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Deftones’ White Pony 20th anniversary: an album that spoke to a generation

As the Sacramento band’s seminal album turns 20, we look at how Deftones shaped the landscape of youth culture.

The late ’90s were odd in many ways and the birth of nu-metal undoubtedly added to the uncertainty.

A genre fusing together hip-hop and metal, nu-metal was designed for an anger-riddled youth.

On the back of nu-metal—concocted by empty-suit major label heads, tailoring the genre to cast and lure in the misunderstood, the economically deprived and culturally starved in regional areas across the world—a new culture emerged.

It was a scene rampant with teen-angst, bare aggression, misogyny, cheap beer and weed, with its protagonists projecting a new born populism that was easy on the ear and rife with simplistic messaging. A musical equivalent to Coronation Street and a new found stodge that some needed in their diet.

Rightly or wrongly, Sacramento outfit, Deftones (Chino Moreno – vocals, Stephen Carpenter – guitar, Chi Cheng – bass, Abe Cunningham – drums, Frank Delgado – keyboards/turntables) were somehow lumped in with this melting pot of foul-tasting stew.

I still don’t buy the notion that the Deftones‘ first two albums, 1995’s Adrenaline and 1997’s Around the Fur, were a part of the nu-metal patchwork.

Granted, in the ’90s the Deftones enjoyed the lifestyle of most other nu-metal artists, drugs and girls. All told, though, which bands didn’t? This was a by-product of fame and Deftones were a party band.

But still, they had an air of the misfit about them, falling between the chasms of an era where major labels predicted that the masses were more concerned about the Y2K bug than any artistic relevance their roster of bands would influence not only in the present, but in the future (if there were to be a future, of course!).

To be fair, it was a masterstroke for the money makers, because make no mistake, nu-metal sold like hotcakes in its short-lived heyday.

While many nu-metal artists used Faith No More as a touchstone to water down and eventually demonise, Deftones seemed more concerned in adding a spike-fisted belligerence to the origins of post-hardcore.

With White Pony, the band’s landmark 2000 release, Deftones‘ influences would glide beyond these landscapes.

Deftones were a fork-in-the-road concern. Nu-metal kids liked them, but didn’t love them.

Why?

Well, Deftones made their listeners work and in clever ways, never ones to ostracise their audience.

The nu-metal fraternity were not accustomed to these levels of mystery and it was evident that the Deftones portrayed a completely different aura.

They dressed similar to the bands of these times but their image didn’t feel forced or pretentious like their so-called contemporaries.

The band were probably too stoned to care, and their nonchalance for such things has kept them in good stead all these years later. For the record, the band dress no differently today.

Where nu-metal kids who held an ear to White Pony were still immersed in the strict formula of lyrics/distorted guitars/”heartfelt” melodic choruses/rinse and repeat, others put off by this charade while still finding appeal with White Pony veered off to a different path, which included the likes of Queens of the Stone Age, At The Drive-In and Tool.

Deftones were still a square peg in a round hole, though, merely outcasts enveloped in a foggy haze of a weed and boozy aroma.

They had inadvertently carved out their own world, speaking in a dialect which outsiders not only understood but were very much receptive to.

It heightened their stature, elevating the band into an odd cult status, drawing in so many cross-sections of outsider culture from skaters, goths, stoners and metal-heads. Even frat boys couldn’t resist the allure of Moreno‘s inherent sex appeal.

In many ways, Deftones were the voice for a voiceless youth. A crossover act that possessed an effeminate street-level charm and in an arena overrun with masculinity and the rise of bro culture, Deftones experienced a healthy gender balance within their audience and today that very much remains the case.

As a youth, we were all probably looking for something that was never really there, and lyrically—with hindsight—it’s clear that Moreno was never going to reinvent the wheel.

A party band consumed by narcotics, White Pony brimmed with hedonistic themes. Look no further than the album’s title, which was coined well before songs for the album had been written.

Moreno‘s strengths as a songwriter weren’t within the realms of poeticism or lyrical acrobatics. His talent was creating a vibe and that vibe was escapism – a theme that’s always played a prominent role in the Deftones‘ story.

Look no further than their breakthrough single from Around the Fur in Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away). A song previously described as a generation’s There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, in context, it’s hard to argue against this.

Deftones (photo taken from the White Pony linear notes)

Simple messaging, but extremely effective with the aesthetic of Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away) bleeding into the songs which would form White Pony.

Look no further than the likes of Digital Bath and Knife Prty, which drip with youthful fervour and lust-driven narratives that the Afghan WhigsGreg Dulli had perfected a decade before, coupled with the wild debauchery from across the Atlantic from the likes of the Stone Roses and Oasis.

