particularly cool IMHO (scantily clad girls covered in blood in a library? Count me in! But seriously, some of the shots are beautiful – I really like the slow-mo falling books), but if, as I suspect a lot of you might, you’re put off by the intimidating decibel levels then it’s your loss. Deftones have a very loyal fanbase (turns out I’m one of them) and for good reason** – I hope you get it too.

* – A strange tingling sensation around my face and neck when music really gets to me – I find it happens a lot in a car when I am driving on my own with the music up way too high. Anyone else get this?

** – For me, a big part of their attraction is that they are cool. I think this stems from the fact that they are one of the few bands who actually seem like real friends (Abe and Chino have known each other for almost 30 years) as well as just being seemingly normal, down to earth guys.

Further Reading:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2011 5:26 am

    I agree with you on everything! very nicely put!

  2. j-diz permalink
    March 18, 2011 12:33 am

    Is that Smashley Ashley? I never knew you listened to Deftones. Or maybe I did and I forgot. Either way, thanks for the comment, and I’m glad there are people out there still enjoying the ‘tones – I’m surprised they still have so much to offer.

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