Reevaluating DEFTONES – Part One: Adrenaline

Mark: This blog essentially kicked off with a series of posts that saw me take a comprehensive dive into a band that I had always thought were pretty lame, Pearl Jam. This wound up being so fun and so eye-opening, I decided to follow it up by writing a series about an artist I had always loathed, and an artist that I had liked but had lost track of. Reevaluating things? Why, that’s practically all I do!

But one thing I’ve never done here is take a second look at a band or artist that I’ve always loved, and have followed faithfully for many years. Some recent musing in a Facebook chat has convinced me to do just that. We’re going to reevaluate DEFTONES, a band that I have loved since getting into them somewhere around 1996, when I was in Grade 9.

This series is going to be just packed with stories from MY FREAKING YOUTH, so it may be even less digestible then my dozen Pearl Jam posts where I mostly just make fun of the way that the bass guitar often sounds like farts on Pearl Jam albums.

I’m going to walk through all of the albums with Jay, who has never liked this band, and I will see if I can’t turn him around to what I consider to be the proper and correct opinion.

Hi Jay.

Jay: I feel like Mark has set this up for me to be the cantankerous one! It isn’t that I never liked Deftones, but rather that I never had any strong feelings for the band. I remember some distinct memories, a few songs that I thought were interesting, and how much better the band sounded when they got away from their original producer, but really, I’m going in pretty fresh here. I look forward to it! I also am a little worried Mark will hate me (more) by the end of this re-evaluation. Let’s go!

Bored

Mark: I got into Deftones based on the recommendation of a friend at high school who knew that I had just gotten into Korn. He preferred Deftones, and he described them as having more of a “hardcore” sound. At the time, I had no idea of what that meant, but when speaking of Adrenaline in particular, this is extremely true. I’m not even sure if we had all started using the term “nu metal” yet at all in 1996, but something about Deftones seemed to be trafficking in a similar sound to Korn, but also completely distinct. The sound was more immediate, more “punk” in a certain way. I loved it, and Deftones became one of my favourite bands after my first listen. And they remain so!

I borrowed Adrenaline off of my friend, and I can distinctly remember smiling in delighted awe the first time that I heard “Bored”. It seemed like such a fresh marriage of the alternative rock that I had primarily gravitated to for a few years, and something just a little heavier and a little edgier. Plenty of screaming, but with a deft sense of melody that seemed more intricate and inventive than most of what was happening in the metal and post-grunge music of the day.

That chugging, grinding riff still rules, and the swooning chorus hook remains as sing-along friendly (and painful to sing) as it was 25 years ago. This was one of my favourite songs of the 90s, and I think that I’ve cooled off on it a bit over the years, but I’m still very fond of it.

Jay: That intro riff is one of my strongest memories of Deftones. It sounds better than even my memories gave it credit for. But hoo boy, the tin-can sound of the recording is super present as soon as the band kicks in. The producer, Terry Date, is not at all my style, not these awful midrange guitar tones, not these lifeless drum tones that are all snap and no oomph, not these vocals sitting on the mix like a chicken breast weighing down a perfectly good salad. Chino’s voice, both on the low and high “bored” moments, is undeniably fantastic. The song is a classic example of quiet-loud format and handles it effectively. The varying, loose vocal performance really gives it some raw emotions and pleasant roughness. It’s just a shame the record sounds so shitty, haha. Don’t hate me, Mark!

Minus Blindfold

Mark: This is where, on first listen, the album and band took a turn towards a sound that seemed less immediately accessible and more intriguingly… threatening. The discordant guitar lick that the song is built around exists within a vibe that the band would cultivate for years to come. Korn would similarly use (overuse?) sour chords and guitar figures in their tunes, but when they did it, it was almost exclusively like a gimmicky circus noise, or spooky horror movie sound effect. The guitar work in Deftones tended to alternate between buzzsaw power chord riffs and these snaky, vibe-y guitar lines that wove dissonance into a part that may have otherwise been mournfully pretty.

“Minus Blindfold” is also a pretty good example of this album’s relatively heavy emphasis on hip hop-laced hardcore. The verses are essentially rapped, and the vocal phrasing in the chorus is also rather indebted to hardcore hip hop.

