We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The video for “Hole in the Earth,” the new single by the Deftones, has been kicking around for a few weeks, and it says a lot about what’s happened to the band in recent years. Frontman Chino Moreno still dresses in that familiar skater/metalhead/cholo way—all in black except for some hiked-up athletic socks and a white long-sleeve shirt poking out from under his T-shirt. His Vandyke beard is still a little scraggly, his hair still as dark as shoe polish.

The images are post-Matrix sci-fi: Earth dissolves into a black hole, pixel by pixel, as the band rocks somewhere between techie-metal stomp and new-wave melody. The striking thing is Moreno’s face. Age has added a few pounds, and he looks unexpectedly soft, as if he’s been sheltering himself somewhere.

The truth is probably pretty close to that. Team Sleep—Moreno’s relatively arty beats-and-moods side project—has been his true labor of love for the past couple of years. The group’s 2005 eponymous debut gave him a chance to explore his Radiohead jones, and somehow he credibly remade himself as a studio geek with an indie streak. There were guitars, sure, but they seemed optional. So much for the Family Values Tour aesthetic—this stuff was all grown up.

And Moreno obviously came back as a different guy. The official story is that when the Deftones wanted to complete Saturday Night Wrist, their fifth full-fledged album, Moreno had to patch things up with his bandmates after ditching the recording process to, as the press release reads, “fulfill a touring obligation with another band.” He also 86’d the original producer (Bob Ezrin) and brought in another (Shaun Lopez) to guide him through. The results are exactly what you might expect: The disc definitely displays the smarts, the juice, and the range that have put the Deftones in a different orbit from the rest of the nü-metal fleet. It’s already being hailed as a return to the experimental vibe that made 2000’s White Pony a revelation in an era when it seemed the mooks had run amok. And Moreno’s skills as a vocal stylist—he’s a master of jetting from nasal tones into feral barks—haven’t diminished one bit. But he sounds like a pro doing his thing, not an artist finding his groove.

That wasn’t the case on 2003’s Deftones, which crunched the moody sounds of White Pony into crazier, tighter spaces. The opening track—the earthquake-quality, hardcore-influenced “Hexagram”—is probably Exhibit A in the debate over why the Deftones mattered and colleagues such as, say, Disturbed, didn’t. And “Minerva”—the atmospheric, surprisingly sensuous single—thoroughly washed away any idea that the band was incapable of subtlety. On those tracks and others, Moreno sounded fully invested, as if the vocals sprung spontaneously from within—and were tied to something real.

Saturday Night Wrist almost gets there, but the songs are sometimes more overdone than inspired, especially when all heck is breaking loose. “Rapture,” for instance, showcases guitarist Stephen Carpenter’s uncanny ability to reconstitute any number of alt-rock influences (this time it’s In Utero–era Nirvana and Isn’t Anything–era My Bloody Valentine) while still rooting his riffs in metal. It’s exhilarating, but Moreno seems to be keeping up rather than driving the chaos. Ditto for “Rats!Rats!Rats!” and “Combat,” which serve up similar caustic tones. All three songs, incidentally, are about Moreno’s part in contentious relationships.

To be fair, the disc has a three-song stretch where everything comes together, but some interesting compromises are required to keep Moreno on top of the tunes. “Beware,” “Cherry Waves,” and “Mein” are heavy with well-produced hooks, and none of them require him to resort to his patented screech. And all three are from the perspective of someone caught in the push-and-pull of another person’s appeal. Things either haven’t failed yet (“If you should sink down beneath/I’ll swim down/Would you? Is this what you want?” Moreno sings on “Cherry Waves”) or can’t possibly happen (“I’d like to pull it into me and intercept you in between, but I never wandered in,” he sings on “Mein.”) Perhaps the only nü-metal yelper with more art-cred than Moreno—System of a Down vocalist Serj Tankian—does a baritone cameo on “Mein,” punctuating the idea that the song doesn’t have to be abused to make its point. Later on, the synth-heavy “Xerces” probes the same nerves.

Those who see White Pony as the band’s creative zenith probably will embrace the more unexpected moments on Saturday Night Wrist, but they’re nothing but risky filler. The noodly “u, u, d, d, l, r, l, r, a, b, select, start,” named after an all-powerful cheat code on old-school Konami video games, could easily slide onto the back end of a math-rock or hipster-metal album, but here it’s merely an intermission with Team Sleep overtones. And “Pink Cellphone,” featuring bizarro come-hither vocals by Giant Drag’s Annie Hardy, is a thumping midtempo electronic number that digresses from psychobabble (“That seductive pure that offered relief and comfort without disturbing the faulty system of your beliefs”) into a pointless riff about blowjobs, uncircumcised penises, and butt sex. The most obvious sonic antecedent? U2’s “Numb.” ’Nuff said. White Pony didn’t have to try that hard.

Those less-than-prudent decisions prove that these Deftones have gone—in a few short years—from being a band that was locked-in and purposeful to being an enterprise that unexpectedly had to rediscover and redefine its best assets. Some clumsiness was inevitable. Saturday Night Wrist—a slang term for a chronic dead-nerve medical condition that can result from sleeping on an arm the wrong way—is no disaster, but it definitely shows what happens when a talented frontman decides that it’s time to assuage his own boredom. The effort of getting on task again is never a seamless process. It’s a job, for sure. But what fun is that for the rest of us?CP