Why do the Deftones get away with it? Like, why do people who’ve long junked their nu metal collections out of embarrassment continue to hang onto their copy of White Pony or wonder what they’re up to 12 years on? Come on, it’s not that easy to see. Like Radiohead, to whom they’re often compared (in their genre anyway), Chino Moreno’s sexual-yet-asexual whisper is liquid enough to slip out of any style when it’s time to go somewhere else. Chameleonic, calculated, whatever. He shucked his post-Korn skin for something more glassy on White Pony before the stoner emo Smashing Pumpkins style of Deftones and the Cure-inspired soundscapes of Saturday Night Wrist before rebooting as math-metal on Diamond Eyes and now a more streamlined, bass-crusted version on their seventh album. All of these genre claims are staked on shaky ground; they all sound like the same band using the same tricks, while cannily shifting away from the sounds that might date them somehow. The Meshuggah-influenced “Rocket Skates” from 2010 tumbled about with such surprise, without knowing which way is up, that it just sounded so much more metal than anything they’d done before. And here they are following that up with an album whose title means Love’s Premonition in Japanese, with hilariously titled chapters like “Goon Squad” and “Polterheist.”
So odd how Koi No Yokan could be both their most traditionally metal and their most melodic record to date. The out-the-gate Algerian stomp of opener “Swerve City” is almost Zeppelin-esque, while Moreno sounds more like Billy Corgan than ever. Stef Carpenter saws in with some guitar effect that’s no stranger to chillwave. And Abe Cunningham pounds his kit—gone are the light-touch piccolo snares of the hip hop-informed White Pony. The next track, “Romantic Dreams,” espouses a vultures-circling prog guitar figure before quickly dispatching it for a more menacing tone—it actually resembles something off PiL’s Metal Box, while the former brought to mind Sunny Day Real Estate’s overblown but underrated The Rising Tide. This is the parlor game these guys invite, a primordial soup of sexy whispers and screams, blobs of soft and loud that crash and coalesce in an oceanic way, evoking all and nothing. But the reason it’s so much more attractive than your average Brooklyn indie-stew is because rock is at a drought and they can play.
The tone always grinds while keeping a distance; it’s background music with surprises. Even the sappy ballad “Entombed” has a distinct guitar-masquerading-as-synth groove behind the entire song. As the album goes on, a weird trajectory becomes apparent; this is the most consistent Deftones album, with Moreno’s best-ever singing (as in, gliding from note to note gracefully—check out the very Corganesque chorus of “Gauze”), with the least memorable songs (think you’ll remember how the six-minute “Tempest” goes after six plays? And that’s the single!). So there’s no soundscape as indelible as “Change (In the House of Flies),” no zeroed-in riff as wildly hypnotic as “My Own Summer (Shove It)” and no screaming as bar-raising as “Hexagram” or “Bored.” Normally this mucky vagueness would be bullshit. But they own the bullshit, “Goon Squad” and all. They invite you to make of it what they do: a beautiful mess. It’s not that metal needs more of these bands; it’s that metal bands obsessed with l-o-v-e know how to nurture and massage their best qualities to keep their adoring audience in wonder.