Warning: This review contains references to bodily harm, sex, and drug abuse.
I’ll start with a confession: Ever since I first listened to it in my early teens, I never quite understood White Pony.
I grew up listening to Deftones. Their music is reminiscent of very specific moments in my adolescence, dark times in which the awakenings of rage, lust, and existential angst first began to swirl around my system like an angry hormonal cocktail. Their sophomore record, Around The Fur, was my go-to for a long time, and listening to it now still recalls gloomy winter nights spent unnecessarily seething over small inconveniences too silly to even bother remembering. I was angry as a teenager – who wasn’t? – and Around The Fur provided the private catharsis I needed. From the ominous dubby bass runs on ‘My Own Summer (Shove It)’, to the escapist fantasies of ‘Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)’, to the explosive, pummelling guitar riffs on ‘Headup’, Deftones’ second record sounded how I felt as a young man/ageing child – caught somewhere between burning frustration and burnt-out lethargy, swinging wildly from one to the other with little in the way of forewarning or control.
White Pony, in contrast, always seemed – dare I say it? – a little hazy. I liked it, no doubt. And deep down, I probably knew it was objectively better than Around The Fur. But I never really ‘got’ it. Even very recently, when a good friend of mine had the White Pony ‘pony’ tattooed onto his arm, I couldn’t help but quietly wonder what I had missed out on that everyone else seemed to love.
Since last week marked the twentieth anniversary of White Pony’s release, I decided it was time to give the Sacramento band’s third album another go. Needless to say, upon listening with fresher and more mature ears, I now consider myself a convert. White Pony is, without doubt, the band’s finest moment, complex in a way the first two Deftones albums were not, and boasting a singularity that the band has never quite been able to recreate since. That singularity is what makes it stand out; you just know a White Pony track when you hear one.
On this, their third record, Deftones traded in the tight-fisted teenage bangers for a set of atmospheric vignettes which, taken together, create a very particular vibe that permeates the album from start to finish. This is why, unlike many so-called ‘nu-metal’ or ‘alt-metal’ albums from the late 90s and early 00s, White Pony has aged so well. At the time of its release it was an anomaly, a departure from the popular yet infantile rap-metal of Korn and Limp Bizkit, bands amongst whom Deftones were always unfairly lumped. (The twentieth anniversary of Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water is coming up in October. Listening party, anyone? Nope, didn’t think so.) On White Pony, Deftones went left when everyone else was heading right, and in doing so they showed the world of mainstream metal how emotionality and heaviness could successfully merge with complexity in a way nobody had really heard before. Now, twenty years later, we’re still thanking them for it.
Upon relistening, what becomes instantly clear – what my younger ears had previously failed to appreciate – is that White Pony is, at its essence, a concept album. Certain themes run through it from start to finish, giving the record an undeniable cohesiveness (even if the themes themselves are somewhat loose in character). It’s not that there’s a narrative here; in fact, the lack of narrative is precisely what makes the album conceptual. You see, it turns out I was always right; White Pony is a hazy album, just not in the negative way I once unforgivably considered it to be. The music reflects feelings of intoxication and detachment, being so spaced-out that your grasp of everyday reality starts to dissolve. Reading through lead singer Chino Moreno’s lyrics you see the same ideas coming up again and again; sex, violence, drugs, or a combination of all three at once. Opening track ‘Feticeira’ paints a shadowy picture of a kidnapping, one that has sexual undertones (“I’m choking from gnawing on the ball”), while ‘Knife Prty’ details an orgy of violence for sado-masochists who get off on cutting each other up. Whether the cutting is to be read literally or not, the song evokes the dark rush of dishing out and receiving harm, both physical and emotional. Rodleen Getsic’s Iberico-Arabic vocals, introduced halfway through the track, sound as pained as they are orgasmic, while Chino’s croons of “I can float here forever” on the chorus are spaced-out, as if he is enfeebled with blood-loss, adrift in his own anaemic euphoria.
“Hell is other people” – So Sartre once said; and it’s hard to deny that White Pony expresses a similar level of misanthropy. Moreno’s lyrics give the impression that he is cut-off from other people, so much so that they stop seeming alive to him, becoming instead nothing more than ‘meat’. “It’s not like I care”, he admits on ‘Street Carp’, feigning forgetfulness as he dodges giving out his address to a girl he clearly wants nothing to do with. Meanwhile, on ‘Rx Queen’ he depicts a toxic love affair, one that is riddled with addiction and (co-) dependency. “Cause you’re my girl/And that’s alright”, he sings sweetly on the chorus, and it all seems rather romantic; that is, until the third verse when he “hear[s] crying” and sees his lover has turned a “newborn baby blue”. The lyrics suggest she has died, most likely from an overdose, but the lyrical voice is so cut-off, so lost in its own languid state, it can barely register any heartfelt reaction whatsoever.
