One Step, One Punch, One Round At a Time – Deftones

Posted: by Findlay

A new monthly meditation in progression in art through music. Each entry will focus on one song, from each album, of one band, charting their progression, history and sound throughout their career. This will reveal the spine of the bands back catalogue, providing a great jump off point for new listeners and points of debate for fans. This month’s band, and first band of this new experiment, is Deftones.

Sacramento’s alternative metal sons have lived and survived through countless reshapes of the metal scene to still, to this day, be as active and as relevant as they’ve ever been. They’re a band who, personally to me and a lot of my friends, mean the fucking world, having came at a time in our early teens when music was like a drug that helped you identify who you were as a person and helped form lifelong friendships. Deftones are a band who have constantly progressed in sound and dynamics and been completely true to who they are. What’s more important, Deftones are a band that are the sum of their parts. Each member playing an intrinsic role in the direction and dense sound of it. So here goes:

One Weak – (Adrenaline, 1995/ Maverick)

The Start. “One Weak” is 1995. Nebulous, raw and harsh, Adrenaline as a whole is a fairly rough listen and hasn’t dated very well. There’s a fair amount of energy in the album, but its youthful energy, so it’s uncontrolled. Everything’s trial and error and figuring out each other’s place in the band. “One Weak” is the Deftones at base camp. The Deftones sound residing there NEARLY, a few layers of wallpaper in. Chi’s low bassline and Chino singing over it starts, those dreamy tones hiding in the vocals. Stephs chugging guitars kick in, all building up to a huge sounding soaring crescendo that just shows so much was ahead of the band and how ahead of the curve they were of their silly-by-comparison peers. It’s a weird thing to notice but when you’re listening to Adrenaline, it ~feels~ very Latin. The melodies and music have some sort of South American DNA hiding in them. Which might have even furthered the band from their musical brethren (and sub sequentially gained them a huge following in South America).

Can’t Even Breathe – (Escape From L.A OST, 1996/ Milan Records)

A small footnote and forgotten song in the Deftones back catalogue, this song was recorded post-Adrenaline and according to Chi, conceived, shaped and recorded in 45 minutes. It only shows up on the BANGING Escape From L.A soundtrack, buried right at the end. Young band Deftones sharing the tracklist with hardened vets like Ministry, White Zombie and Butthole Surfers. “Cant Even Breathe” shows a more melodic side with those amazingly produced spacey sounding vocals Chino can do, this might be very well the turning point for the sound of Deftones second album Around The Fur.

Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away) – (Around The Fur, 1997/ Maverick)

“Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)” is a biggie to pick, and rightly so. It is progression and dynamics in spades. Pushing boundaries that no one even knew existed and smashing the fuck out of them anyway. The song that made their signature sound hits you like an Anvil made out of diamonds. It grabs your shoulders and pins them to recline. Everyone can remember where they were first time they heard it (Dave Mirra’s BMX for PS1). Chino’s vocals dreamy and perfect, Steph’s guitars sounding unimaginably cool. Around the Fur as an entity is the sound of a band with nothing to lose. Constant touring rendering them better musicians, tightening their art.  Songs about boredom, sexual frustration and drug abuse melded with the inimitable music being torn at you makes its impact and influence unrivalled. “Be Quiet” is the sound of pure creativity and a band without, seemingly, influences. Who could you even say you hear in this song? Maybe Hum? Maybe?? It’s a song completely original to the point of wonder. It isn’t just one of Deftones’ best songs, it’s one of their most important. 

Digital Bath – (White Pony, 2000/ Maverick)

The apex of everything. With White Pony, Deftones managed to turn the magnifying glass to the right angle and burn holes in everything that came before it. Heavy riffs, perfect production, dark lyrical themes and ever progressing sonic dynamics that added shoegaze, trip hop and ambient-electronica coalesced into a huge fist of sound. The inclusion of DJ/Sampler Frank Delgado as full time member meant extra texture for the dark spaces in songs. Terry Date’s production on here is basically the 6th member as well, concreting the bands signature sound into one they’ll carry on through their career. “Digital Bath” is Deftones with their skin shed. Breaking through the new places in the outer rims of music that bands can only dream of. Eerie samples haunting the backdrop as Abes’ sturdy, technical drums command over Steph’s pure water guitar tones. Chino’s singing hushed and dreamy like he’s singing over you as you lie on a cold tile floor. The chorus kicking into a beautiful unique climax, lifting you off the ground. White Pony is still widely regarded as Deftones best, for one simple reason: It’s ageless.

Needles and Pins – (Self Titled, 2003, Maverick)

In alot of ways, their fourth is Deftones difficult second album. Relentless touring and internal strains beginning to push and pull, making the outcome a dark, unfocused album. There were alot of stories at the time it was being made that the band were writing songs on hoof and going into the studio with songs not even finished and you can tell. It’s also the last time they’d work with Terry Date, who gave up with the bands difficulty. The album is fucking heavy and angry but it’s also unevenly sombre and gentle. Self Titled fell back into Adrenaline’s problem: lack of clarity. Songs do feel unfinished or half cocked but there are some belters; “Needles and Pins” being one. It’s a song that I’ve recently been theorizing as the sequel or spiritual otherhalf to “My Own Summer (Shove It)” in both style and tone. Perfectly produced drums slamming down atop some unique sounding, almost industrial, guitars driving the song toward Chino whose druggy sounding vocals reflect the delivery of “My Own Summer” but with a more gritted angst. The chorus backed by uncharacteristic howls of anguish and determination that, to me, represent the whole album. Cathartic and frustrating. 

