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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Deftones’ <i>White Pony</i> is the only nu-metal record you don’t have to be ashamed of owning

Deftones’ White Pony is the only nu-metal record you don’t have to be ashamed of owning

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

It seems every few months on Twitter another “four high school albums” prompt makes the rounds, inspiring thirtysomething music fans across the country to come together—united in their shared fronting that they listened to Slint’s Spiderland and Hum’s Downward Is Heavenward their freshman year. Some of us who went to high school during the nu-metal era can’t pretend to have had that kind of good taste. Korn’s Follow The Leader, Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other, and short-haired Metallica records were the soundtrack to our teenage dirtbag years. If there was a guy on the cover of the CD with Battlefield Earth dreads and an Adidas tracksuit, odds are good it was in my constant rotation. But while I’ve long outgrown my Family Values Tour phase, there is one record from the nu-metal/rap-rock era that I come back to again and again: Deftones’ White Pony.

Whipped out of the stables on June 20, 2000, White Pony came out just as nu-metal was beginning to slip from its status as the pierced face of rock music. The nattily dressed garage rock revival was on the horizon while the trash fire of Limp Bizkit’s Woodstock ’99 performance burned brightly in the rear-view. Nu-metal bands could still make monster hits—2000 was the year of Papa Roach’s “Last Resort,” Disturbed’s “Down With The Sickness,” and Linkin Park’s “One Step Closer,” after all. But you could feel the ground starting to shift away from rap-rock. For angry and disaffected teens, the bread and butter of nu-metal, there were now more appealing heels like Eminen to align with to get that angry parent heat (a changing of the guard neatly summed up by The Onion’s “Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-To-Door Trying To Shock People”).

While Deftones often bristled at the label, it wasn’t hard to see why a bunch of dudes from Sacramento who made aggro music with detuned riffs and throat-shredding vocals got lumped into the nu-metal scene. Their first two records, 1995’s Adrenaline and 1997’s Around The Fur, came out around the same time as other heavy bands like Korn were growing popular. But you could hear what set the quartet of Chino Moreno (vocals), Stephen Carpenter (guitar), Chi Cheng (bass), and Abe Cunningham (drums) apart from their contemporaries on those early records. For example, Fur highlight “Be Quiet And Drive (Far Away)” expertly weaves together pummeling hard-rock rhythms and riffs with shoegaze atmospherics. In past interviews, Moreno has cited spacey, post-hardcore guitar gods Hum as a formative influence, and you can hear how all that time spent listening to You’d Prefer An Astronaut colored the song’s widescreen guitar sounds—beautiful and crushing in their immensity.

Moreno’s expressive vocals, which can turn on a dime from a purring, confessional moan to anguished screaming, invite the listener to come closer with a melodic, slurring appeal before shoving them back. That push-pull between prettiness and abjection, between sensuality and hostility, is a dynamic that runs through all Deftones records. On third album White Pony, the band perfected it.

While the record’s name has obvious drug connotations, the band picked the title to also reflect their status as the odd men out in the hard rock scene—a white pony among nu-metal dark horses. Limp Bizkit may have gotten its lucky break doing a tongue-in-cheek George Michael cover, but when Moreno and company profess their love for Sade, The Police, and The Cure, it’s entirely sincere.

“I wanted our band to stand our own two feet,” Moreno said in an oral history of the album. “Nu-metal was at its peak. It’s in the name—nu-metal—it’s going to be old in time… My whole idea was when that ship goes down, I don’t want to be on that motherfucker.” White Pony would be the band’s lifeboat, ferrying them toward critical and commercial success while the rest of the soul-patches & JNCO jeans set disappeared beneath the waves.

The band underwent two major changes in the lead-up to recording White Pony: Moreno began playing guitar and occasional collaborator Frank Delgado (turntablist/synths) became a full-time member. The latter’s addition to the band makes Deftones’ attempts to distance themselves from their contemporaries all the more ironic, because nothing screams “nu-metal” like having a turntablist in the band. Unlike many rap-rock DJs, though, Delgado’s contributions to the music never feel superfluous. He isn’t there as a background player whose only job is to scratch a record after every other verse to remind you the band has a DJ (see: Incubus). He adds a woozy ambiance on White Pony, filling in the margins of the songs with eerie sound effects and trip-hoppy textures. Thanks to his contributions, songs like “Knife Prty” and “Change (In The House Of Flies)“ take on the dislocating quality of bad dreams—they sound like they could come apart at any moment, dissolving in the miasma of electronics and wordless backing vocals that bubble in the background.

