Twenty years ago, the mainstream metal climate favored somewhat peculiar vegetation with nu-metal being the buzzword of the day. While some of the genre’s brightest stars laid down a few landmark albums during the prime of the whole movement, the game-changing release came from a band that tried its darndest to break free from the nu-metal stalls. The Sacramento fivesome, DEFTONES, released the millennial masterpiece ”White Pony” on June 20th, 2000, via Maverick, the label owned by the Illuminati high-priestess of pop, MADONNA. Titled with a not-so-sly reference to cocaine and fuelled by internal friction, obsessive playing of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and the band’s vehemence to reinvent itself, the album marked a turning point not only for DEFTONES but for metal as a whole. ”White Pony” was not celebrated across the board at the time of its release, but it has stood the test of time as a genuine paradigm shift for metal music of the new millennium. The album blends trip-hop, shoegaze, and post-rock with the 1990s alt-metal aesthetics in such a way that it is now considered as the watershed moment for the band. Indeed, it is that particular release, which distinguished DEFTONES as a pioneering act, traversing further into the dark dungeons of drug-induced decadence and despair than ever before. The signature sonic imprint of a cocaine psychosis is branded on every 49 minutes of it. Yes, it’s definitely a ”drugs” album.
The album opener, ”Feiticeira,” jumps at the listener with the agitated and hyper-alert paranoia of a meth-head. The title is Portuguese for sorceress and the lyrics depict a kidnapping scenario, giving out mixed signals. You can’t be quite sure whether the narrative is purely delusional or an account of some sort of a perverse Stockholm syndrome. By today’s standards, the song structure reads like a default template for an alternative metal track. Back in the day, it was something out of the ordinary. My internet friends told me the name of the song is pronounced, ”FAY-tee-SAY-duh.” They also told me that nobody really cares how it’s pronounced – the song has the best drum into since ”Scentless Apprentice” by NIRVANA.
Violent hallucinations intensify on the next album track, ”Digital Bath.” It’s a pretty song, probably the single most romantic song ever written about electrocuting a girl in a bathtub, layered with whispered vocals, echoed guitars, and samples. It resonates with the unsettling aura of seeing a ghost, not Casper the Friendly Ghost, but something out of a David Lynch movie. It’s one of the most timeless songs DEFTONES has ever made – a good number of which were released on this particular album, by the way. The album was recorded at The Plant in Sausalito, the historic studio that has hosted legends such as Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Santana. Maybe a little bit of that mojo rubbed off on DEFTONES during the recording sessions; ”Elite” won the Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance in 2001.
The biggest, if not even career-defining, songs on the album, however, proved to be ”Passenger,” which featured guest vocals by Maynard James Keenan of TOOL, and ”Change (In the House of Flies).” This album was the first to feature Frank Delgado as a full-time member of the band on turntables and synths. His choice samples and unsettling soundscapes were quite crucial in shaping these monoliths of songs, along with the push-pull dynamic of vocalist Chino Moreno‘s acquired taste for electronic music and guitarist Stephen Carpenter‘s love for MESHUGGAH. In retrospect, it’s easy to conclude that you simply couldn’t go wrong with implementing the contemporary polyrhythms of djent as a loose reference point while infusing the music with the haunting exospheres of trip-hop. Just why didn’t I think of that 20 years ago?!
The album was mixed at Chuck Berry‘s old haunted mansion right off Sunset Strip. It might have just added the appropriate finishing touch on the album’s cocaine apparitions and sleazy vibes. ”White Pony” was a perfect kiss-off to the nu-metal scene, a truly brand new form of fever-dreamy expression coalesced from the 1990s metal aesthetics, electronica, and post-rock – with a hint of dark, progressive air. Some neuroscientists claim that the highly rewarding properties of cocaine can make obsessive users of the most mature and well-integrated among us. It’s a drug that can leave permanent shadows in the brain. I’m pretty sure ”White Pony” may have similar effects. Twenty years later, it’s not only a timeless classic, it’s a monument of wild artistic freedom, a monolith of an other-worldly musical vision.
Written by Jani Lehtinen
- Digital Bath
- Rx Queen
- Street Carp
- Knife Prty
- Passenger (feat. Maynard James Keenan)
- Change (In the House of Flies)
- Pink Maggit
Chino Moreno – vocals, rhythm guitar
Stephen Carpenter – lead guitar
Chi Cheng – bass
Frank Delgado – keyboards, turntables
Abe Cunningham – drums