It all works, for me, although this kind of thing would never be my preferred mode of the band to find themselves in. I find a lot to like with “Minus Blindfold”. The melodies (when they surface) are primordial hints at the kind of interesting things Chino Moreno would lean into in their later career. Some great winding bass guitar work all over this track. And honestly, when this song kicks off, it just rips and tears. This one must have been great to see at a live show.

Jay: This song doesn’t feel like it’s aged nearly as well as “Bored”. The production, if anything, is more glaringly bad on this one, and the guitars sound comically mixed, like someone is pressing my ears against two tiny speakers. The verse sections of the song don’t really feel like they go anywhere, other than Chino’s really varied and passionate turns. But the rock rapping doesn’t do it for me, the mixed-low bass that doesn’t seem to jive with the guitar. The choruses are a little better, and the bridge is actually pretty awesome. The ending made me chortle. The whole thing feels like a demo from a friend’s band. In all fairness, those friend-bands were probably all inspired by Deftones.

One Weak

Mark: IT’S BEEN!

Jokes about the title aside, “One Weak” is actually when this album’s Achilles heel first shows itself. Even on my first-ever listen, when this song started, I wasn’t sure if it was a new song or if it was just a transition to a new part on the previous song. My central criticism of Adrenaline as an album is that a lot of this album winds up sounding pretty same-y. I think that most of the songs bump pretty hard, but they’re all kind of bumping in the same way. Which is totally cool if you’re AC/DC, but compared to later albums that would see the band greatly expand their sound, the one-note feel of this album betrays the inexperience of the songwriters.

That being said, I still think that this song has some solid moments! The lurching chug of the opening verse and its transition into the winding riff of the chorus still works for me. The vocals falter a little bit here and there, but the ferocious final verse features one of the best vocal moments of the whole album.

“One Weak” is definitely… a song on this album! I wouldn’t call it a standout.

Jay: I see what you mean, Mark: the bass just feels like an extension from the last track. That said, I love the bass-vocal combo off the top, even if I know it’s going to bust out into that silly full-band mix. Really, overall, I think this song makes a lot more sense than the last one, has a bunch of parts that all complement each other, and a good thread of melody over top. And it has a killer chorus turn! I actually think this song is pretty good, and feels like it has more connective tissue to both “Bored” and some of the songs I remember liking from later albums. Good finale stereo delay thing, too. Overall, my only complaint with this song (beyond the mix) is that I have to stare at this ear syringe the whole time!

Nosebleed

Mark: Oof! That riff!

“Nosebleed” bites harder than most of Adrenaline‘s tracks, served well by a great central mosh riff and a pretty unhinged vocal performance. Throw in some tight chugs and earsplitting squeals, and you’ve got a pretty great tune!

The bridge is particular interest here, because it hints toward the band’s more experimental and progressive later material. They swing for the fences with dynamic shifts and trippy sonics and it mostly works. This song is a standout to me, but the way that it wraps up with the line “I don’t need this shit, you fuckin’ liar!” seems very Korn-esque to me in a way that stinks to high heaven.

Jay: This is a cool riff that is rendered inert thanks to a gutless mix. The guitars sound terrible; the bass is hardly in the mix; the drums are like someone striking a piece of paper with a pencil. I bet this would kill at a show, though. The vocals off the top are absolutely ridiculously hilarious, and a good reminder of why Deftones were lumped in with lumps like Korn in the beginning. And like Mark mentioned, this song comes alive in the Police-inspired bridge, when the band really reaches into that expansive, melodic, spacey, interesting territory that I think they do really well. It is such a fantastic bridge that even if the rest of the record were terrible, I would be inclined to listen to the next record to see where they went.

Lifter

Mark: Holy! I only just now realized that this song starts with the same drum intro as “My Own Summer”! “My Own Summer” is a much better song, but man… those two drum hits could start any song and sound just great.

“Lifter” is another standout from Adrenaline for me. It definitely sounds of a piece with something like “One Week”, but somehow sounds more confidently realized. It simmers and erupts, and features multiple segments that seem very well woven together.

Chino’s voice sounds great on this one, and even though it features a super nu-metal-y bridge/outro with repeated and screamed lyrics, it all hangs together pretty well for me. I feel like this tune, more than some of the others on this album, showcase this band’s potential as songwriters.

