The year is 2000. A new millennium dawns upon the world, and brings with it a cultural upheaval. In the world of metal music, the last decade has seen one revolution after another. Grunge may have breathed its last shortly after the demise of Kurt Cobain, but it has set a precedent for metal musicians to constantly reinvent themselves.
In the second half of the ’90s, a growing appetite for experimentation within this community brought forth an exciting twist. A new generation of musicians was rising to the fore. The kind that was raised not to have a one-track mind when it came to what they listened to. These were the children you could find jamming along on their guitar to the latest Metallica record, with a poster of Dr. Dre on the wall behind them.
They could appreciate the beauty of what both genres brought to the table, and this inspired them. There was no denying the brilliance on display in rap music—the wordplay, changes in flow, the technical prowess it took to narrate a story over the rhythm of a beat.
Yet, their natural instincts took over and they knew something was amiss. It lacked the aggression of metal. A burst of raw energy only down-tuned guitars and harsh vocals could provide, had become an adrenaline fix that was impossible to live without.
Deftones were among the first to usher in this hybrid of two genres, that would go on to be dubbed ‘nu-metal’. They had set the tone with their 1995 debut album, ‘Adrenaline’, which came packed with impeccable work in the rhythm section as Chino Moreno began digging into his roots in the vocal section.
In this new style of music, of which they were the genesis, guitar solos became a thing of the past. Instead, they were used as a foundation for the song. Vocals became the dominating component, and the instrumental section was tasked with crafting an unassailable rhythm over which the entire song was constructed.
However, their time to shine really came around in 1997’s ‘Around the Fur’. This was when the world came to see this band for who they really were. Forty minutes of screaming into a microphone, backed by a wall of distortion, was not what they stood for.
Here, we had a group of musicians who did not shy away from sharing their more pensive, mellow side with the world. While this part of their identity began to take shape on ‘Around the Fur’, they realised their true form with the release of their third album, ‘White Pony’. In this article, we leap back twenty years in time to unravel this landmark album not only in the discography of Deftones, but the history of nu-metal as a whole.
From the get-go, we are met with the polarising track, ‘Back To School (Mini Maggit)’. Here was Deftones, under duress from their record label, satirising the very style of music that they had helped inspire. To prove a point, this song was released as the lead single after trimming it down to half its original length and interchanging the sombre vocals with a burst of scathing rap.
The popularity of this track on the charts sent their message across with abundant clarity. To rise to prominence in the music scene at the time, the recipe for success laid simply in sprinkling some hip-hop over a rock album. In doing so, however, they had unwittingly created a masterpiece.
Anyone listening to this track without any idea of how it came to be, would get whisked away into memories of elementary school. The cheerful guitar intro mimics the tolling of a school bell, and the class is dismissed for a recess break. Just as you set off to play with your friends and revel in childhood innocence, everything around you comes crumbling down.
A rip-roaring scream and foreboding chords set the background score. What seemed like the start of a pleasant dream, suddenly dons a nightmarish hue. You find yourself back in the same era that caused you to turn to music as an escape in the first place. The difference this time, however, is that you are blessed with the gift of foresight.
The lyrics tell a story of someone who sees past the obsession with vanity and finding a place to fit in. Someone who knows that the pursuit of something so fruitless is not worth the sacrifice of personal identity.
The lines, “And now I’m on the next page, it’s time to close the book up”, speak of someone who passed through this system themselves, took their fair share of bruises, and moved on to thrive in the real world. A world that lies outside the four walls of high school. Now, he has the chance to relive that time in his life. He sees the same people who were never able to move past those trivial social politics. He has the chance to tell them that living a lie will only get them so far. Unless they want to confine the best years of their life to high school, they should give up the act and recognise that there are far more important things to pursue than popularity.
As the album goes on, a pattern becomes apparent in how the tracks were mixed. ‘Feiticeira’ takes no prisoners in picking up momentum from where its predecessor left off. Our levels of anxiety and adrenaline both find themselves heightened as the guitars set our hearts racing, changing pace only to go faster every time.
A complete reversal of the story in Eminem’s ‘Kim’, this tale is from the perspective of a man who gets kidnapped by his girlfriend. Bound and confined to the trunk of her car, he pleads to be let go. All the while, she assures him that everything will be over soon. The song fades away in this cycle of dialogue between hostage and captor, without ever telling us what became of his fate.
Following this grim episode, we have ‘Digital Bath’, the first ballad of the album. It becomes apparent by now that Moreno’s lyrics have the gift of expressing a lot, without saying much. The drums usher in a refreshing breeze, and an aura of romance lingers in the air with each piano chord. Chino, ever the quintessential metal vocalist, is a natural fit for crooning in short breaths and trailing off.
This is where the album’s mixing reaches a stroke of genius. Deftones knew that while their listeners did enjoy their softer, melodious side, their patience for such moments only ran so thin. It’s almost as if this song was deliberately extended to wear the listener out so that they would be unprepared for what came next.
‘Elite’ erupts from the silence, blasting you out of your ballad-induced stupor. As you struggle to find your balance, this beast of a song froths at the mouth, only getting more ferocious with each passing moment. The magnitude of the riff sends cracks through the earth around you. Chino’s raucous shrieks pierce through the fabric of your soul.
Continuing the lyrical themes of ‘Back To School’, the lyrics warn of the perils that come with indulging in excessive attention-seeking. The words, “When you’re ripe, you’re beyond control, you’re beyond control”, form the chorus of the song.
Note the added sinisterness that comes with repeating something a second time. It’s not the first “You’re beyond control” that strikes fear in your heart. His mustering of all his energy to emphasise it a second time is what truly sets you hairs on end.
The latter half of this album is where we truly find a celebration of nu-metal at its finest. With a penchant for giving their work vague yet artful titles, this track is simply called ‘Korea’. An ominous calm in the initial moments triggers a sense of alarm. It is the kind of quiet that does not herald glad tidings ahead, but triggers your instincts of fight or flight.
Before you’ve had time to react, lead guitarist Stephen Carpenter launches the riff like bombs from a fighter jet. In the eye of your mind, you can see the band playing this on stage with everyone grooving to their instruments.
You take to your feet and jump along with the rhythm, both band and audience united in their revelry amid chaos. That’s the beauty of metal. More often than not, songs don’t tackle life and its issues head-on. It provides you with an outlet to unburden yourself of all the stress without even thinking about it.
No discussion of this album can be complete without bringing up ‘Passenger’. Tool was taking the world by storm around that time, and the trained ear can catch Maynard’s presence from the first note to escape his throat. This ballad brings out the best in Moreno and Maynard’s trademark styles of singing.
In no mood to rush things, Chino lets you feel the pain in every word. Maynard’s vocal melody dances around every line, wrapping itself around his sense of how the rhythm should flow. Contradicting the illusory sense of tranquillity through all this is a riff that’s rearing to be let loose.
At last, the aggression unfolds and Maynard screams into the night. He paints a picture of taking a drive through deserted city streets, headlights fighting to penetrate the fog. This night is one of those spent with a friend that might seem like nothing while it takes place, but will be recalled years later with pure bliss, capturing a feeling you long to experience once more.
Two decades on, ‘White Pony’ remains a fan favourite among Deftones’ wide body of work, and with due reason. This album serves as a source of inspiration for bands to follow their heart rather than dwell on how listeners might perceive their experimentation. A real artist must always strive to stay true to themselves first, and remember that self-expression is why they took to music to begin with.