K Nkanza Hansen is a musician and visual artist from Maryland. They’re the producer and multi-instrumentalist behind projects Spring Silver and Blonde Duluth. As of May 2020, they have graduated from University of Maryland, Baltimore County with a BFA in Visual Arts.
With 1995’s Adrenaline and 1997’s Around the Fur, Deftones’ aggressive mixture of groove metal, post-hardcore, and shoegaze helped define the genre of nü-metal — and subvert it simultaneously. They reached what many consider to be their creative peak with 2000’s White Pony, which both solidified and diversified their sound, marrying sexy slow jams, crushing riffs, and ghostly electronics, often all on one song. It had all the style, all the cool, but also: all the hooks. Creative heights and golden ages can be debated, but the sales can’t be denied: White Pony was their commercial apex. It made them as much of a household of a name as they ever would be, and a healthy alternative to the metal bands who were rhyming “nookie” with “cookie.”
But six years and one commercially disappointing self-titled album later, Deftones seemed to be at an impasse, coolness-wise. With their fifth studio album, Saturday Night Wrist — which turned 15 this Halloween — many of the adolescents who chose their brand of sleek, moody alt-metal over Limp Bizkit’s cornball party anthems, or Korn’s gaudy goth-funk, decided that even the Deftones were still too Nü for 2006. Hell, even the early aughts garage-rockers that seemed to make nü metal instantly irrelevant were looking passé by then. Art rock reigned supreme, and not the type that combined eight-string chugs with digital snare rushes. Rather, it was a time of earthy albums that could certainly be challenging, but also work as mood music for your coffee shop.
But, coolness aside, Deftones were bone-tired. The hard drug use that started way back in the White Pony era, and had manifested in the darkness of their self-titled fourth record, was pushing them to their breaking point. The band’s tight-knit bond, dating back to the 80s when they were teenagers in suburban Sacramento, was severely eroding. The rock group that had famously recorded their debut album practically live was now recording their parts alone in the studio, one by one. Singer and guitarist Chino Moreno decried this, saying he was the one, despite his compromised state, who had to put the album together. All of this paired with the dissolving of his marriage seemed to lead to intense feelings of isolation and confusion. The album title Saturday Night Wrist alludes to the nerve damage a user gets from falling asleep on their arm — one of those lonely nights when, according to Chino, “your only best friend is your shaking wrist.”
This is why it’s no surprise that there is a real sense of misery on this album, something rather alien within Deftones’ work. Sure, there was angst on previous albums, but, it was a kind of empowering anger. The Chino that yelled, “I don’t need this shit!” before getting in his car and driving far away, now conceded “It’s too late for me now.” In the same song, he bluntly states, “I hate all of my friends.” These kinds of brash admittances of contempt lend the album a Pinkerton-esque quality. And while Deftones were always quite bold with their love of Weezer, Pinkerton or otherwise, they had never made any album even close in intent. They had always been too cool, too confident, too hot. But now, as Weezer had a decade before them, they were making an abrasive record, fueled by bitterness and isolation, for a genre that was quickly losing its cultural cache. A record… that fucking rules.
The first track, “Hole in the Earth,” is a volatile opener. A mess of disorienting digital noise shoots from the speaker before the main drop D riff kicks in. It’s a heavy groove that whips you around with its asymmetrical chord placement. From there, they jump into a truly gorgeous verse section. Chino effortlessly switches between cooing and gasping as he asks, “Can you explain to me how you’re so evil?” The sections of song bump into each other and overlap: Stephen Carpenter’s mournful descending guitar line, Frank Delgado’s synth drones.
The density doesn’t let up on “Rapture.” The band cycles through at least three different time signatures before getting to what could be considered the chorus: an uneven shrieking chant over an evil-sounding ascending chord progression. The first slow jam comes in the six-minute long “Beware” — if it wasn’t apparent on the first two songs, this track’s electric keys and buzzy synths make clear that this album is going to be a showcase for turntablist/keyboardist Delgado. Since joining the band as an official member in 1999, his use of samples and atmospherics proved more tasteful than many of the contemporary bands who employed a turntablist. Whether it’s the stately piano on the gorgeous power ballad “Xerces,” or the smooth pitch-bending keys on the contemplative post-rock instrumental “U,U,D,D,L,R,L,R,A,B,Select,Start”, Deftones most underrated member gets more sonic space to stretch out than ever before (and perhaps on any subsequent album, as well).
