Words : Harry Higginson
Limp Bizkit’s infamous Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavoured Water was the most commercially successful nu-metal record of 2000. Dominating the airwaves, ‘Rollin’’ became an inescapable emblem of the genre – undeniably fun, but shallow and frankly a little meatheaded. In an era in which Coal Chamber were amongst the most popular metal outfits of the day, a record that largely passed up hip-hop infused in-your-face riffs in favour of shoegaze and alternative rock may have seemed a risk. The idea that White Pony was a revelation in the alternative and nu-metal scene is now well established, but it is easy to forget just how substantial a shift Deftones’ third album was.
Twenty years on from its initial release, White Pony’s legacyhas almost entirely eclipsed its contemporaries
Twenty years on from its initial release, White Pony’s legacy has almost entirely eclipsed its contemporaries. Now hailed as one of the most forward-thinking records of the era, it has been recognised as partly responsible for ushering in a splinter-scene that pulled mainstream heavy music in a more progressive and experimental direction. In frontman Chino Moreno’s own words, “the record itself felt sort of… a slow burner”, an oddity in an era of music where nu-metal was much more concerned with immediacy.
Deftones did not fully escape this pull towards commercialised heaviness, however. The reworked version of the expansive and brooding closing track to White Pony, ‘Back to School (Mini Maggit)’, served as the opener on the 2001 re-release of the record. Stripping away the original song’s tension and atmosphere in favour of a rip-roaring rapped testament to teen angst, the band have been very public at their discomfort with this addition, an inclusion based more on marketability, rather than part of the band’s original artistic vision. The aggro tendencies of the early 2000s were still present across the record, with ‘Elite’ and ‘Street Carp’ both violent callbacks to a more primal sound. But far from unintelligent or simplistic riff-fests, both songs took efforts to add Deftones’ now trademark aethereal hazy aesthetic, as Moreno’s expansive vocal range soared over cyclical, pummelling guitars.
These songs demonstrate the true genius of White Pony: the retention of the energy and intent of nu-metal, whilst rejecting the genre’s tendency towards gratuitous transgression, in favour of a subtler approach
This musical disconnect between vocals and instrumentation typifies the record, as dissonance permeates both the literal harmonies across the album, but the overall feel of a record straining between beauty and anger. Indeed, this disconnection was something of a conscious artistic decision: Moreno notes that “At that time… even from the grunge era… everything was just ‘life sucks’”, something the band sought to avoid in their lyrics in favour of a more imaginative and expansive narrative direction. This is not to say the record was bereft of angst or darkness, as the uncomfortably sexualised overtones of ‘Digital Bath’, or violent flirtation of ‘Knife Prty’ demonstrate. Conceptually however, these songs depict a depraved and unsettling scene, equal parts imaginative and disturbing, pushing the edgy aesthetics of heavy music into a more surreal and abstract direction. These songs demonstrate the true genius of White Pony: the retention of the energy and intent of nu-metal, whilst rejecting the genre’s tendency towards gratuitous transgression, in favour of a subtler approach.
The sixth track on the original release of the record, ‘Teenager’, eschewing metal almost entirely, stands as a testament to the vision of the album. More at home on a Radiohead record than in the discography of the band that wrote ‘Bored’, the spacey programmed drum-beat, delicate guitar ostinato and Moreno’s near-whispered singing interlock seamlessly, creating a lo-fi soundscape to act as a brief reprieve from the record’s intensity and tension. On any other metal record, this would feel out of place, if not totally momentum-breaking, but not here.
Such a bold creative decision is no small feat in concept, let alone in execution, but with White Pony, Deftones scored an experimental home run
A substantial dynamic shift in a record perhaps most remarkable for its use of dynamics, it is far from the most beloved song on White Pony, but in 2020 stands out as the band’s most surprising creative decision on the record, and in no negative sense. Such a bold creative decision is no small feat in concept, let alone in execution, but with White Pony, Deftones scored an experimental home run.
Talking about the process of making the album, the band have characterised the record as “taking a chance… it’s always about pushing forward”, an ethos Deftones have continued with throughout their career. Not content with resting on their laurels or reproducing what worked, the band have gone on to depart almost entirely from their distinctly 90s roots, incorporating elements of progressive metal, art rock and math into their sound on records like Gore and Diamond Eyes.
But as Deftones have continued to grow out from their roots, it seems that this ground-breaking record is now being revisited by other bands. Metalcore outfits like Vein and Code Orange have embraced distinctly Deftones-esque melodic inflections on recent releases, with ‘Errorzone’ and ‘Who I Am’ respectively cribbing from Deftones’ signature combination of chaotic instrumentation and soaring vocal harmonisation. Even twenty years later, these bands, often hailed as the most forward thinking in their respective scenes, are still under the influence of Deftones’ seminal work. Writing an innovative record is an achievement in itself, but the album’s continued relevance and brilliance, two decades after its truly game-changing release, serves as an indisputable indication of just how good White Pony really is.