Sonically, unlike the weed-fuelled Around the Fur, Deftones carved out a new blueprint, stubbing out the high-octane screamo rapture in favour of moody, sensual dark-scapes.

Despite the album consisting of an iron-grey milieu, White Pony very much felt (and still does today) like a summer album.

Perhaps it’s the backdrop of the Deftones‘ native California that projects this impression, but despite the gloomy nuances of White Pony, many of its devotees have always associated it with the warmer months of the year.

After careful deliberation, which almost ended in the band working with another producer, they decided to again enlist the services Terry Date (Sound Garden, Slayer, Pantera et al).

Having produced Around the Fur and Adrenaline, Date, who caught the wave of nu-metal and its overblown high digital production techniques, along with the band decided on recording White Pony at West Hollywood’s Larrabee Sound and Sausalito’s The Plant.

With the band renting a house in Hollywood Hills that was said to be riddled with sources of the supernatural, it was the longest the band had spent plotting an album, largely due to clashes between Moreno and Carpenter. Moreno trying to push the band in a newer direction while Carpenter was worried about the proposed softer leanings.

In the end, it appeared that Moreno won out, channelling his inner-Robert Smith and Beth Gibbons, while sonically, the post-hardcore nuances of their previous two albums made way for shoegaze and even the late ’90s version of post-rock.

Echoes of Slowdive and Mogwai collided with Cocteau Twins veneration in this new world the band had stumbled in to. There was even faint brushstrokes of Pink Floyd throughout, too.

Throughout, the slow waves of drones ring off Carpenter‘s guitar and present as tangled barbed wire. The full-time introduction of synth/turntablist, Frank Delgado (The Socialists) proved to be a enormous gambit for the band. Delgado‘s plotting and sound manipulations added haunting new silhouettes of sound to the band’s repertoire.

It all starts with Feiticeira and from the opening guitar spike, the change is noticeable. The shift in tone, a shade of sound that still hasn’t been replicated, with the Deftones employing a metallic echo that feels like it was conceived in the bellows of an industrial waste bin.

Digital Bath is one of the best tracks the band have written. Beginning with Delgado‘s shady samples, Carpenter‘s methodical guitar rhythms work alongside Moreno‘s warped vocal that sounds like he’s singing up through a rusted drainpipe.

Those thrill-seeking themes are once again illuminated as Moreno‘s sings “I feel like more” – the track reaching a crescendo with a riff that sounds akin to a boiler on the verge of exploding.

Elite, the track the band won a Grammy Award for in 2001 for Best Metal Performance, is a straight-up screamo assault with Moreno‘s mirthless shrieks seemingly being put through an angle grinder. It’s a song that acknowledges the band’s past, momentarily inviting it in the present.

The aforementioned newfound tone is no more prominent on Rx Queen, which is perhaps the most conventional song on White Pony and one of the best. Cunningham‘s hip-hop-inspired rave-up rhythms are flanked by Carpenter‘s whirring guitar drones.

The chorus, a prickly ode to lust, as Moreno sings, “Cause you’re my girl/And that’s all right/If you sting me/I won’t mind”. He suggested that it was the most futuristic song on White Pony.

Then there’s Street Carp. A cookie-cutting street-level rocker that brims with a fresh civic vitality. Remnants of the old Deftones enmeshed with the new, which is something that Teenager isn’t.

Penned many years before White Pony with the intention of being a song for Moreno‘s other project, Team Sleep, Teenager is a beautiful number, enveloped in fragile silences that are then warped with Cheng‘s bass line and Delgado‘s glacial inflections. It was the closest thing to a ballad the Deftones had recorded.

Knife Prty is perhaps the track that flawlessly coalesces aggression and the mood-scapes that fill White Pony.

A track inspired by a tour bus dance party and a cutlery set owned by Cunningham, Moreno developed a fictional scenario bridging the themes of knives and one’s erotic fantasies for such implements. A track bursting with lust and the dangerous furrows one encounters to get there.

Moreno‘s voice has never sounded better than on Knife Prty. His sinewy range and soaring melodies, said to be inspired by Jeff Buckley, annexed against those trademark piercing shrieks which rise above the song’s anthemic chord structures and arena-like drums.

Fan favourite and a track the band often open with live, Korea is a sweaty rocker that spits and snarls with jagged groves, delivered by Moreno with a guilt-edge feral savagery.

Between Korea and Knife Prty there’s barely a chance to catch your breath but that reprieve comes with Passenger, a track featuring Tool‘s Maynard James Keenan on vocals and a zeitgeist of sorts for alternative rock aficionados.

