[6 November 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Although Sacramento, California’s Deftones have been pegged as everything from alternative metal, to post-grunge, to the even more inaccurate description of “nu-metal”, the coolest thing about the band is how it has skillfully sidestepped categorization over the years. Stephen Carpenter’s massive down-tuned guitar chords have always been appealing to the metal crowd, but Chino Moreno’s vocals often display a vulnerability that many chest-beating metal fans find off-putting. Abe Cunningham’s drum tempos have a tendency to cruise at a sludgy, mid-tempo pace, much like grunge, but underneath the turgid, dense wall of noise lurks plenty of fragile melodies that would befit such bands as My Bloody Valentine and the Cure.
When at their best, the Deftones keep their fans guessing, as on the unforgettable, ambitious (for its time) White Pony, but 2003’s eponymous follow-up sounded like a bit of a step back, putting too much emphasis on pent-up aggression (“Hexagram”) and not enough on multilayered songwriting (“Minerva”). With so many heavy bands from the mid to late ‘90s quickly slipping towards self-parody (Korn, Fear Factory, Mudvayne), the pressure was on the quintet to either continue to evolve, else they wind up as irrelevant as their more creatively limited peers.
Three years in the making, the writing and recording of Saturday Night Wrist was often protracted and stressful, the band using two producers (Bob Ezrin recording the instrumental tracks, Shaun Lopez handling the vocals), recording at five different locations, enduring internal squabbles, and often questioning their own future. Often, such complications result in a typically sloppy, unfocused final product, but interestingly enough, that’s not the case here. For all the strife, for all the painstaking work in the studio, for all the break-up rumors, the Deftones have emerged with their most well-rounded, focused record yet, one that comes scarily close to besting White Pony while heading in a slightly different direction at the same time.
A devout fan of the Cure and Depeche Mode, Moreno has always shown signs of bringing some goth-tinged soul bursting through the wall of guitars, but while previous albums only dabbled in such stately melodies, Saturday Night Wrist goes all-out, and the end result is surprisingly rewarding. In the past, Carpenter’s guitars tended to overwhelm Moreno’s melancholy cries, but the pair are on equal footing on the new record, and both thrive. “Hole in the Earth” begins with a rousing overture of guitar, bass, and drums guaranteed to reel in the old fans, but the song quickly shifts mood as Moreno comes in with his most plaintive singing to date as Carpenter echoes the vocalist with chiming accents, the final, punishing coda (brilliantly underscored by bassist Chi Cheng) enough proof that the band won’t be flaking out anytime soon.
On the album’s introspective tracks, Moreno has never sounded better. “Beware” bides its time, but our patience is rewarded when the majestic chorus kicks in, Moreno’s distinctive phrasing giving the idiosyncratic ballad its Deftonian (for lack of a better word) quality. “Cherry Waves” delves deeper into shoegazer territory that the band has ever gone before, but for all the awkward Smashing Pumpkins references in the opening minute (languid guitars, mellifluous bass, simpering vocals), when Moreno sings, “If you should sink down beneath, I’ll swim down,” the emotional resonance of that very hook gets us. System of a Down’s Serj Tankian pops in for a little duet during “Mein”, and keyboardist Frank Delgado backs up Moreno on “Xerces”, which despite following the band’s quiet-loud-quiet-loud formula perhaps a little too rigidly, is sold by the strength of Moreno’s singing alone.
There are plenty of heavier moments of course, and while the band sounds ferocious at times, it never flies off the handle, Ezrin keeping the instrumental tracks sounding tight and edgy. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the vitriolic “Rats!Rats!Rats!”, a manic, bipolar rant anchored by Cunningham’s disciplined percussion work, which takes on a Danny Carey quality during the decidedly Tool-like final minute. “Rapture” is downright vicious, the four band members offering a muscular, yet straight-faced backdrop to Moreno’s screaming rants, while “Combat” alternates from tetchy, to bludgeoning, to introspective, shifting gears with ease. Most satisfying is “Kimdracula”, whose simplicity hearkens back to White Pony and Around the Fur, Moreno’s mixed-down cries more instrumental than lyrical, sounding like an E-bowed guitar over the din.
One track mars this otherwise excellent disc, as “Pink Cellphone” is an unnecessary distraction during the second half. A five minute circle jerk that has Moreno and guest vocalist Annie Hardy attempting to wax poetic over electronic beats, it gets progressively worse, culminating in a vulgar stream of consciousness monologue by Hardy that might have seemed funny at the time (you can hear the in-studio chuckling), but falls completely flat on the album, and if it wasn’t for the strength of the last three tracks, would have derailed the album completely.
For the most part, however, Saturday Night Wrist has the Deftones improving on all fronts, whether it’s Moreno’s stirring vocal work or the band’s improved versatility (listen to the instrumental “u,u,d,d,l,r,l,r,a,b,select,start” for proof). The process might have been painstaking, but it appears that after all that work, the band is closer to a fully-realized sound than ever before.