The atmospherics don’t let up on “Cherry Waves,” a fan favorite for good reason. The floating tapestry of echo-laden guitars and vocal samples is offset by a powerful rhythm section. Chi Cheng employs one of his signature winding basslines, a twisting path of notes that works perfectly against Chino’s hushed vocals. Abe Cunningham plays a punchy, reverb-soaked snare shuffle which provides nice movement into one of their most iconic choruses: Over thick, sludgy guitars, Chino croons an intimate lullaby-like melody. His delivery is both seductive and sorrowful, and the vocal melody is instantly memorable. The lyrics tell a hypothetical wherein Chino (or whomever the song’s protagonist is) and his companion hug a plank of wood as they are carried across the sea. The protagonist promises to save the companion if they are pulled underwater, but isn’t sure the companion would do the same. The ocean seems to be a metaphor for the lifestyle the Deftones were submerged in. It’s an “escape” as the final refrain implies, but they are always in danger of drowning — “Beware the water,” he sings on the chorus of the previous track.
The second half of this album has two of the most enigmatic songs in their career, back to back, “Rats!Rats!Rats!” and “Pink Cellphone.” On “Rats,” they bring mathcore and shoegaze together in a combination that feels prophetic of the current heavy music landscape. You could pick a Kerrang! band from the past decade at random, and the chances of them incorporating the aesthetics of this track aren’t unlikely. In four minutes, the track covers an obscene amount of ground: screamo over dissonant jazz chords, a blown out dream pop refrain, a Sepultura-esque breakdown in the latter end. The band does a complete 180 for “Pink Cellphone,” a Nine Inch Nails style brooder complete with sterile electronics and cellphone mic vocals from Giant Drag’s Annie Hardy. It feels more fitting as a Team Sleep song, the trip-hop side project Chino left mid-recording to go on tour with when he got fed up with this album. It’s still effective, at least up until the false ending, after which Hardy decides to go into a piss-take monologue about how anal sex is gross (for real, this happens in a Deftones song).
The train gets back on the rails for two barn burners, “Combat” and “KimDracula,” the kind of mid-tempo heavy jams that point toward what they would be doing on subsequent albums Diamond Eyes and Koi No Yokan. The album closer is the beautiful “Riviere.” It’s one of their most potent uses of dynamics. The majority of the song features a muffled slightly out of tune guitar, while Chino chokes out a tale of conflict, or rather, the physical and emotional exhaustion that comes with it. The full band comes in for a beautiful climactic minute, as if they’ve come back up for air from the treacherous water alluded to throughout the record. Chi Cheng’s distorted bassline seethes below a mesh of warped drone and guitar; Cunningham plays a stately shuffle beat. The amount of emotion Chino can squeeze out of two notes on the chorus is truly a testament to his ability as a rock vocalist. The unfortunate damage his voice acquired from his years of screaming and debauchery add to the character of his performance on this album in a good way. The song eventually dips back beneath the surface, leaving with some sparse, quiet guitar strums. It’s a somber ending to a woeful album.
The saga of the Sacramento quintet’s darkest album has the most bitter of bittersweet endings. During the subsequent Saturday Night Wrist tour, the band reconciled, rebuilding the bond that had kept them together over the past 20 years. They were in a much better place collectively as they started work on the follow-up Eros. However, in fall of 2008, bassist Chi Cheng was in a car accident which left him in a coma. The tragic accident would eventually take his life in 2013. Deftones shelved Eros, to work on an album that would bring them positivity during this time, 2010’s fantastic Diamond Eyes.
Over time, Saturday Night Wrist has become more and more an outlier of their catalog. Its unusual structures, audacious mix of genres — all of the sharp edges and idiosyncrasies that make Deftones what they are — were brought to the forefront. It’s miraculous that an album created by five individuals in such a degree of conflict that they could barely stand to communicate turned out even OK. But here, it turned out masterful. The crystal ball that is Deftones cracked on the floor, its contents spilling out, and swirling together in unexpected ways. It’s a (relatively) difficult album made during difficult times. But, Deftones were able to transfer those experiences with startling accuracy, into something palpable, something genuine, something unique. And that’s all you can hope for in a band.