Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Deftones Ohms

Deftones - Ohms

“I have no patience for expectation!” Chino Moreno screams on “This Link Is Dead.” The song comes toward the second half of Ohms, Deftones’ ninth studio album and first since 2016’s good but not-transcendent Gore. (When you’re dealing with a band this beloved and obsessed over, “not-transcendent” counts as a misfire.) Later on the same song, Moreno continues, “You’re on your own.” It could be a sly wink at the listeners, but given the themes of Creation and God and the distant universe that abound throughout, it could also mean something a lot bleaker than that.

Regardless of Moreno’s tolerance for it, fans of the band are nonetheless going to be coming into Ohms with lofty expectations. No need to worry: It’s good, man. It’s very good. (I’d call it 2020’s One Good Thing, but weirdly this year that never ends has actually had a few bright spots for music fans of a certain age who prioritize TONE and DRUM SOUND above all else, with new records from Hum, Touche Amore, and Doves to name a few.)

It turns out Ohms has everything you want from a Deftones record: Riffs both hooky, melodic and barbarous from Stephen Carpenter, who debuted the epic fantasy hero nine-string guitar on which many of them are played in the first video for the album’s title track; grooves from Abe Cunningham and Sergo Vega that move between shuffling hip hop, punishing hardcore, and the sensuously romantic; gaseous and gossamer sonic world-building from Frank Delgado and producer Terry Date (this is their first released work with him since the eponymous 2003 album); and a fully engaged and invigorated-sounding Moreno, bellowing and spitting and crooning like a man 25 years younger.

It sounds like a Deftones record, buddy. Do you like “Minerva” and “Hole In The Earth” and “Around The Fur”? Then you’re in good shape.

In this case it’s one with a lot to unpack, beginning with the album title. It’s a reference to the electrical term, which describes the resistance between two points or something, I don’t know. Longtime followers of the band may be able to work that into some sort of message about the oft over exaggerated creative conflict between Carpenter and Moreno, both of whom, if we’re being reductive here about their respective musical roles in the band, get to flex their full powers in equal and opposite measure. But as the latter tells it, it’s more about the relationship between the band’s blend of musical styles, once contradictory but now impossible to imagine not existing together: metal and hardcore and hip hop and new wave and post punk. “I’ve finally achieved balance,” Moreno sings on the opener.

“That yin and ying of what we’ve always done of making very brutal music while having these lush overtones and undertones within it is what makes us who we are,” he told NME of the album title. “We’ve never just been a metal band, we’ve never just been an alternative band, we’ve always just been us. We feel comfortable in never having to choose and let the songs unfold in an organic way.”

The songs indeed unfold in directions both seamless and surprising throughout, with many of the 10 here — about four and a half minutes long on average — forking down unpredictable paths, unwinding from chaotic tension then devolving into spacious quiet that seems a universe away from where any given song might have started. “Oh, OK, this is a straight-up ripping metal track,” you think, just before the bottom falls out. It’s like being teleported from a basement pit into a parlay about the meaning of the stars with Dr. Manhattan.

This is decidedly a document of tumult, but despite the fires and pandemic and the political upheaval currently plaguing us here on terra firma, it isn’t overly concerned lyrically with our current fall from grace — as best as I can tell, anyway, since Moreno is mostly in distorted, effects-blasted vocal mode here — but rather about a previous fall and a previous creation and the tectonic shifts of the epochs. As an added bonus, it sounds like that too.

The title of the album’s opener, “Genesis,” not exactly an obscure reference, sets the thematic tone for the rest of the proceedings’ prevailing mode of volcanic pandemonium interspersed with divine rest. It starts here with a buzzing synth and a plaintive, delayed guitar — Robert Smith playing alone amidst a sun-blotting swarm of mosquitos — then the stick hits come, then a buzzsaw that slices the Earth in half when Moreno arrives, furious like a man (or a god, as the case may be) seeking an explanation for what’s transpired while he’s been elsewhere concerned with other things. That insectoid synth lingers underneath as the band busies itself constructing an edifice of noise above it. Before long it morphs into a white dull wash like a celestial wind passing through the gorges of a passing asteroid.

“Genesis” is obviously a creation story, but here it’s also a statement of purpose. This is what’s up. This is what we’re doing now. It sounds like what you want us to sound like (many of the production effects, arrangements, and vocal phrasings will call to mind bits of White Pony, which Date also worked on) but it also sounds like where we’re going. And just as an aside: Man does it sound good to hear Moreno scream again over magnificent foreboding riffs like this.