No Ordinary Love – (B-Sides & Rarities, 2005/ Maverick)

Right, aye. I Know. A B-sides & Rarities album doesn’t really count. That’s fine. As a stopgap album it’s a nice treat to the fans, but it’s also a window into Deftones influences. Theres Duran Duran, The Cure, Helmet and Cocteau Twins covers here. Fair enough, you can kinda see how they’d all fit in to Deftones. But it’s the Sade cover that probably means the most. I remember reading ages ago that Chino cites Sade’s Love Deluxe as one of his favourite albums and it totally made sense. The opulent vocals and the detail to how she perfected her sound totally running alongside Deftones. This is a cover done with subtlety and love because Chino’s probably been singing this song for fucking years. It’s an understated moment of respite you’d rarely get from a metal band.

Beware – (Saturday Night Wrist, 2007/ Maverick)

Saturday Night Wrist by all intents and purposes should be a fucking disaster. Tensions in the band were running high, drink/drug abuse and sexual addictions were rife, Chino’s marriage was falling to bits and long-time producer Terry Date was gone. What was actually created was a sonic masterpiece and my personal favourite Deftones record. The band had gotten all the blueprints to what made them great and shot them into space. The riffs are some of their most crushing, but everything has an exploratory and celestial vibe. There’s much more atmosphere in songs, the textures were thicker and more evocative. From all the strife surrounding the album, the band were tight, heavy, and somehow, pinpoint focused. “Beware” was tough to pick because there are a few better songs on Saturday Night Wrist but what else could be a better signifier than this? Chinos voice fragile then rising into the “Beeeeeeeware the waterrrrrrrr” chorus that sounds like notes the woman from Fifth Elements couldn’t even hit. Delgado’s a m a z i n g layer upon layer of textures. From cricket chirps, to piano, to faded voices in the background just taking the song to a higher plane. Stephs guitars sounding the most ethereal they ever have and just as you think the song has rung out, it dives back into a fucking wall puncher of a riff, sucker punching you from calm to full steam ahead. The fans were baffled by Saturday Night Wrist but time has been kind. Give it a whirl, it’s the best.

Risk – (Diamond Eyes, 2010/ Reprise)

If Saturday Night Wrist was hard to make, Diamond Eyes must’ve been hell. On 4th November 2008, bassist Chi Cheng was involved in a car accident that left him near-dead and in a permanent coma. A full album of recorded material named Eros was shelved, waiting for Chi to recover. The band were unsure to continue or split but decided to continue, using their music as therapy. Drafting in long-time scene member, ex-Quicksand bassist and friend Sergio Vega to fill in, the band had a new energy. A new spirit in the bath, already contributing and reflecting his personality on the music. What came out was atmospheric sure, but it was meaty as fuck and accessible. “Risk” is the lynchpin of the album. Groovier than the band have ever sounded as whole, with chugging guitars and Chino’s catchy vocals puncturing the verses and opening up to a spacey resonance at the chorus. The riffs aren’t as intense but so amazing nonetheless. Delgado is yer man yet again, with samples and keys providing a shimmering backdrop, giving the whole album an alien personality. Diamond Eyes is a band full of optimism, channelling their grief into something beautiful.

Goon Squad – (Koi No Yokan, 2012/ Reprise)

Deftones are confident again. Chi was still in a coma so Sergio’s influence and positivity was meshing with the band deeper. Their recording process was more organic and experimental while their energy was slightly darker. Deftones were reshaped slightly, tweaking the controls. There’s a grit and climate to Koi No Yokan I still can’t define. It’s deeper and more introverted than Diamond Eyes but it’s still positively geared. The riffs are alive with a frustrated fury and Chinos screams are just that shade wilder. Sergio’s basslines chunkier and proving to be slabs of concrete for Steph to pour his guitars over. “Goon Squad” is a trap. It lures you in with some elegant and graceful interplay with guitar and keys then grabs your collar and throws you into the volcano. Stony as hell riffs going flat out while Chino screams in your face. It’s fucking beautiful. Deftones satisfying everything they’ve made you want. Once we get to the chorus the guitars open the gate and let Chino sing a weird melody that suits his voice so well (“I’m bringin it with style myself/you know it is with ease/no sweat”). Everything in the song coalesces into a perfectly pure example of cathartic relief. Rage, beauty and intensity. 

With their 8th album on way, and Chi sadly passed, it’s a weird and sombre time to be a Deftones fan. Knowing that Chi’s energy is gone but Sergio’s is well integrated is a bittersweet admission but at an angle, a positive one. So, all sensory receivers to the astral doors. They’ll be walking through them soon.

“We’re alive somewhere else,
Far ahead of our time.”