Working with producer/engineer Terry Date (who also worked with the band on Adrenaline and Around The Fur), the quintet wrote and recorded White Pony over a period of ten months. Much of the initial work was done at the Record Plant Studio in Sausalito. For a record whose name is an allusion to cocaine, the Record Plant was a fitting spiritual home for White Pony—Rick James and Sly Stone cut records there, and the mother of all ’70s coke albums, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, was recorded at the Plant. But while Rumours was recorded in the midst of a legendarily toxic atmosphere of intra-band/extramarital strife, the drama behind White Pony’s recording wasn’t exactly myth-making material. Moreno and Carpenter occasionally butted heads over the direction of the music, and the band spent a small fortune blowing off studio recording time to play Tony Hawk Pro Skater for hours on end. The most outlandish rock ’n’ roll moment during the White Pony sessions came toward the end, after the band moved over to West Hollywood to finish recording the album and Cunningham accidentally stabbed himself in the head by rolling onto a knife in bed after a drunken night out.

While tracks like “Elite,” “Korea,” and “Street Carp” showed that the Deftones hadn’t lost any of their knack for crafting aggro rippers, White Pony finds the band embracing a more melodic, slow burn approach. In addition to an honest-to-god ballad (“Teenager”), songs like “Rx Queen” (featuring an uncredited Scott Weiland on backing vocals) and “Digital Bath” simmered with tension as they built up to their cathartic choruses. On two of the album’s best songs, Moreno cedes the vocal spotlight to guests—trading lines with Tool’s Maynard James Keenan on “Passengers” and then letting backup singer Rodleen Getsic take the spotlight on the climax to “Knife Prty.” Getsic’s ululating wails and shrieks are otherworldly—one moment she sounds like a horror movie scream queen backed into a corner, the next a vengeful witch petitioning the heavens to set her enemies on fire. Her voice is sublime and Satanic in equal measure.

Lyrically, White Pony is an album seemingly obsessed with movement. If you had to pick one Tarot card to associate with it, The Chariot fits the bill—a card about drive, overcoming obstacles, and the will to move forward. References to cars and transportation abound in Moreno’s songs, along with insect imagery—creatures that sting and flit and fly, not standing still for a moment. It’s the restlessness of adolescence, where sleep and boredom are the cousins of Death, where your freedom is behind the wheel and transcendence is just a high away. What’s particularly fascinating is how often Moreno casts himself in a passive role—more often than not he’s the passenger, not the driver. He adopts the voice of the victim stuffed in the car trunk “Feiticeira,” and his “go get your knife” bluster in “Knife Prty” gives way to an almost romantic pleading—begging his opponent to cut him open and “come in.”

In most hard rock of the time, especially in nu-metal, the (almost universally) male singers played the role of aggressors. They were active and angry and debauched; they expressed their vulnerability through aggression. If something hurt you, you claim dominion over it by screaming and beating it to submission with an army of Marshall stacks. Part of what makes White Pony so appealing is that lack of posturing—the subjects of Moreno’s songs are just as likely to be abandoned and clawed at by whatever violence he’s singing about as they are to dish it out. Even when he does sing about sex and drugs, it’s rarely in an exulting, self-congratulatory way. He’s not a master of the universe expecting the affection of groupies—even at his most high, he’s still a passive presence, being grinded upon and uplifted by substances and people.

The only false note on the album is “Back To School (Mini Maggit).” Deftones’ label Maverick pushed the band to put out a more commercial-sounding single after the surprise success of “Changes,” suggesting they re-purpose the album’s closer “Pink Maggit” as a radio-friendly rap-rock song. Moreno, in a perverse attempt to show how easy it was to crank out a rap-rock single, quickly put together “Back To School,” transforming the moody haze of “Pink Maggit” into a swaggering “fuck high school” anthem. Lyrically, Moreno sounds like he’d right at home on the Family Values Tour stage—railing against cliques and boasting about sipping vodka and sneaking cigarettes, exultant in his status as one of the “leaders of it all.” It’s the only song on White Pony where Moreno sounds like a rap-rock frontman—no matter how hard the band tried to escape their association with nu-metal on their breakthrough album, they found themselves capitulating to the label anyway.

Listening to White Pony when it first came out, I heard myself in that record. The Korn album and Limp Bizkit albums in my disc changer were Rosetta Stones for a testosterone-fueled angst I could never be fluent in. But White Pony spoke my language with its myriad attempts at transcendence—the ceaseless yearning to escape the confines of flesh, time, and genre.

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