Jay: It’s becoming readily apparent that this band excels when they riff on one chord and let Chino emote on top of it. The chorus, with the open strings, is a really fantastic turn. I love it. But I have to say the verses don’t have much movement and I wish they’d spent more time building the song up and down during them. Part of it is that it doesn’t feel like it has the emotional movement in the vocals that was present in some of the earlier songs. Still, killer chorus. Not enough momentum for me to really love this song, but I can certainly appreciate it.

Root

Mark: “Root” wins the prize for “coolest riff” on this album, and I’m not sure that it’s close. If “Bored” was the #1 song off of Adrenaline to cover with your pimple-faced buddies, “Root” was a close second. The song leans on the riff pretty hard, basing both the verses and the choruses around it, but if I wrote a riff as good as this one, I probably would do the same.

The song also boasts a pretty amazing outro that brings things way down only to erupt into a huge finale. Sounds great. Great song. Still rocks.

Jay: Mark, I am not trying to be contrarian, I swear. I think this riff sounds amazing when played on the bass, and on the high guitar in the verse. But the intro and the chorus really sounds a little corny to me, like your friend who just learned drop-D tuning and is playing as many chords as quickly as possible in response. The chorus vocals are back to the nu-metal approach, too. It’s rough. I’m sure this was huge in the 90s, but if “Bored” has a timeless song structure and performance, this feels much harder to appreciate 27 years after it came out. Really cool and inspired guitar work on the outro loud part, though, and great finale.

7 Words

Mark: One of the few Adrenaline tracks to remain a live staple many years later, “7 Words” is perhaps the album’s most menacing track. And just look at this video! Look at his pants, all hangin’ off of his ass! Almost makes up for the fact that the song has been badly censored. Why would you release an edited version of a song that has the word “fuck” in it like 40-50 times?

I might be in the minority here, but to me “7 Words” is kind of just another Adrenaline track. The riff in the verse is the same notes as what’s going on in “Lifter”, and the rap-rock bridge sounds extremely boilerplate to me. The only real moments that elevate the song for me are when the verses erupt into the chorus, and the chorus itself, which is just killer. Those guitar squalls are extremely cool.

This song is okay. Fun to see at a show.

Jay: This song does basically nothing for me other than those high-note bends during the chorus. Despite my previous criticism, I was enjoying Adrenaline for what it is. But this is the first song on the record where I thought, “This is a bad song.” Hard to imagine that this was one of the singles off the record, and that the band chose this one to continue playing live over the years. And the 311 interlude? Yeesh. Probably the low-water mark on the record so far.

Birthmark

Mark: Nobody ever talks about this song, but I think that it’s great, and some of Deftones’ biggest tunes are direct descendants of this one. “Passenger” is in a very similar mode as this tune, albeit a little refined. This song also demonstrates how early on this band developed its knack for undulating, sexy grooves.

The vocal melody is one of the album’s best, and Chino’s performance totally soars when he hits the “drinks won’t stain this birth” line.

I’m not sure that the galloping outro was the best choice for this tune, but the rest of it is very solid stuff.

Jay: That is an absurdly good groove once the drums kick in. I also had a moment where I thought, “Wow, the record actually sounds better now. The guitars are sitting in the mix better. What’s going on?” And then a moment later the loud part kicked in with the tin cans on top. Still great riff, great groove, great chord voicings, great space for the vocals in the verse. This song is on a different level from all the other songs previously that followed this recipe (e.g. “One Weak”, “Lifter”). This song has plenty of momentum, goes interesting places, and kept me excited and interested all throughout. This is a good track.

Engine No.9

Mark: This is the other song from Adrenaline that they’re always playing at shows. This is often a part of their encore, and it’s a real fan favourite. I think is it just okay.

It is very fun, especially with the call and response vocal part in the chorus. It’s extremely infectious to see this performed live. I understand why people have a great time with this one.

I dunno. It’s just so… rappy. Hahaha.

Ah, whatever, it’s catchy. It makes you wanna yell a lot. The riffs are fast and shreddy. I guess this is pretty fun. To me, this song’s guitar work seems the most like it could be on a modern Turnstile album, but instead of rapping the guy from Snapcase would be screaming over it.

Okay, I’ve changed my mind. Now that I’ve relistened to the whole song, I think it rocks.

Jay: I know this riff! I think it’s fine. Again, it feels more dated than some of the other songwriting ideas on the record, but I also get why people loved it then, and why they still love it now. The vocals are pretty bad in the verse, though. Chorus isn’t much better. Really good palm-muting chugging moments on the guitar, but otherwise this song’s a bit of a stinker in my books. Haha. I’m terrible. I’m sorry, Mark!

