Read our article on what a band like Deftones can teach independent artists.
Five years ago today Deftones hurled back with their sixth album, Diamond Eyes. “Let’s drink with our weapons in our hands,” frontman Chino Moreno suggests on “Rocket Skates,” the first single. “Let’s sleep in this trance.” Then, with the scream where you can actually hear the throat tear, “Guns, razors, knives!” With that Deftones announced a return to form in the wake of tragedy.
In the years leading up to Diamond Eyes, the structure of the group had nearly come undone. Their previous album, Saturday Night Wrist, came four year earlier in 2006 during a somewhat creatively stagnant time for the band. The album still had some great songs (“Rapture,” “Beware,” “Rats! Rats! Rats!”), but something about it felt over-labored and ultimately garnered little enthusiasm from critics or fans. It easily cemented its place as the lesser of all Deftones’ near-perfect albums.
The abyss that followed left the group looking like they may go the way of their pre-9/11 metalhead brethren: a scorching burn with a quicker fade to mediocrity. (See: Korn, Staind, Godsmack) Then, the fall of 2008 brought the devastating news that founding bassist Chi Cheng had been the passenger in a car wreck and was put up in the hospital, deep in an uncommunicative comma.
Eros, it was learned, was the name of the album they were working on at the time of the accident. It would be shelved as the group sought to find perspective of their misfortune. When it became clear Cheng wouldn’t wake up with any sort of ease, the band decided to soldier on without their brother in song.
Sergio Vega, who previously played in Quicksand, was longtime friend of the band and would fill in for their live shows. Eventually he would add his flex to the muscle of Stephen Carpenter’s riffs and Abe Cunningham’s scatter-shot drum blasts in the studio. The band rediscovered themselves amidst the darkest chapter of their creative lives. With Cheng heavy in their hearts they began to record new music.
On Diamond Eyes, the songs got leaner, louder and tighter. Cunningham ascends into another level of drum genius, matching the subtle twists in Carpenter’s meaty riffs. Just try to air drum to “Diamond Eyes,” “CMND/CNTRL” or “Rocket Skates” and not look like a fool.
“You’ve Seen The Butcher” turns a clunky guitar burble into a slithering sexual come-on. Moreno weaves between the riff. “You slowly enter ‘cause you know my room,” he sings. “And then you crawl your knees off / before you shake my tomb.” After lyrically phoning in it on the last album, Moreno gets back to cunning ambiguity, painting lines that point in different directions.
Vega brings a new lockstep groove that immediately qualifies him to fill the legacy of Cheng. Hear him creep around the crunch and scream of Carpenter and Moreno on “Prince” and “Royal.” Gone are the empty atmospherics that started to pervade the previous album. Frank Delgado adds touches of keyboards to wrap it all in a wave of dark radiation.
Sometimes a tragic moment can lead to unearthed expression. For the band and their fans the loss of Cheng will never be forgotten, but for those same people the music had to continue. Diamond Eyes is a testament to the group’s longevity and maturity. Their follow-up two years later, Koi No Yokan, would be even better.
Cheng would never wake up. He remained in quiet unknowing solitude until his death in 2013. On “Risk” Moreno sings out to his brother. “I’m right here just / Come outside and see it / But pack your heart, you might need it.”