The phrase “nu-metal” tends to carry some negative connotations. Fair or not, the genre that dominated rock radio in the late ’90s and early 2000s isn’t remembered fondly by most. It tends to be seen as an era defined by cartoonish vocals, cringe-worthy rap-rock, and lyrics that aspired to be angsty, but were nothing more than mindless, directionless anger. Of course, that might not be entirely fair, and some people may get more mileage out of Korn and Limp Bizkit than others. Still, the genre has a decidedly bad reputation, which is why it would be a shame if a band that had little to do with the genre was placed into it unfairly. This leads us to the question of the day: Where did anyone ever get the idea that Deftones were a nu-metal band?
To be fair, on the band’s Wikipedia page, it states that Deftones were only classified as nu-metal during their early years, and not on later albums, where the sound became more experimental. Still, even when looking at the band’s first few albums, it’s hard to say how much the label really applies. Consider “Be Quiet And Drive (Far Away),” from the 1997 album Around The Fur. Chino Moreno’s vocals are subtle and reserved, much different than the howls of, say, Korn’s Jonathan Davis. Also, the guitars are layered and atmospheric, showcasing that even in the band’s ’90s beginnings, they were influenced by the sound of shoegaze.
It’s generally held that the last Deftones album to have any traces of nu-metal was 2000’s White Pony, which was also where the band is often seen as becoming experimental. In this case, the association is even harder to understand. The big hit from this album, and probably the most famous Deftones song, is “Change (In The House Of Flies),” which was all over radio in 2000. It’s interesting to consider the dynamics of this song. Moreno’s vocals once again begin subtly, then become louder in the chorus, but even there, the swirling guitars are the main focus. Elsewhere, the band is joined by Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, who adds his decidedly un-subtle vocal style to “Passenger.” At this stage in the band’s career, the band certainly seemed closer to Tool’s progressive metal sound than any act even remotely affiliated with nu-metal.
So, how did this association happen in the first place? Well, it’s common for bands and artists to be placed into a “movement” even when their sound greatly differs from the other members of that movement. Consider Elvis Costello, who was considered punk despite sounding nothing like the Clash, the Pistols or the Ramones. You could also make a strong case that Alice In Chains weren’t a true grunge band, and only were considered one because they happened to hail from Seattle. Oh, and tons of pop-punk bands have been called “emo,” and vice versa. A label can make sense at the time, and that seem confusing later on. That might be what happened with Deftones; They were a metal band that came up at the same time nu-metal was happening, and some folks heard their loud guitars and lumped them in with that scene without a second thought. In retrospect, it seems rather baffling.
The problem here, and why this might matter a bit more than calling Elvis Costello punk even though he didn’t really sound like it, is that thanks to the bad reputation that nu-metal has acquired, people might make the snap judgement that Deftones aren’t a band worth exploring. Which is a shame, because they’ve quietly put together a remarkable career. Albums like Saturday Night Wrist and Diamond Eyes showed continued growth and experimentation from the band, and their latest album, Gore, appears to be a continuation of that trend. If you dismissed this band because you heard the term “nu-metal” and assumed they’d sound like Linkin Park, you’re missing out on a lot of great stuff.
If I seem aggressively against nu-metal here, I’ll say that every once in awhile, I have one of those days when I don’t wake up, and I’ve been known to feel like a freak on a leash. This is to say, there are some songs within the genre that hold up, even though we might be too cool to admit it. That said, there’s a lot of nu-metal that doesn’t hold up too well (does anyone want to hear “Rollin’ ” ever again?), which is why the genre has a bad reputation. Quite simply, Deftones are too good of a band — and too dissimilar to nu-metal — to be hurt by that negative association. Whether you like Korn or not, Deftones have always been a band with a sneaky-great discography, and they are well worth your time.