I wish they’d mix the bass player a little (lot) higher. Also this is one of the shortest songs on the record, and unlike most of the other tracks, I’m ready for it to end early.

Fireal

Mark: Ah yes. The “difficult”, plodding final track.

I actually really love the verses to this song. Super interesting vocal work and atmospherics here. This was before they had a DJ on the team, as well.

I feel as though a lot of this song’s DNA got carried forward into more successful songs on the next album. Ethereal, strangely pretty verses that find themselves strangled by extremely violent choruses. The chorus to this song doesn’t completely work for me. It is just okay.

Now that I think of it, the extended outro to this tune seems like a prototypical version of “Pink Maggit” from White Pony. It’s pretty good and I kind of like the way that it drones on and on. It’s no “Pink Maggit”, but I think that it wraps up the album in a suitably “big” fashion.

“Fireal” is okay.

Jay: Great chord choices off the top. Not much movement or growth to the song, unlike some of their stronger tracks on the record, but it’s a pleasant meander. That scream to cap off the loud section sounds like they mic’d up a parrot. I’m not sure what emotional intention they had at that moment, but I’m guessing I’m too grumpy an old man to appreciate it. … Oh jeez, they do it again, eh? This chorus is not my thing. Interesting breakdown in the middle of the song, though. Like the previous track, I’m ready for this song to end long before it’s over, which (to the band’s credit) I mostly didn’t feel on the rest of the record. Kind of a bummer way to end the record.

Fist

Mark: Ah yes, the compulsory “secret song” that found its way onto every album from 1991 until… people stopped wanting music on CDs.

I remember thinking that this song was very cool and pretty when I was a kid, but listening to it now, it is pretty clearly just an in-studio fuckaround track. Some great musical ideas. And again, you can really easily draw a line from this song to the more shoegaze inspired work that the band would tackle later on.

It’s just that… this isn’t really a finished song. The vocal track is clearly improvised, and I kind of have the feeling that this is something that they jammed on a few times and happened to record a decent take of while in studio. Which is fine! Secret songs are usually not great!

I actually still really enjoyed listening to this. The guitar parts are really nice and that distorted bass guitar is nutso-buttso!

Jay: Great guitar riff off the top. I like this so far, and the introduction of the bass and drums just solidifies that. Neat loud sound with the fuzz bass (I think), too. Some nice variations in the guitar work. Oh, here’s the vocals. Yeah, this is fun. Super loose and rough, of course, but pleasant to listen to, and none of the tin-can guitar sound. A much better ending to the song than that last one!

THE VERDICT

Mark: Adrenaline is not the best album that Deftones have released. The songs suffer from a sameness that makes it less than compelling to listen to from front to back, and some of the ideas come off feeling a little bit undercooked.

It does manage to be a pretty convincing proof of concept piece for much, much stronger work that the group would release on later albums. Most of the ingredients were already there. The zippy, ADHD addled drum work. Winding, intricate basslines. Sharp, inventive guitar riffs that mix crushing heaviness with moments of discordant beauty. And the unconventional vocal work that would seal the deal to set Deftones apart from the army of lunkhead bands the late 90s would usher in.

I rarely listen to this album, but I enjoyed listening for this post and giving the songs a bit more attention than I have in… I dunno… 20 years?

Mr. Jay?

Jay: I think there were plenty of great moments! I agree that Adrenaline acts as proof of concept for more superior stuff to come (at least the little that I know). It also has a lot of rough edges, like the demo-tape-in-a-bad-way quality of the recording, the overall sound, the silliness of some of the rapping parts, etc., that need to be sanded off. I know that they stuck with their producer, Terry Date, for a number of albums after this, so I’m not looking forward to the mixes. But I think Adrenaline impressed me in that it still has a lot of interesting musical ideas, pleasingly loose (as in, not robotic) performances, and a good sense of dynamics. I don’t know if I’d ever intentionally put on this record again, but I wouldn’t complain, either.

Mark: Looking forward to our next entry, where we will crack open Around The Fur. This follow up album to Adrenaline manages to be light years ahead of Deftones’ debut in every conceivable way. Spoiler alert, I guess.

Author: markmeeks

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