Look, I didn’t come up with all this overwrought space and god metaphor shit out of nowhere, it’s right there in the song titles. Don’t look at me. “Urantia,” for example, is where much of the album story canon comes from, I suspect. “The Urantia Book” is a text first published in the 1950s that attempts to wed religion, science, and philosophy, a sort of Bible Part 2, this time with an empirical method involved(?), supposedly delivered by angels(?). It describes the formation of the galaxies and millions of other planets with intelligent life overseen by God, and also follows the life of Jesus with bonus sidequests and shit that we didn’t get in the first telling. At least I think. It’s 2,000-plus pages and they don’t pay me enough to do that much research for a record review. I know it all sounds like Muse fucking around in a YouTube k-hole, but that sort of stargazing sense of wonder and smallness in the face of the infinite pervades the album so it’s got to be worth mentioning. (Muse’s first few records are good again, by the way, we’re taking those back).

Sometimes Ohms also simply sounds like Moreno is singing about fucking, too, so it’s not all heady shit.

Oh right, “Urantia”: It’s also a Deftones song. A song with riffs like staccato machine gun fire panned in the headphones so it feels like it’s all around you but paced just off when you don’t expect it, like I suppose how chaotic gun fire would actually go; I don’t know much about being surrounded by gunfire to be honest. And then in the midst of all that there’s a dude on like a toppled building singing Tears For Fears songs that sound like they’re about breaking off his romance with God. It also has the album’s first or second catchiest everyone-in-the-stadium-raising-their-hands-to-the-sky-to-scream-it-out-together chorus. “Pompeji” and “Radiant City” (which Cunningham has called his favorite on the record) compete for that superlative as well.

“The Spell Of Mathematics,” like most of the songs here, opens with an aggressive vocal before drifting elsewhere. The chorus delivers thrusting empyrean harmonies contrasted with Moreno’s screams, like a man in conversation with the better voices in his head. Then comes a second movement, with the song breaking itself down over the final two and half minutes into little more than a finger snaps beat, a martial snare, a tool shed bass, and a whirl of vaporous effects.

“Pompeji” too finds Moreno juggling vocal attacks, but in even quicker succession this time, yelling on the up note then retreating to catch his breath for the next. The title is a reference to the ancient Roman city burned by the infamous volcano, a scene of devastation that left much of the area and its inhabitants entombed forever in ash in their final moments. “Jesus Christ, you gave your life, but we die in vain,” he sings over guitars corroded and rusted like a prolific backwoods murderer’s trophy-taker. “Ohh we drink from the fountain of intent, and ohh we choke on the water then repent.”

Like the previous song, “Pompeji” transforms itself halfway through, this time into a spacious and cinematic meditation that sounds like the soundtrack to an A24 film where someone’s about to be killed for reasons they don’t quite understand by a force they barely know exists. It’s a devastated landscape, a sky full of squealing gulls bustle as a grindhouse synth note spreads out, the noise of water lapping at a shore, perhaps an oarsman rowing, perhaps a last breath. “We choke on the water,” as the man sings.

That atmosphere bleeds directly over into “This Link Is Dead,” which I’m pretty sure isn’t about proper website maintenance. It starts with the sonar creaking of an ice shelf and notes from an angelic horn before a cascading pick slide delivers a — once again — especially furious Moreno working a screamed verse into a brooding chorus. It also manages somehow, with all that around the edges, to be the most groove-heavy and violently explosive of the album.

All of which builds toward the title track closer, (with its video that’s made all of the sci-fi elements of the record explicit), which I can’t describe much better than to say this is some absolute Deftones shit. Big Deftones hours here.

“We’re surrounded by debris of the past,” Moreno sings — a line open for interpretation, but one he’s said was for him about the Earth and our environment and what we’ve done to it. It arrives at a time when the band’s native California is burning and the skies are red. It’s a song that somehow makes a guitar riff feel like it has tangible gravity to it in a space where everything else is floating away and falling apart, like as long as you keep playing this riff things will hold. It ends on an optimistic note, however. “And time won’t change this,” he sings. “We shall remain.”

Maybe!

Ohms is out 9/25 on Reprise. Pre-order it here.

Luke O’Neil was a long time music writer, pulled out of retirement for one last job. He writes the popular newsletter Welcome To Hell World and is the author of the book of the same name.

    more from Premature Evaluation