Review Summary: Better than White Pony.
For anybody approaching Deftones' sixth (or seventh) album, I entreat you to dump your knowledge of the unfortunate circumstances of Chi Cheng's health and the scrapping of Eros
, their supposedly aggressive, analog, five-guys-in-a-room real
sixth album. Instead I want to trace out the peculiar way Deftones have approached anger, perversion, obsession, and the other negative themes found in Deftones' music. As a lyricist Chino has always played with blending sex and violence in ways that can be muddled and warm ("Digital Bath") or volatile and vicious ("Elite"). As songwriters Deftones have always bounced between the metallic leanings of Stephen Carpenter and the ambient production of DJ Frank Delgado. These bifurcating stances on lyrics and songwriting never reached a meaningful synergy until White Pony
, an album that made good on Deftones' surface aggression by creating bleak and sexualized soundscapes that functioned as immaculate pairings. In my mind, White Pony
is a masterpiece, and no other album in the past ten years has found such a potent mapping between concept and execution, theme and content, or mechanics and tone.
, their fourth LP, was not that. Though there were some amazing songs, that album was mired by a failure to realize a unified vision. The brooding tracks were unadorned and retreads, the heavy tracks were visceral but played around with melodic passages in awkward ways, and the lone electronic track "Lucky You" was just a head scratcher. Saturday Night Wrist
changed everything. With the exception of "Pink Cellphone," that album redefined the core flavors of Deftones' music. While their self-titled LP was effectively White Pony 2
, Saturday Night Wrist
took the anomalous melodic sections and expanded them into entire songs. "Hole in the Earth" had a positive, clean groove and the chorus of "Cherry Waves" was sensitive and bouncy (think of the "you-oo-oo-oo" vocals). Deftones redefined their core sound to be melodic and hopeful rather than dirge-like and tortured. There was still sex, violence, and metal, but the delivery method had soft edges and a catchy sensibility that completely redefined the Deftones' sound without compromising their unique blend of conflicting themes and sounds.
I thought Deftones had reached a pinnacle for this new sound on Saturday Night Wrist
until I heard Diamond Eyes
. Diamond Eyes
not only attains a yet higher peak for Deftones' dreamy, hopeful aesthetic, but ingeniously combines this aesthetic with the heaviness, inventiveness, and ambiance that made White Pony
such a profound record. Diamond Eyes
is union of the two Deftones: the metallic, desperate, and sadistic and the melodic, yearning, and sensitive.
begins fittingly on a song, "Diamond Eyes," that functions like a stichomythia between these two sides. The song's verses chug in a way that is reminiscent of Adrenaline
, but Chino's soulful, off-key vocals segue the track from nu-metal to shoegaze as the chorus enters. Most other tracks blend these two worlds in less dichotomous ways, often overlaying contrasting musical ideas in such a way that either can drive the song to melodic or metallic territory at any given moment. "Prince" uses a White Pony
-era bass line laden with chorus to introduce a strange, ugly motive only to have the trebly, melodic guitar sitting in the background blossom into a full-on lead part in the chorus, driving the track away from the grainy, gurgling bass line. The metallic guitar in the verse of "Risk" is carefully undercut by a homophonic synth line that introduces a soft texture that ultimately takes over the choruses. Nearly every track on this album muddies the line between the "two Deftones" in a way that the intrinsic differences between these two styles are no longer contrasts but components of an all-new, all-encompassing aesthetic that blows the old good vs. evil archetype completely out of the water.
This combination would be impossible if not for genius production and instrumental performances. Frank Delgado, channeled through new producer Nick Raskulinecz, sets his multi-faceted pall over the album, elevating every track in an evocative and inventive way. "CMND/CTRL," arguably the simplest track on the album when it comes to achieving the new, "total" aesthetic described earlier, is transformed from an exercise in brutality to a ticking timebomb thanks to Delgado's minimal but effective special effects. Throughout the course of the song Delgado starts with barely audible swirling chorus mists and an electronic burp in the bridge that evolves into an alarm-like tone in the final verse that escalates the song to an unnerving collapse. Stephen Carpenter is probably the most varied performer on Diamond Eyes
. His grooving metal riffs are so heavy you'll gain weight listening to them ("Rocket Skates"), but his melodic passages are sweeter and softer than ever before ("Sextape"). Oldnew bassist Sergio Vega and drummer Abe Cunningham are as good as a rhythm section can be, being both tight in execution and loose in feel, a subtle but crucial distinction that has always kept Deftones' music in a league of its own. This instrumental core's high point is "You've Seen the Butcher," a song that sets stoner metal riffing to a smooth 6/8 flow reminiscent of post-rock. These two strange bedfellows are unified in a way that really defies explanation.
And what Deftones review would be complete without lavish praise thrown on vocalist and visionary, Chino Moreno? Though he may never again capture a performance as manic and transcendent as the one on White Pony
(ref: "Digital Bath" and "Knife Party") his second best is still miles beyond expectations. The blasé slurs of "Beauty School" blend effortlessly into the wistful instrumentals. The howling in "You've Seen the Butcher" is otherworldly. The falsetto wailing in the chorus of "976-EVIL" has a certain spinal vibrato that takes an already genius song to an even more sublime place. Even though Chino's general style is detached and dreamy, he is always perfectly in tune with how his vocals can absolutely transform a track. The result of these perfectly inspired and powerful vocals are equally amazing songs.
Despite the indulgent praise that can be attributed to any one instrumental performance, passage, or song, the crowning achievement of Diamond Eyes
may be its programming as an album, which really cements the new, "total" aesthetic mentioned earlier in this review. The album begins with simpler realizations of this emergent style that focus on digging in the roots of Deftones' more metallic side. However, by the time "You've Seen the Butcher" rolls into "Beauty School," something flips and the album is both heavy and melodic without being boorishly aggressive or wimpy. It's intense and visceral, but introspective and sensitive in ways Deftones have never been before. The remainder of the album adds dimensions to this sound by exploring the way it functions in many different vibes and flavors - relentless: "Rocket Skates," waterlogged: "Sextape," uplifting: "976-EVIL" - all with overwhelmingly positive results. By the end of the album, this sound is rendered so fully and beautifully that previous efforts to combine them (i.e. their previous two albums) seem adolescent by comparison. Diamond Eyes
is wild and serene, and I can honestly say its Deftones' best album to date.