Moreno is a man of average size who often dresses in the modest uniform of Californian skaters: Dickies pants, a short-sleeved work shirt, and Converse sneakers.
In the late eighties, two teen-age skateboarders, Camilo (Chino) Moreno and Stephen Carpenter, met in Sacramento and began talking about music. Carpenter, who liked aggressive heavy metal, had been hit by a drunk driver while skateboarding and had bought an elaborate guitar rig with money he won as a settlement. Moreno was a fan of the morose British band Depeche Mode and the Washington, D.C., hard-core punk pioneer Bad Brains. Eventually, he joined Carpenter’s new band, Deftones, as the lead singer. (The name is a pun on “def,” a term of approbation in hip-hop, and “tone deaf.”)
When Deftones’ first album, “Adrenaline,” was released, in 1995, the group was described as part of an emerging genre called “nu metal,” which also included the bands Korn (with whom Deftones toured), Limp Bizkit, and, several years later, the extremely popular Linkin Park. These groups took pride in playing well and shared a fondness for expensive equipment and the distorted guitar sounds of eighties metal bands like Metallica and Slayer. They also tended to equate music-making with catharsis, whether their lyrics dealt with child abuse (Korn), bitterness (Limp Bizkit), or cryptic epiphanies about life and death (Deftones).
Deftones are as loud and aggressive as any other nu-metal band, but stranger. Much of their music is built from resonant, glowing major chords, but the band rarely creates beauty without sabotaging it. Within a single song, the music will shift from invitingly soft harmonic passages—say, Moreno’s delicate moaning layered over Carpenter’s cloudy guitar—to clipped, repetitive motifs punctuated by hoarse barking and shrieking. (Moreno’s lyrics, when you can discern them through the fantastic din, are oblique. The words to what seems to be the chorus of “Street Carp,” one of the band’s loveliest and most acoustically punishing songs, are “Well, here’s my new address: 664 . . . oh, I forget. There’s your evidence; now take it home and run with it.”) The only predictable element in a Deftones song is the precise drumming of Abe Cunningham, a powerful musician who provides a sense of order. One of the chief pleasures of listening to the music is the suspense it creates: in every song, there is the imminent possibility that chaos will get the upper hand.
In 2003, I listened almost daily to “Minerva,” from “Deftones,” the band’s fourth album. It begins with Moreno playing a high, tentative phrase on his guitar. This figure is then obliterated by what could be one, two, or fifteen chords—the space between notes has become imperceptible. The music is distorted in such a way that you can hear many harmonic overtones on top of the original notes. It’s a lot for the ears to process, like the sound of seven people talking on a party line. A minute or so later, the chords change, and Moreno sings an intelligible line: “And God bless you all, for the song you saved us.” It’s as if he were talking to the song itself, thanking all the notes whizzing around him.
Listening to “Minerva,” or to any of Deftones’ best songs, is a bit like driving through a snowstorm: you lose your bearings, and it’s both scary and delightful. (One day, I was playing “Minerva” on my headphones while walking in SoHo and failed to notice a small crane swinging a load of Sheetrock across the sidewalk. I felt a wind at my back and turned to see several thousand pounds of plaster sail into a doorway, inches from my head. Deftones had blocked out the world.) The band’s ability to overwhelm the senses makes its music satisfying, but that may also be what prevents the group from scoring hits. In 1999, the video for “Change (In the House of Flies)” was played constantly on MTV, but none of the band’s singles have entered the Billboard Hot 100.
Most big pop singles consist of simple phrases, set to fully realized melodies and accompanied by identifiable instruments. In a way, Deftones’ songs aren’t songs at all but, rather, gloriously textured backdrops of sound that establish a sense of heightened emotion. The band’s most recent albums, last year’s “B-Sides and Rarities” and the brand-new “Saturday Night Wrist,” provide ample evidence of this foggy sound’s versatility. “B-Sides” seems to have been designed to discourage fans who like the band merely because it is frequently raucous: it features covers of the Smiths, the British practitioners of regal self-pity; the Cocteau Twins, who made gauzy rock so impenetrable that many of their lyrics have yet to be deciphered; the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose only apparent link to Deftones is that it sings in English; and “No Ordinary Love,” by Sade, the R. & B. crooner. Deftones take weird bits of these songs and make them sound like natural pieces of their repertoire. The arrangement for “No Ordinary Love” is especially clever: the band thickens the original bass and drum parts, and Moreno, singing in falsetto, highlights the sense of betrayal in Sade’s words (“Didn’t I tell you what I believe? Did somebody say that a love like that won’t last?”). The band creates the impression that it has always been as restrained and subtle as Sade; volume had simply obscured the fact.
On “Saturday Night Wrist,” the band returns to the exultant mood of “Deftones,” its near-perfect fourth album. The first single, “Hole in the Earth,” is a miniature apocalypse, alternating between billowing rapture and fearsome pounding. It begins with a few seconds of awkward feedback. Then the band lays into a burly riff, custom-built for head-banging. But suddenly that ends, and the song turns into a nimble waltz, progressing through gorgeous, arpeggiated phrases. Moreno’s lyrics, delivered slowly in his caramel tenor, do not settle on a single theme. (“Can you explain to me how you’re so evil, how?” he sings at one point, and later, “I hate all of my friends, they all lack taste sometimes.”)
“Mein” is another satisfying combination of supple, almost submissive vocals and hard, unforgiving rhythm. Cunningham plays a rolling drum pattern, and, when an extra beat is added to a bar in the chorus, holds the band to the time signature, like a crossing guard ushering children to the curb. Moreno is in a dreamy frame of mind. “I’ve looked outside, but I never wandered out,” he sings, drawing out each word. The song performs a neat trick: although Moreno sings at a narcotic pace, the music sounds as though it were speeding up—an illusion produced by the subtle change in rhythm. (On other songs, Deftones make a point of showing that they can still be bumptious. “Pink Cellphone,” for example, starts as a vague, ambient track and ends with a woman reciting—perhaps on a pink cell phone—a monologue about anal sex and British teeth.)At Deftones’ last show in New York City, at the Hammerstein Ballroom in 2003, the band, led by Moreno, played with unwavering intensity for close to two hours. Moreno is a man of average size who often dresses in the modest uniform of Californian skaters: Dickies pants, a short-sleeved work shirt, and Converse sneakers. With his black hair and small beard, Moreno, who is thirty-three, looks like someone who’s stranded between boyhood and adulthood. He sang many of the prettier passages with his head craning upward and his eyes closed. During the songs’ convulsive moments—such as in “Street Carp,” when he repeats “So write it down now, did you get it? Get it?” eight times—Moreno hunched over, as if he were retching into the microphone. He didn’t let up until the show was over.