Take Deftones's groundbreaking White Pony alongside System of a Down's Toxicity and you've got the first and last argument for the whole nü-metal affair, everything worth remembering about the onslaught of post-Korn misfits who spent the decade warming up Ozzfest crowds for '80s metal acts well past their expiration dates. Which isn't entirely noteworthy in itself, as any metal-head interested in being more artful than Fred Durst had to succeed at exactly one thing: namely, not being Fred Durst. But, overachievers that they were, Deftones pushed themselves well ahead of the pack with each of their early releases, culminating with the classic White Pony, which blended the usual alt-metal influences (Tool, Faith No More, Nine Inch Nails) with the layered atmospherics of Pornography-era Cure. And in a rare instance of commercial success coinciding with artistic achievement, the disc went platinum, generated some buzz on MTV, and even won the band a Grammy.
The trouble with dropping one of your genre's definitive statements relatively early in your career is, naturally, figuring out what to do for a follow-up. The band has had a decade to prove that White Pony was something other than a fluke, but in that time they've had a hard time holding the interests of fans and critics alike. Diamond Eyes is their third post-Pony release, and while it's clearly the best rendition of their art-damaged aggro since, it's just as clearly just that.
The bifurcation between the pile-driving drop-tuned guitars on barnburners like "CMND/CTRL" and the elegantly textured shoegaze of "Sextape" or "Beauty School" isn't quite schizophrenic (you can tell, at least, that you're listening to the same band), but the transitions between and within songs fall well short of subtle. Compared to the infinitely more capable synthesis they've displayed on past singles like "Minerva" and "Change (In the House of Flies)," the Diamond-model Deftones's music sounds much more like an uneasy amalgam of their eclectic influences. Opening the record with ambiguous menace, the title track is a promising exception to the dichotomous soft/loud assault, but it's not a promise that the record ultimately delivers on.
Meanwhile, Chino Moreno, whose hypnotic vocals have long been the band's ace in the hole, occasionally overcompensates by completely overselling the material. Quirky title aside, "Rocket Skates" is among the most unsettling and aggressive tracks in the band's catalogue, but the bridge, which finds Moreno shrieking "Guns! Razors! Knives!," is absolutely ludicrous. And while the group's guitarists build up a perfectly lovely wall of early Pumpkins/Cocteau Twins–inspired dream-pop on "Sextape," Moreno spoils things by aiming the chorus straight for the Bono-sphere.
When Diamond Eyes isn't trying quite so hard to be a great record, though, it ends up being a pretty good one. "Beauty School" reimagines art-metal in gorgeously understated terms, and the closing track, "This Place Is Death," is tossed off so confidently that it takes a few listens to appreciate how inventive its structure actually is. Which sort of summarizes the position of Deftones in the year 2010: They can outperform most of their peers without breaking a sweat, but they haven't quite figured out how to execute their more grandiose ideas. For every light year that the alt-metal vets outpace the knuckle-dragging likes of Godsmack and Disturbed, they still lag one or two behind genuine-article visionaries like Mastodon and Isis.