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Three Songs No Flash

Lovers Not Fighters: Deftones Live
Mike Diver , February 22nd, 2013 04:33

Nu what? At Brixton Academy, Mike Diver catches Deftones cementing their claim to be one of the most important rock groups of past decades. Live photography by Katja Ogrin

Time isn't kind to most men. Hair greys or thins; waistlines expand, despite two-week flurries of focused exercise a few times per year, usually around a Major Sporting Event of Preference. On stage, Deftones wear the signs of maturity physically as much as their seven-studio-albums-strong catalogue manifests it sonically.

Chino Moreno – we know it's him, as the assembled thousands chant his name seconds after he's stepped into the spotlight – slinks with skater boy gait. Up to Abe Cunningham's kit, against which he'll later grind, like he's doing it all for the nookie; towards the front row, with whom he'll chat fashion, after a fashion, before the night is through.

But he's a skater man these days, nearing 40, with responsibilities extending beyond the right here and the right now. Twelve years ago, a stage-diving Chino landed on my face, at the peak of the popularity of studded belts (May 2001, Manchester Apollo). There was an incredible, insatiable energy to Deftones then – and before, and since – but it's channelled differently tonight. Raw aggression has evolved into regimented excellence. A more relaxed, but no less invigorating, experience.

Circumstances both in and out of the control of these five men have played a part in their destinies, in their path to tonight and the palpable reverence they're afforded. Theirs is a history well documented, but it nevertheless gives essential context with which to frame 2013's activity.

The public appetite for anything bagged and tagged as nu-metal was considerable in the late-90s – it was a sign of the times that Melody Maker put the Californian band Korn on its cover in May 99, beside mentions of Happy Mondays and the Manics, not long before its ill-fated switch to a glossy format.

Deftones were amongst the genre's biggest-hitters, their Around The Fur album of '97 spawning the UK top 30 single 'My Own Summer (Shove It)'. But as nu-metal's reputation soured, Limp Bizkit's irresponsible Woodstock '99 performance accelerating a (perhaps always likely) media backlash, they stood precariously close to being tainted by unwelcome associations.

Their decision to explore more esoteric and atmospheric music on third album White Pony was largely welcomed – Select magazine's Pat Long (at least I think it was Pat Long, and if it wasn't, sorry Pat) awarded it a single-star score, but the likes of Spin and Billboard praised the new direction.

And the 2000 album set a template for Deftones going forwards: Chino began to play guitar, adding extra textural depth to the band's material, as did the increased presence of keyboardist/DJ Frank Delgado. Electronic undulations circled caustic, cacophonous riff-work; powerhouse rock was melded to subtly cerebral circuit-board beatscapes. There was no way that any critic worth his or her (at the time not so paltry) pay cheque could classify this music nu-anything.

Deftones brought White Pony to London in June 2000, a couple of weeks before its release. Their chosen venue: Brixton Academy. Looking around at the crowd tonight, it's likely that many attendees were here then, too – it's a mature audience, outside of the regulation mosh-pit rowdy-crowd, full of men checking watches so that the babysitter doesn't get to charge an extra hour.

Time is turned back within ten minutes of the band arriving, though. Once Diamond Eyes' title-track and 'Poltergeist', a highlight of 2012's Koi No Yokan album, are breathlessly dispatched, two old favourites from Around The Fur crackle into the air, setting hairs on end and nostalgia running rampant. And they – 'Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)' and 'My Own Summer (Shove It)' – have rarely sounded so exquisite.

Battling a cold, Chino roars, senses aflame and emotions exposed, like a man half his age – which he was when these songs were conceived. That the 1997 cuts don't feel like relics beside the more detailed designs of post-comeback material suggests that, even in drop-D's golden age, Deftones always possessed more creativity than would-be peers. They've certainly never had to "go dubstep" to achieve a contemporary relevance.

That 'comeback' LP, 2010's Diamond Eyes, was far from a guarantee – between its release and that of 2006's Saturday Night Wrist (from which there's only one song tonight, its gorgeously swollen closer 'Rivière'), founding bassist Chi Cheng suffered tremendous injuries in a car accident, leaving him in a coma. His recovery is ongoing, and glacially slow; everyone on the band's guestlist for the evening donates a fiver to his recuperation. Everybody in the building wishes him well, expressing unreserved support whenever Chi's name is mentioned.

