By Rebecca Bulnes
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Deftones don't want their listeners to get too comfortable. After releasing White Pony on Madonna's Maverick label last June, the Sacramento skate-punk graduates came up with an opening track they liked better and released the disc all over again three months later. A rallying cry for the oppressed, the in-your-face rap rhymes and groaning guitars of "Back to School (Mini-Maggit)" serve as a belated prelude to the album closer "Pink Maggit," whose foreboding hypnotic rhythm ends with a recorded heart beat. The new opening track gives both a name and a motto to the eleven-year-old band's current Back to School tour. On the rerelease, hotheaded frontman Chino Moreno warns fans that the dismissal bell has not rung yet: "When you think you know me/right/I switch it up."
In between "Maggits" White Pony takes a wild ride away from the conventions of thrash metal, making detours through alternative rock and New Wave, often pausing to evoke things unspoken. Although Moreno, Abe Cunningham (drums), Chi Cheng (bass), Frank Delgado (turntables) and Stephen Carpenter (strings) hooked fans with Adrenaline (1995) and Around the Fur (1997), the quintet doesn't rehash the past with White Pony. The driving rhythm and amelodic screams of those earlier works show up on new tracks like "Digital Bath" and "Knife Party." But if White Pony crashes through dense thickets of lust and violence, it also veers unexpectedly into calm clearings with the serene "Teenager" and the opening strains of "Passenger." The most provocative tracks are crafted out of a lust-soaked blend of memory and fantasy.
Talking by phone from the Toronto stop on the Back to School tour, 29-year-old Cheng says Deftones' ever-changing sound is all about exploring new terrain. "We're not a band to stick with formulas, you know," he explains. "We like to push it a little bit, make it interesting for ourselves and for our fans." As if to prove that point, the bassist recently released a self-produced spoken-word CD, Bamboo Parachute. In a kind of Chinese-Californian version of the book What Color Is Your Parachute?, Cheng tackles the Big Question of the meaning of life and presents himself as a beat poet for the slacker generation.
Cheng poses abstract paradoxes in a speaking voice dangerously close to that of Pacey Witter on Dawson's Creek. "When even December can't hold you,/still, it beats not knowing Christmas," he contends in "The Receiving Line." Distinguishing his work from the treacly trysts and midnight philosophy-spouting of the WB network's rowboatin' teens, however, Cheng's poetry shares the sense of love-as-violence that permeates Deftones' lyrics. "The blood on her lips/makes me love her that much more," confesses the speaker in the closing verse of "Some Things Better Left Unsaid."
While it would be too harsh to apply that title to the spoken-word project as a whole, Cheng, who reserves half of the CD's proceeds for charity, admits that Bamboo Parachute is something he did just because he could. "I didn't set out to change the world," he confesses, "It's not like I think that my words are so great. But the feedback has been incredibly good." Considering the source, he adds, "Still [it's] mainly Deftones fans, [and] they'd support anything any of us did." However devoted Deftones followers might be, Cheng hopes his poetry will shake up their expectations. "Fans have preconceived notions of who you are and who they want you to be," he complains. "Musicians are multidimensional people, very talented in all sorts of ways." Being "multidimensional" is not always easy. Cheng says the creative process for White Pony was "a little harder; we were a lot more critical and more passionate, which made everyone really want everything to be right."
White Pony benefits from the moonlighting efforts of some of the members. Borrowed from one of Moreno's other musical outlets, Team Sleep, the soulful "Teenager" drops carefully plotted guitar chords over a mesmerizing beat in a tribute to the purity of that time in life (high school!) when worries are limited to wondering if he, or she, likes you. Moreno also collaborated with Tool's Maynard James Keenan as a writer and a singer on "Passenger," about a man kidnapped by a woman. The teenager of the Team Sleep tune seems to have grown into a taste for masochism on "Passenger." Beginning slowly and dreamily, the vocals surge as the "passenger" releases his inhibitions, charging the vocals with an electrical surge.
The masochistic pleasure multiplies beneath the dark underbelly of the pony. "Digital Bath," which Cheng identifies as a fan favorite, is about electrocuting someone in a bathtub. "Rx Queen," with melodic vocals over a driving rhythm, is a wailing lullaby that forgives the pain a lover inflicts: "'Cause you're my girl/and that's all right/if you sting me/I won't mind." "Feiticeira," named after a game show in Brazil that features a whip-bearing dominatrix, is yet another kidnapping scenario that has a woman stuffing a man in the trunk of her car: "Stop, I'm drunk/but I'm off my knees/the police stopped chasing/I'm her new cool meat." Where so much contemporary pop celebrates violence against women, Deftones seem to delight in violence by women. They find women threatening -- and they like it. Now that's neohardcore.
The song that rages hardest on White Pony, however, shakes up all hierarchies, whether it's women or men on top. With "Elite," Deftones return to the egalitarian cry of "Back to School," lashing out against the concept of superiority itself, armed with Moreno's throat-tearing screams and Cheng's unstoppable pounding bass.
For Cheng the contradictions make sense. "We could go any direction that we want," he says, "given the freedom from our fans. I don't think it's anything else but us and the fans. We're self-indulgent as a band: What we like, our fans are going to like, so we play music that's interesting and likable to us, because our fans have grown with us and are taking the journey with us." Self-indulgence hasn't robbed Deftones of their sense of humor. When asked if the band is tempted to keep tinkering with the songs from White Pony while on the Back to School Tour, the poet laughs. "Yeah," he says, "they're slowly, slowly turning into Air Supply songs."