TBTS Reviews: Deftones, “Koi No Yokan”
“Alt-metal.” This awkward, needlessly hyphenated label sounds weird to even say out loud. And yet there really is no more accurate way to describe Deftones’ music. They’re not really “metal,” in the traditional chugga-chugga sense. Their sound is too modern for that. They are most definitely not “nu-metal”, in the track-suited, Army commercial sense. Their sound is too sophisticated, their songwriting too nuanced. Much like the 1990s’ “alt-rock” pigeonhole described rock bands with a slight (shall we say) intellectual bent, calling Deftones “alt-metal” means that one should expect something a little smarter, a little more highbrow. “College metal” perhaps?
None of this is to say that Deftones don’t “bring the shred,” as the kids are sayin’. Their chops and riff-smithing are undeniable. But if you are expecting mere repetitive, chunky guitars and Cookie Monster vocals, you may be surprised. (Or disappointed, for Deftones certainly have their detractors in the metal community precisely because of their blend of grey matter and viscera. Some metal purists see them as a tad bourgeois, a bit soft, or not “brootal” enough.) I might go so far as to say Deftones’ music is for getting laid.
Koi No Yokan (Japanese for “love’s premonition”) is the continuation of a somewhat experimental trend the band has been on since 2000’s ground-breaking White Pony. With producer Nick Raskulinecz’s* ear for song structure and tone, these songs are so much more than just riffing and screaming. In fact, much like Eddie Vedder’s vocals kept a nascent Pearl Jam from falling into the same late-80’s traps as some of their contemporaries, it is front-man Chino Moreno’s vocals that carry these speaker-destroying riffs into the realm of actual songs. Guitarist Stephen Carpenter has a fondness for custom 8-string guitars (to achieve a low “F#”, or nearly a full octave lower than a traditional guitar’s low “E”) which sound killer, don’t get me wrong. But Moreno has a way of belting high, breathy melodies over the heaviest of guitars to absolutely transform the mood and demolish the listener’s expectation.
The album gallops right out of the gate with the pounding “Swerve City,” whose “brootal” main riff is balanced by a soaring vocal melody during the verses. I daresay it brings to mind the Cure at their heaviest, especially during the guitar solo. (Moreno is famously a big fan of the Cure as well as Weezer and the Cars, even going so far as to cover those bands’ “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep,” “Say It Ain’t So,” and “Drive,” respectively. In fact, Deftones released a B-sides & Rarities CD/DVD in 2005 with an impressively varied collection of covers.) This signature sound continues on through tracks like the album’s pre-release single “Leathers.” However, “Entombed” dials it back and shows off Deftones’ skill at (*gasp*) balladry. Seriously, this is one gorgeous song that begs for headphones and a dimly lit room. It is the album’s definitive make-out track.
Oddly, my favorite track so far is the one that deviates the most from the brains-and-brawn narrative I’ve been trying to convey here. It is “Poltergeist.” The main riff out-heavies anyone I can think of, with a bass tone that can only be described as “gnarly.” Moreno spits his verses at you in a way that harkens back to the band’s early skate-punk days, but the choruses are almost dreamy. This edgy-verse-dreamy-chorus structure invokes the best of Pink Floyd, as it was once explained to me by fellow Tweedie Todd M.S. The album accomplishes this again on “Gauze.”
Mid-album tracks like “Tempest” and “Graphic Nature” fill out the album nicely, with more riffing and unexpected twists of melody by Moreno. “Rosemary” is perhaps the album’s most prog-rock track. It is a nearly seven-minute opus of textural soundscapes and plodding guitar matched by slightly off-putting vocals that seem intended to make the listener slightly uneasy. Album closer “What Happened to You?” brings more off-kilter time signatures and an additional touch o’ the prog to round out the record.
When Koi No Yokan‘s release date was announced, I was certain that the band would never be able to top or even match 2010’s Diamond Eyes. That album is about as close to brilliance as any band with a “hyphen metal” in their genre description has ever achieved. I’m certainly pleased to admit I was wrong. Koi No Yokan and Diamond Eyes might be considered twin albums, having similar outward appearance but with personalities, hopes, and desires unique to each. This one brings the shred AND the mind AND the heart in equal amounts, and manages something that is exponentially greater than the mere sum of its parts.
* Raskulinecz also produced Deftones’ near-perfect 2010 album Diamond Eyes. Additionally, I wrote of his talents in my review of Big Wreck’s Albatross which he co-produced.