White Pony (2000) was the record that first introduced electronics into Deftones‘s sound. It is therefore suitable that the band would pay homage to the album, on its twentieth anniversary, with a star-studded remix record, playfully titled Black Stallion. Yet, while a curious and fitting celebration, the results do not always capture the ambition of the original White Pony.
Black Stallion begins in fine form, with Calms Casino‘s take on “Feiticeira”. The track’s distinctive opening riff instantly breaks down into a bass-heavy, ambient numebr that perfectly transforms the song into something completely different and distinctive while still retaining many of its original hallmarks. What stands out about the track is that its remix is mainly musical, with only frontman Chino Moreno’s repeated refrain “Soon I’ll let you go, soon I’ll let you go” retained from the original vocal and threateningly buried beneath the malevolent, yet sensual soundscape. The only real complaint about the song is that it, indeed, lets the listener go far too soon. At only two-minutes long – a full minute shorter than Deftones’ original composition – it barely gets going before it’s over and it feels like there was plenty more room to expand it into something fuller and more ambitious. The track, thereby, perfectly captures both the strengths and weaknesses of Black Stallion‘s offerings, which are split fairly evenly between ambitious re-imaginings and throwaway rearrangements.
The album’s best moments come when one of the artists takes the original track and transforms its into something entirely different, yet still recognisable. An early, and possibly Black Stallion‘s best, example comes from Blanck Mass (a.k.a. Fuck Buttons‘ Benjamin John Power)’s take on “Elite”. Power takes the tracks original driving riff and scathing vocal and morphs them into something that wouldn’t out of place on one of Mick Gordon‘s Doom soundtracks. Trevor Jackson‘s take on “Korea” achieves a similar effect, recasting on of White Pony‘s heaviest and most aggressive offerings as a spacey sonic collage. Tourist (of ripping off Tom Petty fame) attempts something similar with “Change (in the House of Flies)”, perhaps White pony‘s most iconic moment. The results, however, are far less successful – little of the original song being retained beyond some semblance of the chord progression and Moreno’s opening verse, which is mashed up with something that sounds Carol and Tuesday‘s “Move Mountains”. The minimal interaction with the original composition leaves the track sounding like an original work which samples “Change” rather than a re-interpretation, making it perhaps Black Stallion‘s least essential inclusions. Still, Tourist’s wide swing is appreciated when compared to some of the safer and less-inspired contributions.
Surprisingly, a lot of Black Stallion‘s less-inspired numbers come from its most notable contributors. DJ Shadow adds a thick undercurrent of bass to “Digital Bath”, which is nice, but then he also takes away the rest of the instrumentation, replacing it with seemingly random electronic tinkerings and intermittent “ugh”s – which I’m not sure anyone really wanted – while Moreno’s vocal track remains untouched. It’s one of the greatest vocal performance’s ever committed to record, so hearing it in semi-isolation really highlights just how fantastic a vocalist Moreno is at (arguably) the peak of his powers. However, stripping away the instrumental support, also shows how much he intertwines with his surroundings which, when removed, rob the track of its full effect. When Moreno kicks into the chorus and the music no longer lifts with him, it’s rather anti-climactic, and the same can be said for when the song suddenly disolves into the sound of Mario getting a Super Mushroom for some reason.
Elsewhere, The Cure‘s Robert Smith does little more than slap his name and seal of approval onto “Teenager” and call it a day. Salva hardly touches “Rx Queen” other than to add some distracting echo effects and a digital breakdown section that sounds like Skrillex‘s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” mixed with A Perfect Circle‘s “Counting Bodies Like Sheep to the Rhythm of the War Drums” and is repeated ad nauseam, while Moreno’s vocals are largely unaltered. Phantogram‘s version of “Street Carp” is even more redundant, seeming to only crank up the treble, add an annoying metronome and some ill-fitting female vocals into the mix. Purity Ring do a slightly better and much more impactful job with “Knife Prty” (has it always been spelt like that?). Overall, however, it still boils down to cranking up the bass and adding some fairly generic back-up vocals into the mix, which are more than outclassed by Moreno and guest Rodleen Getsic‘s original vocals, which – again – remain untouched.
The most successful of the more straightforward remixes is Mike Shinoda‘s take on “Passenger”. Again, the vocals of both Moreno and guest vocalist Maynard James Keenan (Tool, A Perfect Circle, Puscifer) are left completely intact, while the Linkin Park multi-tasker does his best to bolster its musical underpinnings, primarily by boosting the bass and adding some fluttering electronic symbols here and there. The track’s success is due far more to Deftone’s original composition – which remains entirely recognisable – than Shinoda’s additions. Yet, by leaving a lot of it unchanged, Shinoda shows that he understands what made the original “Passenger” work so well and uses his additions, efficiently to bolster its original effect. By the same token, however, Shinoda also essentially reduces the track to the same basic “quiet-loud” template Linkin Park built their career upon, robbing the track of its original atmosphere and subtlety while making it sound more or less like “In the End” but with different vocals and revealing the compositional chasm between Deftones and even their most successful imitators (Linkin Park’s debut, Hybrid Theory (2000), came out four months after White Pony). It’s still the best of the basic reinterpretations, but it would have been nice to hear something more ambitious done with one of White Pony and Deftones’ most intrinsically rich offerings.
Black Stallion‘s most ambitious addition is also its last. Having Squarepusher remix “Pink Maggit”, the chorus of which begins with the lyric “Push back the square”, is one of the album’s more inspired moments and the English DJ and multi-instrumentalist takes to the challenge with a ten-minute-long barrage of electronic chaos that certainly shows up the stunted ambitions of some of his fellow contributors. The track is easily Black Stallion‘s most striking moment. It’s not entirely successful one, however. While the glitching chaos of the track’s middle section is elating, not much is done with the rest of the track, other than to make Moreno sound like he’s singing through a malfunctioning modem in its opening moments, which isn’t the most pleasant aural experience. That the final three minutes leave the song in more or less its original state provides a nice bookend to the opening barrage of “Feiticeira” while also offering a calming respite after all the previous electronic intensity. Yet, again, it feels like an inspired cover or a cool addition to the original song, rather than a complete reinterpretation.
And so, Black Stallion is a largely successful and entirely enjoyable celebration of one of the greatest albums ever made. Yet it is also ultimately a curiosity, rather than an essential tribute. Many of the remix record’s more notable contributors add little to their superb source material while the few complete and worthwhile imaginings are few and far between. Perhaps there is simply no point messing with perfection. Nevertheless, the overall lack of ambition shown on Black Stallion flys in the face of White Pony‘s original boldness, rendering it a mere novelty whose greatest service is to remind listeners of just how great its source material already is rather than elevating it to new and interesting heights.
Black Stallion is out now, as part of the White Pony: 20th Anniversary Edition, available through Warner Music.