SEATTLE — If the walls of the Fenix — a cavernous club in Seattle’s industrial SoDo neighborhood — could speak, they’d have been gurgling from all the condensation dripping down them when the Deftones tour came through on November 2. The combination of the sopping rain and bone-chilling wind outside with nearly 2000 sweat-drenched roiling bodies jammed inside turned the atmosphere into a jungle. Toward the front, where the fog from the smoke machines crept into the first few rows of fans, it looked like a psychedelic battlefield. Figures tumbled over the barrier like infantrymen storming a barbed-wired trench; skinny, shirtless bodies stumbled and whirled as they emerged from the eerie mist and headed back into combat. Occasionally a beefy security guard materialized with a limp body in his arms, whisking it away from the fray like a soldier sworn to leave no fallen comrade behind.
REBIRTH: This time a year ago, Deftones were all but dead.
There was a similar kind of solidarity among the quintet on stage, who were locked together in one pummeling groove after another as they uncorked songs from their debut album, 1995’s Adrenaline, all the way through their new and fifth studio disc, Saturday Night Wrist (all Maverick). Chino Moreno, all Dickies shorts, tube socks, scowls, and howls, was up on the riser, a cord wrapped around his forearm as he crouched and disgorged every last bit of oxygen, spit, and bile into the microphone. As always, Stephen Carpenter — a burly, bearded beast of a man unleashing torrents of thorny crunch from his guitar — and Chi Cheng, a more slender but no less imposing presence with his steely stare, dangling dark hair, and low-slung bass, flanked Chino. To the rear, Frank Delgado stoically manned a table of keyboards, samplers, and effects boxes while drummer Abe Cunningham thrashed his kit into shock-and-awe territory.
Body language speaks volumes too: band members leaned into one another, playing off musical shifts, feeding off the surging energy, occasionally grinning at one another. And there were softer moments in the music befitting a band who’ve been called “the Radiohead of metal”; at one point, a blurry, shoegazery haze inspired Moreno to shape his angsty croon into the unmistakable lyrics of Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack.” It evoked smiles of recognition but few laughs — Deftones are, after all, a group who have previously covered Sade, the Smiths, and Duran Duran without irony, and they breathed more sensuality into the tune than Timberlake could ever muster. The crowd took the opportunity to catch its collective breath and sway instead of clobber. But then it was back to the brutal onslaught. At the climax of the two-hour set, the Fenix was a sweat lodge, and the performance, at least for a little while, like a spiritual ceremony of rebirth.
Which is apt, since this time a year ago Deftones were all but dead. It’s remarkable to see them touring at all, much less stripping back to a club tour that brings them to Avalon this Friday. “I’m really fucking glad to be able to still be doing this, because there was a long, iffy period there where I really thought it might be over,” Cheng admits over the phone a few days after the gig . “I honestly think this is the best it’s been in a long time.”
Cunningham continues: “It’s been pretty strange, the past five, six years, really, but the past three years [making Wrist] have been the oddest it’s ever been and just very difficult. So we’re just happy as hell to be around and doing what we do.”
Cheng explains that ever since the band’s beginnings in Sacramento in 1988, there have been serious squabbles, hard feelings, and bruised egos during the creative process: “You got five guys that are all trying to be cooks in the kitchen.” The tensions have usually made for great albums, and they were never unbearable enough to cause a split. But at the end of 2004, when the band set out to record Wrist, things came to a head. Moreno butted heads with producer Bob Ezrin, fought with his band mates, and ultimately split in the middle of the process to tour with his long-brewing side project, the atmospheric Team Sleep. Frustrated, the other four briefly considered replacing him, and when word of the discord got out to the press, the band were candid in explaining what was going on.
“We’re not gonna try to doctor up a fucked-up situation,” Cheng says. “And I think our fans are so loyal, they do deserve to know, like, hey, what’s the fuckin’ hold-up? I’m not gonna sit around at home mad as fuck and then tell someone, ‘No-o-o-o, everything’s fine, everything’s cool.’ It’s like, ‘Hey, I’m just as mad as you are, what the fuck is going on?’ ”