Twenty Years Ago Deftones Took Heavy Music to the Next Level with ‘White Pony’

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.

In January 2001, Deftones played Hard Rock Live in Mexico City, selling out three dates. Half a year before, they had released their third album, White Pony, an album that dared to go places heavy music had not gone before and served as an excuse for them to visit Mexican territory—the biggest band from the nu metal genre at that point to do so. Inside, the crowd devoted themselves to the music coming from the stage; singer Chino Moreno spent the first couple of songs singing from the middle of the crowd, moshing and crowd-surfing with the band and losing his shoes in the process. Many fans had been waiting for this moment for years, but for every explosion of distortion that prompted the crowd in slam-dancing motions, every one of the songs from their latest album—overall lush and slow-moving—was greeted with screaming singalongs. For all the Mexican fans present in those three nights, they were their band playing complex introspective music that erupted in the heaviest riffs possible. The future of heavy music was quiet, dissonant, and seductive, and young fans were all for it. Twenty years after the release of the album, it remains a milestone of guitar music.

In many ways, Deftones’ importance to nu metal is gigantic, but nu metal’s importance to Deftones is almost null. Formed by vocalist Camilo “Chino” Moreno, guitarist Stephen Carpenter, bassist Chi Cheng, and drummer Abe Cunningham, Deftones debuted in 1995 with Adrenaline. The band soon shared a friendship, influences, and musical sensibilities with Korn, who themselves began their recording career the previous year. Together, they synthesized a mixture of metal, hip-hop, and alternative music that inspired legions of bands that soon infiltrated the mainstream. While Korn put their effort on eye-grabbing videos and catchy (if impossibly heavy) songs, Deftones expanded their sonic palette with 1997’s Around the Fur. By the time White Pony was released, the genre had become a presence on MTV’s TRL and radio, popularized by Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach, and Kid Rock–who all exploited the worst qualities of the music. Instead of trying to capitalize on their pioneer status of the genre, Deftones decided to break with the tag altogether.

Nu metal’s huge popularity owed its ability to sell anger to a young audience, but this proved to be its undoing. Korn made their mark by singing frank, straight-forward lyrics about abuse, sometimes dramatized with throat-destroying screams and heavy-as-shit breakdowns—a model soon adopted by most nu metal practitioners. Anger at abusers and figures of power were sometimes coupled with rage against vulnerable groups like women and LGBTQ people, weaponizing hatred and intolerance in the process. With White Pony, Deftones broke away from anger. Sure, they could still play downtuned riffs with the best of them and Moreno’s screams were some of the most intense in the game, but they were not pronouncing words of hate or retaliation. Deftones showed a new level in which feelings could be expressed in a more nuanced way without sacrificing excitement in their music.

Just a year after Limp Bizkit hit it big with a song called “Nookie,” White Pony tapped into a hedonistic energy that had been absent for much of the history of heavy metal, doing away with juvenile humor, clichés, and predatory and abusive language. Moreno could play a seductive and often submissive figure in his lyrics while the music reflected the sentiment through layered, dimly-lit hallucinatory elegance, which was contrasted by atmospheric (if crushing) power chords in the choruses and aided by the incorporation of turntablist and keyboardist Frank Delgado. Album opener “Feiticeira” is the prime example of this, setting the mood right away, while “Digital Bath” searches for desire in dark corridors. Lyrically, “Change (In The House Of Flies)” taps into both Kafka and Cronenberg while evoking an Eyes Wide Shut mood in the video, (also worth noting: the b-side to the single release was a cover of Sade’s “No Ordinary Love”). The voyeuristic “Passenger” is sung in a duet with Tool/A Perfect Circle frontman Maynard James Keenan, a car sex fantasy that gives us implied homoerotism without it being cartoonish. The BDSM fever dream that is “Knife Party” finds it’s pleasure through dissonance, climaxing with guest vocalist Rodleen Getsic channeling Diamanda Galás, who performs an opera of shrieks and moans into probably their most virtuosic moment on record. It’s not that the band forgot their roots, though; songs like “Korea,” “Street Carp,” and “Elite” (the latter which earned them a Grammy award) were some of the heaviest in their career.

After its release, White Pony hit big commercially but didn’t cross into 7-digit territory like Korn and Limp Bizkit were doing at the time. Hearing potential in the album’s slow burning closer “Pink Maggit,” their label commissioned the band to record another version of the track. As far as attempts to cash-in go, “Back To School” is probably the best outcome; it’s one of the few rap rock songs that are still listenable in 2020. “Back To School” is a flex, a way for them to tell their contemporaries how rap rock should be done at a time when so many newcomers were trying their luck. Deftones, the OG’s, sent them “back to school,” yet it’s anything but aggressive. The lyrics read as a reaffirmation of self-worth. It’s not angry at all. Maybe that’s why it didn’t top the charts.

While the sound of White Pony was multilayered and their lyrics abstract and evocative, fans could still get a primal kick out of their music. It invited fans to invest themselves into something deeper which could be a reason why it has been so influential ever since. The mainstream rock style that replaced nu metal in the charts, mid-00s emo, took many notes from White Pony; future metal festival headliners like Mastodon were also listening to their arty infusion of heavy riffs with melody. It kicked open a door for newer metal and hardcore bands to incorporate music that was previously deemed not heavy enough to belong in the genre; and in recent years, their sounds have found their way to Soundcloud rap and modern trap.

For Latinx fans, Deftones showed them that you didn’t need to be white to be innovators. White Pony introduced the band to a wider audience in Latin America, although the band never fully embraced their heritage. Speaking to NPR in 2016, Moreno said, “[When we formed], the majority of the kids in the neighborhood weren’t into rock and roll or skateboarding, so we kind of came together, and as we grew up together we realized there was nothing really like us; not in our neighborhood, not in our town […] Early on there was [sic] a lot of people who would always bring up our race and say things like, ‘You guys are Mexican dudes, and you’re playing heavy metal. Is that weird?’ [Laughs] I never thought it was weird at all, but I guess from the neighborhood standpoint we were the only kids doing that. I just figure that music is universal, or at least it’s always been that way to me. But I definitely did feel like we were doing something that was our own.” This is exactly why Deftones resonate with their Latinx fans. Many other kids were the only ones with similar interests in their neighborhoods, and they showed them that they also could play music that was challenging and far-reaching and that you could also skate to it. White Pony remains a massive album because it recognizes the universality in the specifics, that pretentiousness can be reeled in to express honest emotion.

White Pony has also kept Deftones an active and beloved band. It cemented their sound that has allowed them to release brilliant albums in the past two decades and remain on the touring circle. Unfortunately, they lost Chi Cheng to a car accident in 2013, but have soldiered on with former Quicksand bassist Sergio Vega. They even started their own festival called Día De Los Deftones, which could mean they are ready to show some pride in their roots.

When people talk about nu metal, Deftones are the band most people tend to agree on. In a few months they will re-release this record with a companion remix album called Black Stallion and are working on new music, still inspired and breaking down walls. Still conjuring fever dreams of horses in the house of flies.