It's tempting to dismiss the Deftones' latest effort as evidence that the band is in a holding pattern. The opening track, "Hexagram," begins with a trademark Stephen Carpenter riff, and when the rest of the band joins him, the song lumbers around an all-too-familiar groove. With ten more songs to go, the Deftones sound tired and boxed in by their own playing. The limitations of Carpenter, bassist Chi Cheng and drummer Abe Cunningham haven't been so painfully clear since the band's debut album, Adrenaline. Even singer and part-time guitarist Chino Moreno is beginning to show signs of creative wear.
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But two things save this record -- and elevate it above the Deftones' previous work. For starters, the songs create a spatial sense so wide that they spread like multicolored mist over a giant black canvas. The band may be coasting on fumes, but it has managed to drift into haunted, celestial territory. Deftones plays like the soundtrack of an abandoned space station, the kind you see in sci-fi films where the crewmembers have all mysteriously disappeared or died.
The album's second-strongest asset is keyboardist/sampler Frank Delgado, who really steps forward here and practically carries his bandmates for the duration of the ride. The presence of keyboards and ambience is prominent on every single track, integral in establishing the various moods, colors and textures. A master of discretion, Delgado permeates the music without smothering it.
As usual, the Deftones make use of their biggest strength by not using anger as a primary color. Where other bands simply bash, these guys play up ambiguity for its full poetic value. Though it's dour through and through, Deftones never gets oppressive, because it takes work to get your head around the feelings expressed.
This album may very well mark the absolute end of where these guys can go while approaching their instruments the way they do. But in the meantime, the Deftones have once again pushed metal to its outer fringes.