Tool was arguably the one band that White Pony shared an aesthetic with and here the architects of respective projects join forces after striking up a friendship on the Ozzfest tour years earlier.

Passenger is a track drenched in moody melody and swooping soundscapes. With Cheng‘s elusive bass judders and Carpenter‘s crunching chords, it’s the perfect lead-in to White Poney‘s first single, Change.

Described by Moreno as a “beautiful metamorphism”, Change is everything you expect a single to be. A luminous earworm that possess bursting grooves, mountainous melody and a killer chorus. It has well and truly stood the test of time and is still one of the band’s most revered songs.

Titled after Kool Keith‘s No Chorus, the epic closer that is Pink Maggit is a morose signing-off, gushing with gloom-laden drones, chilling reverb, and Moreno‘s muffled drawls before igniting into fits of rage to conclude White Pony.

It was earmarked as the album’s second single, but due to its length, the band’s record label, Maverick, insisted that Moreno rewrite the song which would become Back to School (Mini Maggit), a polar-opposite to any form resembling Pink Maggit.

The only redeeming quality of the track is Maverick‘s ingenuity in shifting more units – the track released in conjunction with the kids, indeed, going back to school after summer break. A clever marketing ploy, coupled with the fact that the song was released on a later version of White Pony as the album opener.

While Back to School was, let’s face it, a disposable throwaway track with an artist succumbing to major label pressure, it was something The Boy’s Republic shouldn’t have been – the bonus track which appeared on the earlier exclusive limited-edition release of White Pony.

A song inspired by youthful redemption, how The Boy’s Republic wasn’t included on standard album version remains one of the greatest album omissions of the last twenty years.

One could argue it’s one of the finest tracks the band has written, a song swirling with spirit and ham-fisted chord structures that could blast through walls.

A mystery it will always be.

White Pony has well and truly stood the test of time. Many who found it as a crutch to get through their formative years still feel its weight and emotional impact.

That symbolic white pony can be seen regularly at gigs, whether it’s people sporting the band’s apparel or etched to limbs on guys on the right side of forty. Such as the album’s significance.

While connoisseurs of high-brow art may give White Pony and the Deftones that sneering narrow-eyed glare, they are quite simply wrong to.

Guilty by association, this band is not and at the end of the day, it’s all about the songs and where Deftones‘ are concerned, they deliver quality in spates.

White Pony was a dark twisted fiend shrouded in mystique, exposing the Deftones in a new-fangled light as a fresh breed of taste-makers.

For many of their fans, the journey had just begun at White Pony, with many discovering the likes of post-hardcore, post-punk and trip-hop, moving afield and exploring beyond the default positions of guitars and melody.

This was the influence of White Pony, containing an emotional depth where the possibilities were endless for their listenership.

Whilst some may have outgrown the themes that White Pony was built upon, it’s equally important to acknowledge the sonic aesthetic of the album.

Deftones evoked a spirit of sound that was undoubtedly the most forward-thinking in the landscape of alternative rock at the turn of this century and have since gone onto influence many bands across a whole array of genres, not limited to Emma Ruth Rundle, Chelsea Wolfe and Deafheaven.

Many people disregard the music of their youth, but no matter whether it bears relevance now or not, the music voyages we take in the present may not have materialised had it been for the influences of our past.

That’s why it’s vital that we never forget it.

Past experiences are subconscious reference points, making themselves felt in the present and there’s no better example of this than White Pony. An album solidifying Deftones‘ cult status.

Many other acts of this period rightly crashed and burned. Many other scenes which arrived afterwards, including the new rock revival, faded just as fast.

And still, the Deftones remain.

Deftones circa 2020 (photo credit: via the artist’s Facebook page)

After White Pony, the band experienced their most tumultuous period. Rumours that they had almost broken up after touring the album due to Moreno‘s languid work ethic, which saw the self-titled follow-up arrive three years later, while 2006’s Saturday Night Wrist was by and large an unforgettable journey, plagued by a multitude of issues during its conception.

Then of course, there was the passing of founding member, Chi Cheng, who sadly lost his life after a car accident. After the accident in 2008, Cheng remained in a semi-comatose state before his life ended in 2013 due to cardiac arrest.

With Quicksand‘s Sergio Vega stepping in as Cheng‘s replacement, in many ways the band have embodied the spirit of Cheng, and together with their fervent fanbase, have recaptured the lofty heights they set at the beginning of the new millennium, most notably with 2010’s Diamond Eyes all the way through to 2016’s Gore where they played to some of their biggest audiences across the world yet.

The fact they remain artistically pertinent crystallises their allegory.

With that said, White Pony still remains the sharpest jewel in their crown and 20 years on, it shines as bright as ever.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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