If Chino Moreno were a girl--and he'll probably take this the wrong way--he would be Christina Aguilera. The nu-metal that Moreno yawps as lead singer of Deftones is the masculine obverse of Aguilera's teen pop; both are gender-and age-specific modes of musical expression about sex, self-doubt and self-pity. Both tend to be pretty awful. But Moreno, like his Dirrty doppelganger, is perceived as being a cut above his peers, mainly because he can sing and occasionally because he can think.
The Deftones' self-titled fourth album has enough of the usual brain-crunching power chords, curdling screams and angst to keep the band's core audience blissfully alienated. Minerva, the first single, is a churning semiballad about a failed relationship that, with minimal allegorization, could also be addressed to the kids in the pit. With his voice floating over a crisp hurricane of guitar, Moreno sings, "I get all numb/We're the same numb/And it brings our knees to the earth." It's not subtle, but then it doesn't objectify anybody, and it has a winner of a hook. That is probably the most we can ask of nu-metal.
As for Moreno's lyrics--championed by fans over those of Fred ("Agreeance") Durst and Korn's Jonathan Davis--well, sure, he's the T.S. Eliot of rock's special school. But if you're not grading on a curve, it's hard to see what the fuss is about. Moreno's wordplay is certainly cryptic enough--"Yeah if you'd like that we can ride on a blackhorse/A great new wave Hesperian deathhorse," he screams on the thrashfest When Girls Telephone Boys--but the songs still seem to be about psychic injuries and the people who caused them. It's territory that has been covered far more eloquently by Tool and Nine Inch Nails.
What makes Deftones worthwhile and, yes, one of the better albums in the brief history of the genre is that it sounds fantastic. Loud-soft dynamics are a staple of nu-metal, but Deftones doesn't just shift mood and rhythm from song to song--sometimes heavy-handedly, as in the back-to-back placement of dissonantly named tracks Good Morning Beautiful and Deathblow. It does so within songs, and sometimes within bars. It takes a tight band to pull this off, even in a recording studio. Guitarist Stephen Carpenter and bassist Chi Cheng actually seem to like melody, and they aren't afraid of playing simple, accessible licks with immaculate cleanliness. Drummer Abe Cunningham has a tougher job, trying to set the pace when the pace is constantly changing, but he does it flawlessly.
Moreno deserves some credit too. In 2001 one of his vocal cords became paralyzed on a lengthy tour, and it sounds as if he has picked up some technique in his rehabilitation. He's still capable of low-range mini-arias that torture his tonsils, but he has also found some control in his upper range. He can now stretch his voice with confidence, and even when he's talking about Hesperian horses, the sound can be inspiring. --By Josh Tyrangiel