Deftones and Isis helped define the shape of heavy music in the ’00s, yet the two bands sound little alike. Where Deftones’ multiplatinum output is a melodic, sensitive alternative to nü-metal, Isis began as a Neurosis understudy before carving its own post-metal pedestal using droning beauty and effects-forward prog. The past few years have not been the happiest for either group, though. Deftones’ founding bassist, Chi Cheng, died in April, four years after a debilitating car accident, and Isis broke up in 2010 despite being at the height of its powers. Deftones have soldiered, but Isis guitarist Bryant Clifford Meyer, bassist Jeff Caxide, and drummer Aaron Harris have been quiet as church mice. The announcement last year that Deftones’ frontman Chino Moreno was teaming up with Meyer, Caxide, and Harris for the project Palms came completely out of left field, but it made a certain weird sense: If anyone had some pent-up shit to get out of their systems, it was these guys.
Palms’ eponymous debut mostly lives up to those expectations. That said, it’s far from a fit of raging catharsis. Opener “Future Warrior” is a pillowy buildup of pinging guitars and whispery vocals that climax in a loud—but not intense—chorus. The lulling drift is hypnotic. If such a thing as background metal existed, “Future Warrior” would exemplify it. “Patagonia” is where that formula hits a high point; taking the prettiest, most accessible side of Isis’ oeuvre and extending it into oblivion, “Patagonia” showcases the hushed melancholy of Moreno’s vocals—minus almost all of their aggression and dynamism—to the point where lines like “There’s a hole in space / Where the demons wait” sound more like a lullaby than a nightmare. Deftones covered The Cure’s “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep” for 2011’s Covers, and it’s as if Moreno is still carrying some of that shoegazing dreaminess with him. On “Mission Sunset,” the erstwhile Isis members channel Smashing Pumpkins far more than, say, Black Sabbath.
By the time the lackluster “Shortwave Radio” marks Palms’ halfway point, sleepiness turns to fatigue. The album was recorded more as a studio project than the product of a cohesive band, and Moreno’s listless, singsong verses and marginally gutsier crescendos reveal a deadening pattern: His vocal lines feel interchangeable and could be cut-and-pasted almost anywhere throughout Palms. When he does venture into screams—for about eight whole syllables on the entire disc—it’s forced. The band is sleepwalking down the path of least resistance, to the point where “Tropics” is little more than a song about relaxing at the beach that sounds exactly like relaxing at the beach. If there’s a darker undercurrent at work, it’s drowned out by the sun-drenched snores.
Palms ends with the 10-minute “Antarctic Handshake,” which rouses the album out of its hypnotic reverie by diving even deeper into it. “It’s time to let go / Let go,” Moreno sings under his breath before relinquishing his grip on the music entirely, sliding away and letting the Isis guys bliss out instrumentally for a final, euphoric six minutes. It’s not exactly clear what he or his new bandmates are letting go of, but it’s not hard to guess. And if making a pleasant, breezy, subdued album is another way for them to release their baggage, at least they made their purge a pretty one.