Fortune, as fickle in the music industry as it is any entertainment medium, smiled on the returning Deftones: their overcoming of such incredible personal trauma was rewarded with unanimous acclaim for a record that played to all of their strengths, those first exhibited on White Pony. Its successor, Koi No Yokan, is a fine consolidating set, but it's the band's previous LP and their 2000 high water mark that supporters present as evidence that Deftones are, regardless of the minutiae of sub-genre classifications, amongst the very best rock bands in the world.

Tonight's show backs the claim. Deftones move, professionally, through a set that takes in something from every one of their albums, setting known favourites against some less-likely inclusions. Certainly few would have turned up expecting to hear sludgy Around The Fur cut 'Dai the Flu'; and 'Bloody Cape', although it's been performed many times before, isn't the most obvious selection from 2003's eponymous LP. As the main-set's closing moment, it'd be a sizeable anti-climax for many if an encore of (1995 debut album) Adrenaline material wasn't always on the cards.

They move, too, through proverbial gears with an effortlessness that comes only with years, and years, and years of doing this. Deftones aren't veterans in the model of Metallica or Slayer yet, having formed in 1988; but they shape a set that's every bit as rewarding in its breadth as those bands' best(-of), festival-mode appearances. Pauses are taken when everyone feels their necessity – during one, Chino makes the night's sole reference to the BRIT Awards happening across town. "Harry Styles, that's a cool name," he says, through the snot. "Better than Bono, anyway…"

He does get into the crowd, but with less-alarming velocity than shows past – that Manchester gig, a disgustingly muddy Glastonbury '98, so many others. He practically creaks his way into the audience; but then, personal safety becomes paramount when there's more chance of breaking a hip than being it. Bassist Sergio Vega bounces enthusiastically, but does so with the elevation that someone who was a founder of New York hardcore crew Quicksand in 1990 is capable of 20-something years later. He's unlikely to get a nosebleed up there.

Slower selections comprise almost half of tonight's set, amongst them Diamond Eyes' sumptuous 'Sextape' and White Pony's 'Passenger', the latter an on-album duet with Maynard James Keenan (Tool, A Perfect Circle). With only Chino on vocals it lacks the colour of its studio counterpart, but it's still a strong number, heavy on drama where other collaborations have been of a more primitive construction. One such effort, 'Headup', fills its Max Cavalera-shaped hole with hearty audience hollering. The same voices bellow the central refrain to 'Rocket Skates': "Guns… Razors… Knives."

Taken in isolation such lyricism can, of course, appear confrontational, not to mention a little imprudent. But there's always a bigger picture to Deftones songs, strong central wordplay acting as immediately hooky motifs within a wider piece. Diamond Eyes is a generally optimistic collection, and violent imagery is exclusively the preserve of conceptual fantasy. Chino is no Fred Durst; at no stage of any Deftones show will there be an instruction to break anyone's fucking face. He's a lover, not a fighter – something that's become more obvious as he's crooned away from the screamed, scratchy raps of Adrenaline.

But the band's earliest, most acerbic works haven't been forgotten. There's real relish to Chino's delivery of '7 Words', the final song of the night. The "pig" and "bitch" nomenclature is a tired routine, but this is a song written when the band was in its infancy – or, rather, its formative teenage stage, as a sound was yet to be settled on and attitudes could skirt close to misogyny if elders' material painted that a path to success.

'7 Words' and 'Engine No.9', fan favourites though they remain, are echoes from another, weathered and ragged era of metal. They illustrate, sharply, how limited Deftones' appeal would have been had they not naturally ascended to White Pony. Time has not been so kind to Adrenaline as it has the palette-expanding, future-pointing moments of Around The Fur.

But time's been remarkably kind to its makers. The hair's lost some of its lustre; bellies have ballooned, receded, and now find themselves at a comfortable middle (no pun intended). But what these men will be remembered for steadfastly refuses to wilt under the pressure of an ever-ticking clock, an inexorably pervasive music industry thirstily pursuing the next hot something. They have made a lasting contribution to the rock canon – and many leave south London with memories as indelible as the songs that inspired them.