It’s been over two decades since the Deftones broke free of their status as nu-metal/rap-rock avatars with the addition of experimental DJ/keyboardist Frank Delgado in 1997. Unorthodox in his approach, Delgado didn’t partake in anything close to traditional scratching, instead favoring a soundscapist’s approach that immediately set the Sacramento, California quintet a world apart from the band-with-DJ stereotype embodied by the likes of Limp Bizkit, Incubus, and Sugar Ray. At around the same point, frontman/guitarist and Cure/Depeche Mode fanatic Chino Moreno began to wear his non-metal influences on his sleeve, with guitarist Stephen Carpenter soon following suit. Eventually, all three worked together to infuse the leaden density of the band’s sound with pockets of atmosphere. They also embraced an increasingly arty sensibility that guided them in crafting a unique hybrid of metal, goth, hip-hop production, and shoegaze.
If you’ve sat down with anything in the Deftones catalog from 2000’s White Pony onwards, it will come as no surprise that the band’s ninth studio effort Ohms arrives chock full of moody passages where down-tuned guitars are levitated by vaporous keyboard swells and ghostly vocals. Over the years, songs like “Digital Bath” (2000), “Change (In the House of Flies)” (2000), “Battle Axe” (2003), “Minerva” (2003), “Beware” (2006), and so many others have shown just how haunting this band can be when they want to be. And, for better or worse, they have stayed true the whole time to their stomping, cement-footed sense of rhythm—that is, until now. Ohms certainly doesn’t lack for the forceful grooves the Deftones have always used to send entire venues into body-slamming fits. This time, however, the band pull a late-career rabbit out of a hat by finding a way to be heavy and lithe at the same time.
For all the credit the Deftones deserve for perpetually expanding their palette and reaching beyond their limits, you could argue that their pummelling attack has never quite fully blended with their penchant for ambience. That’s no longer the case on Ohms, where all the elements of the band’s style gel in a way you couldn’t have predicted based on past work, even the most recent album, 2016’s Gore. Not since 2006’s Saturday Night Wrist have the band asserted such a strong push to re-define themselves, but even then, they didn’t come as close to realizing that goal as with Ohms. There are many aspects to highlight here—not the least of which being the sheer flow from one track to the next and onto the next. Not a single note sticks out from the song sequence in a disruptive way.
Meanwhile, Carpenter’s riffs and Cunningham’s beats provide a metallic foundation, a massive hull of sound, except the ship they support now glides across a still ocean under clear night skies. Carpenter, Cunningham, and their bandmates move through the new material with newfound maneuverability that’s downright shocking. On “Urantia”, a thrashy riff straight out of the early ’90s Ministry/Tool playbook seems to melt into a wide-angle space rock background that allows listeners to imagine, say, gazing up at stars from inside a cavern. A simple melody made of single-note keyboard droplets, almost lullabyish, twinkles above Carpenter’s machine-like picking. Likewise, seagull calls on “Pompeji” meld seamlessly with delicate trails of guitar harmonics. When Carpenter comes in with another one his signature low-pitched Meshuggah-style riffs from the bottom string of his seven-string guitar, the band execute the change with the collective poise of a seasoned dancer.
Typically a heavy-handed player, Carpenter’s Ohms riffs have a sleekness to them that’s hard to pinpoint because it’s not as if returning producer Terry Date (who staffed the boards for the first four Deftones albums) overdoes the polish. It helps that drummer Abe Cunningham sounds more light on his feet than ever. Out of the blue, 30-plus years into his career, Cunningham has acquired a finesse that elevates the players around him. His snare flutters on “The Spell of Mathematics”, his silken hi-hat on the “This Link Is Dead”, and his playing top to bottom add a new color to the band’s arsenal. The effect overall couldn’t be more startling. And when Moreno sings one of his most straightforward lyrics yet with “Jesus Christ / We hold you to blame / You gave your life / But we die in vain”, his directness only enhances the band’s flair for drama.
It’s hard to say why the Deftones sound more in-sync these days, but the difference is noticeable almost right out of the gate. No longer does the band simply slam into the heaviness they built their reputation on. On Ohms, the Deftones finally get past the loud/soft dynamic that had hemmed them in for so long. Now, the music changes form as if the whole band were playing with liquid. Where Carpenter’s seven-string work and Cunningham’s drums used to plod, here they share a malleability that allows them to interlace with the myriad other details in the sonic field. It’s quite rare when a band discovers new abilities this late in the game. In terms of epic grandeur, though, Ohms somehow surpasses even the band’s most ambitious middle-period work.
If past albums in the Deftones discography defined key points in the story of your life, you can expect to be thoroughly engrossed by the latest chapter in a remarkable musical journey that, against all the odds, just got more compelling.