ALBUM REVIEW: Deftones deliver a haunting beatdown with ‘Ohms’

Relegated to relative obscurity compared to the wave of bands they road in with, Deftones have always walked their own path. Sure, many consider White Pony (2003) to be the watershed Deftones album, but not once have these guys faltered in their pursuit of music they can call their very own. Even after the tragic passing of bassist Chi Cheng, Diamond Eyes (2010), Koi No Yokan (2012) and Gore (2016) continued to forge Deftones’ path of punishing groove, imaginative soundscapes and sensual melody. As proven by Ohms, the band can keep mining its style without succumbing to stagnation, thanks to the unmistakable Deftones stamp of raw heaviness and haunting moodiness.

Warner Music, Sept. 25

Singles “Genesis” and “Ohms” bookend this album with the essential components that made albums like 1995’s Adrenaline and 1997’s Around The Fur stand out from the nu-metal riffraff. No Deftones album necessarily lacked heaviness, but the opener hits like it’s 1995 all over again and heavy alternative had yet to be eclipsed by nu-metal tropes. It functions more like detuned dream-pop, in that Stephen Carpenter’s simple nine-string guitar riff succeeds more as a crashing wave than unchecked aggression.

As Chino Moreno seamlessly traverses raspy shrieks and gliding melodies, bassist Sergio Vega and drummer Abe Cunningham hold fast to a hard-hitting rhythm structure. The closing title track feeds this groundwork through the filter of Deftones’ evolution over the past few decades, combining anthemic choruses, evolving riffs and addictive beats.

It’s not for no reason that so many ‘90s kids credit Deftones for getting them off the butt-rock train and exposing them to more patrician varieties of music. These guys have mastered the art of packing artsy tangents into a Trojan horse of crunchy riffs. Vega’s harmonious bass lines and Frank Delgado’s synthetic textures on “Ceremony” complement chest-pumping riffage as well as they do Moreno’s idiosyncratic singing. The contrast between the jagged guitar playing and explosive drumming at the start of “Urantia,” and sultry verse that follows, would seem contradictory. But Deftones’ bread and butter still comes from incorporating no-nonsense chugging into immersive sonics.

Ohms wastes no opportunity to spotlight Delgado’s angelic keyboard arpeggios and trippy loops. Besides Slipknot, few heavy bands use electronics and samples as tastefully as Deftones. Take the beach-like field recordings and oceanic drones during the close of “Pompeji,” which can be heard throughout the previous three minutes of sternum-breaking chugs and angelic ambiance. The track also displays Moreno’s innate ability to work unique hooks into whatever the rest of the band throws at him.

It’s frankly astounding how Moreno can find his footing during tracks like “Error,” which favor barrel-chested low-end and dissonant feedback stabs over a real chord progression. Hearing him single-handedly carry the verse’s modulations makes the glacial chorus and dynamic bridge that much more satisfying. It also gives the band a lot more freedom to buck conventional song structures without forsaking memorable motifs.

Songs like “The Spell of Mathematics” are more than a sum of their parts, because every member has a hand in making the heavy subdivisions hit the way it does. Moreno avoids the good-cop/bad-cop vocal trope. Both his screams and his clean singing come from the same headspace. Densely layered harmonies and distorted retches intuitively weave through the song’s ethereal, hand-clapped interludes and destructive tidal waves of sludgy distortion.

Indeed, Ohms embodies Deftones’ longtime staple of sounding heavy but never generic. The hysteric screams and hefty dissonance of “This Link is Dead” top off a feel no other band could reach. It’s a true testament to Carpenter’s songwriting that he can make his less-is-more ideas so distinct. In the same way, Cunningham waits for the opportune moment to pull out his propulsive hi-hat chops within the half-time stomp. Vega also knows when it’s best to beef up the guitars and when to climb the fretboard in his own direction, which works wonders for the addictive refrain of “Radiant City.” The way Carpenter’s nasty riffing dances around within Cunningham’s spacious beat displays how easily Deftones find the pocket and stay there.

It’s hard to talk about a song like “Headless” without simply calling it “Deftones.” How else could the song recall the band’s first album and still sound so fresh? The penultimate track comes through with some of Ohms’ most gut-punching riffs, mesmerizing atmosphere and sticky grooves. Extended-range guitar playing and piercing harsh vocals aside, the feel of this album makes its presence known and lays on thick from start to finish. Over two decades into their career, Deftones maintain ownership of the niche they’ve carved out for themselves.

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