Deftones took a rather winding and deliberate path to greatness, almost sneaking up on music fans who prematurely pegged the Sacramento, California natives as just another nu metal band based on their 1995 debut album, Adrenaline, and overlooked the abundant signs of a singular vision emerging on 1997’s still somewhat inconsistent sophomore album, Around the Fur.
But all that would change with the third long-player, White Pony, which arrived in June 2000 and saw the Deftones reaching artistic maturity while simultaneously separating themselves from the already ultra-repetitive nu metal hordes with a range of influences drawn, not purely from metal or even hip hop, but foreign genres like trip-hop, shoegaze, electronica, and even dance music.
A huge fan of Depeche Mode, The Cure, and other emotionally weighty new wave and electronica acts, band frontman Chino Moreno was keen to expand his bandmates’ horizons, despite no small resistance from guitarist Stephen Carpenter, in particular.
“We wanted to add some more electronic sounds and [Frank Delgado’s] textures were way more prominent on all the songs – he was more of a guest on the first two records, a buddy of ours who was touring with us constantly – and the whole guitar thing with Chino, that was the start of a huge animosity and tension between him and Steph that’s been well-publicized over the years. That stemmed from Chino picking up the guitar, but it’s also because Stephen kinda left, he moved out, and so we did what we needed to do,” drummer Abe Cunningham recalled in a 2010 interview with Rocksound.TV.
As Carpenter stewed in his new hometown of Los Angeles, the remaining Deftones carried on pre-production with producer Terry Date, himself a former heavy metal purist whose one-track mind had been positively warped by Chino’s persistence in making this search for individuality an integral of White Pony’s creative process from day one.
Why, even the new album’s title and stark cover art, depicting a small galloping horse against a prevailing silver backdrop, came together before the first notes were even recorded, as Moreno told Slamm Magazine: “The name started out as the graphic itself, the picture of a pony. I thought we should use it as propaganda to represent our individuality, to say, ‘We are the white pony amongst all these other bands,’ and we stuck with it.”
The songwriting process slowly started to gel as the band finally found common ground on the brooding, atmospheric, would-be first single called “Change (In the House of Flies),” which Moreno described thus in a 2000 interview with Alternative Press: “That was one of those defining songs where we all wrote together … Stephen and I playing guitar and Frank doing his keyboard thing over it. Nobody told anybody else what to do, it all just came out freely. That’s when it all started to come together.”
And what came together, against all of those early odds, was a truly focused and unified aesthetic. The quintet painstakingly sculpted layers of Carpenter’s down-tuned guitars and Moreno’s vocals (ranging from ethereal whispers to syncopated raps to carnivorous howls) into dense arrangements that only revealed their complexities over time and kept stores of pent-up tensions in check until the band was ready to unleash them.
This approach yielded an almost uninterrupted sequence of powerful standouts in the anxiously hypnotic “Feiticeira” (which is Portuguese for “Sorceress”), the spine-chilling “Digital Bath,” the synth-beat-dominated “Rx Queen” (featuring uncredited backing vocals from Scott Weiland), the full-blown trip-hopper “Teenager” (where Chino moans like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke), and the epic texture experiments of “Pink Maggit.”
But it was only when these experiments were intermittently set aside to make way for somewhat “safer,” riff-oriented, head-bangers like “Elite,” “Street Carp,” “Korea,” and the wonderfully terrifying “Knife Prty,” that one finally realized the true scope of the Deftones’ ambitions, and that brings us to perhaps the most talked-about cut on White Pony: “The Passenger,” featuring Tool’s enigmatic frontman Maynard James Keenan.
A panoramic highlight in an album chock-full of them, the track owes its genesis to Ozzfest 1999, as bassist Chi Cheng (R.I.P.) was quoted by Launch: “Maynard and Chino were friends, and [he] asked us to come out to L.A. And we weren’t going to pass up the opportunity to work with Maynard — he’s an amazing artist … Maynard’s got a totally different work ethic than us — we’re basically lazy drunks, and Maynard’s a very stringent, tough cat. I think on the third day, we had already all the music written for ‘Passenger,’ but nothing vocally, and Maynard one day just grabbed the mic, and that was it.”
The song was never penciled in as a single, but word-of-mouth quickly traveled nonetheless, accelerating the already sizable and fully justifiable hype surrounding White Pony, certainly contributing to the album’s unprecedented success as it became the Deftones’ first to break into the upper reaches of the Billboard 200 (peaking at No. 3) and the first to sell over 1 million copies in the U.S.
“I still think that record is our best attempt at trying to meld all the sounds we like into one,” Cunningham concluded in that 2010 interview with Rocksound.TV. Twenty years later, most fans still seem to agree, holding White Pony in the highest regard as the Deftones’ visionary peak and the ultimate manifestation of the group’s, although not always smooth, but certainly meticulous quest for individuality.
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