If it seems as though much emphasis is being put on the lyrics here, it is only because they provide so much of the album’s thematic depth. White Pony boasts some of Chino Moreno’s finest penmanship, as the album saw him move away from the self-absorbed relationship angst of the first two albums and towards a more narrative style that invokes momentary experiences and small story-like vignettes. His lyrics remain forever cryptic, with details of lust, depravity and hedonism unfolding like clouded recollections recovered from the subconscious mind in the sticky residue of a morning-after hangover. ‘Korea’ is a perfect example of this, the image of “white skin on red leather”, as well as the screamed chorus of “Downtown, pony, work your pitch” providing just enough material to paint a picture of drug-fuelled lustiness in the listener’s mind. The song’s title is left wholly unexplained, perhaps reflecting the disorientation Chino feels as he is entranced by cocaine and strippers, drowsy to the extent of feeling completely detached from the specificities of his surroundings. On ‘Change (In the House of Flies)’, Moreno comes across as a world-weary asshole, singing, “I pulled off your wings/And then I laughed”. The song tells a fragmented tale of bitterness and overdependency, unfolding like a series of impressions with no binding narrative, yet still containing just enough consistency for broad ideas of disconnectedness, jealousy and loss to be made apparent.
Instrumentally speaking, White Pony’s unique sound is born from the co-mixture of atmospheric electronics and standard guitar-bass-drums song writing. Heavy riffs suggestive of Deftones’ classic sound can be heard on ‘Elite’, a seemingly anti-nu-metal track which sees Moreno rail against the fetishization and glamorization of mental health problems so popular in the scene (“You’re into depression/Cause it matches your eyes”). Besides this more or less straightforward track, the instrumental variations on display set this album apart from the standard mainstream acts of the time. It was on White Pony that turntablist and keyboardist Frank Delgado was formally inaugurated into the group, despite having already contributed to Adrenaline and Around The Fur. Sure, his inclusion wasn’t exactly revolutionary; by the turn of the millennium, following a decade that had seen hip-hop’s explosion into the mainstream, every semi-successful rock and metal act had roped in their otherwise talentless and expendable pal to scratch a turntable as and when seemed necessary, thereby earning them a tiny sliver of street-cred and – more importantly – the possibility of some MTV airplay. In Deftones, however, Delgado brought more to the table, his production talents serving to provide an atmospheric bedding over which the other instruments could further experiment. His rich sonic palette is best heard on fan-favourite ‘Digital Bath’, a dark tale of bathroom electrocution that features watery synthesisers and shimmering guitar chords. Another standout is ‘Teenager’, which remains one of the tenderest songs Deftones have ever released. A single acoustic guitar arpeggio repeats infinitely across skittering drums and scratchy electronics; the effect is delicate yet ethereal, hauntingly beautiful, with Chino’s lyrics soaked in tragedy, heartbreak and loss.
Given that the title White Pony refers to a street name for cocaine, it is to be expected that the themes of hedonism, depravity and addiction remain consistent throughout the album. The song ‘Passenger’, with its ground-shaking guest vocals from Maynard James Keenan (Tool, A Perfect Circle), is arguably the best track on the album, epitomising the feeling of surrendering oneself to some external pleasure, be it a person, a drug, or an experience. The lyrics depict a scenario of having sex in a speeding car, but the idea of being a ‘passenger’ to something or someone extends to the more general notion of relinquishing all freewill and autonomy, giving oneself wholly to the rush of some outside indulgence. Moreno and Keenan sound like two sides of a split personality, whispering and moaning across one another; that is, until Keenan takes charge on the chorus, the strength of his voice bolstered by Stephen Carpenter’s driving guitar riff. “Let the whole world look in/Who cares who sees anything?”, he roars, abandoning all inhibition as he rushes heedlessly forwards towards some unknown climactic ecstasy. Eventually the momentum slows; the adrenaline begins to subside. A stark piano line fades in at the track’s close, echoing the torpor of post-coital comedown, the languid fall that necessarily accompanies the dizzying and vertiginous ascent.
White Pony closes on the drugged-out ‘Pink Maggit’, a fittingly lethargic finish to an album that has thus far centred around the idea of living fast. Carpenter’s guitar arpeggios are washed-out with thick distortion, evoking the feeling of being lost in a drug-induced fever dream, overcome with bitterness and paranoia, human life with all the humanity removed. That the rousing chorus of this track was later repurposed for the ‘Back to School (Mini Maggot)’ single (later appendaged as the album’s opener to fit in with the fleeting rap-rock trend of the moment) feels absurd. (1) The two tracks feel worlds apart, with ‘Back to School’ a simplistic braggadocious rap-metal song and ‘Pink Maggit’ a harrowing and nihilistic expression of narcosis and ennui. It is the latter that undoubtedly takes the cake, ideal as a closer for White Pony as a whole. (2) From its immense chorus, the track falls away into crashing symbols, haunting electronic moans and guitars that sound more sluggish than ever. As all the instrumentation fades towards nothingness, only a steady heartbeat remains, thumping away softly in the song’s eery aftermath. This finishing touch compounds all the album’s themes – the rush, the hedonism, the depravity – by pointing towards the one thing all these escapist temptations are running from – life, here reduced to its most essential motion. The heart beats steadily on, until silence descends, a reminder that every party has to end, that every rush must reach a sudden halt, that every come up has its fall. White Pony closes like an overdose in the morning-after sunlight, blinking absentmindedly before the ruinous destruction of a life led solely for the hedonistic chase, recognizing in it only emptiness.
- And deliberately so: Moreno has detailed how he wrote the track in a single day in order to show how mindlessly and effortlessly it could be done.
- To this day, the Spotify version of White Pony carries ‘Back to School (Mini Maggit)’ as the album’s opening song, though it is as welcome and as necessary as an extra limb. I’m prepared to assume that any true fan of White Pony plays the album with ‘Feticeira’ as its first track i.e. how it was originally supposed to be played.