New-Jerseyan quintet Toothgrinder are a fresh, young act that are certainly not exempt from what is a notably strong modern wave of progressive metal. Nestling appropriately into a scene full of variety and innovation, this is a band that turned heads aplenty with sophomore attempt Nocturnal Masquerade in January 2016, showcasing a confident and raw deluge of chaotic brutality, technical prowess, and competent songwriting. This impressively thoughtful brand of sprawling catharsis and melodic respite earned them appearances alongside a plethora of scene veterans, including the likes of Killswitch Engage, Periphery, The Contortionist, Between The Buried And Me, and many more, serving to truly cement them as a contemporary ‘one-to-watch’. Fast-forward to present day, and – despite an intensely concentrated period of debut release and hectic touring – Toothgrinder are making their return with brand new record Phantom Amour, less than two years after their first full-length. However, throwing a spanner into the works this time around is what appears to be a rather conspicuous change in approach, resulting in an end-product that feels considerably more restrained and dialled-back in terms of the chaos we’ve come to associate this band with. One thing is for certain: this isn’t a black and white issue, and it certainly feels as though there’s a fine line here between this being a positive progression or a case of ‘one step forward, two steps back’.
With just one prior release as a reference point, fans of Toothgrinder will no doubt begin their first play-through of Phantom Amour with a fairly vivid preconception in their minds. Having analysed this album thoroughly myself, I believe it to be a reasonable assumption that opening track “HYV” will almost immediately defy this. The song is introduced by a chunky, ultra-distorted guitar riff that bleeds seamlessly into a sauntering groove, seemingly mimicking the slow tempo of a classic hardcore make-up. However, with thirty seconds on the clock, the overall sound resembles a more traditional ‘rock’n’roll’ atmosphere than anything else, showcasing what is a display of raw simplicity and consummate energy. With what is once again a seamless transition, the noise takes a momentary backseat whilst we’re introduced to the first vocal section of the album, namely an all-clean section of husky, distant-sounding singing, courtesy of vocalist Justin Mathews, which is somewhat reminiscent of the spacey, 80’s rock-style singing we saw on Hundredth‘s RARE earlier this year. Following this is the first chorus of many that are apparently very matter-of-fact in their nature, so to speak; the clean vocals persist, this time with some throaty shouts layered underneath, boasting a hook that is certainly nothing short of being chorus-esque, and thus furthering the rock-ish approach of pure simplicity and catchy tunefulness.
It’s important to note here that there’s nothing inherently bad about any of this. To again draw on what I believe to be a great example, Hundredth were able to transform themselves into something that resembled this sound in many ways, and I fell in love with it almost instantly. It’s equally important, however, to note the distinction in circumstances. In the case of RARE, it felt like a considerably mature leap had been taken from what was previously fairly underwhelming hardcore, but what we’re seeing here with Toothgrinder is a drastic move from something that was previously already excellent, and a result that feels far more reserved and subdued. From a neutral perspective, “HYV” is a pretty solid track boasting a few chunky riffs, great production, and memorable vocal hook-lines; however from the perspective of someone that knows this band from the Nocturnal Masquerade-era, it would be fair to suggest that this new approach feels a little disenchanting, and deprived of the magical chaos that this band once represented. Unfortunately, barring some select moments, this opening track seems to foreshadow a great deal of the remainder of Phantom Amour.
Now, let’s not jump the gun and propose that this record is short on the epic moments that we expect from this band, because this simply isn’t the case. Examples of fantastic musicianship are littered throughout, and are let down only by the fact that they are too few and far between. To name a few, lead single “The Shadow” boasts a series of fantastic, groovy riffs in addition to an epic, heavy conclusion; ninth track “Pietà” showcases a heavy and technical closing section, reminiscent of the chaotic madness we’ve seen in abundance from Toothgrinder in the past; and final track “Facing East From A Western Shore” delivers, much to my surprise, a very fitting and well-written guitar solo towards the end of its runtime. It’s also worth mentioning that thrown into the mix is fifth track “Red”, a clear nod to Nocturnal Masquerade‘s “Blue”; a small thematic that is also reflected in the respective blue and red artwork for the two records, in addition to a lyric in “The Shadow”. Said passage reads: ‘It’s like a breathing lobotomy turning blue to red‘. A small but satisfying touch that certainly serves to add some charm to the equation. Despite all of this, the overarching feeling is that it is simply not enough to redeem what is undoubtedly a drastic regression.
Its difficult to suggest that there’s anything technically wrong with Phantom Amour. As we’ve explored, it certainly boasts some great individual moments, in addition to high-quality production and a generally rock-esque, clean-vocal-heavy, groove-laden vibe that certainly isn’t hard on the ears. However, this is where the problem lies: this band seems to have simply abandoned the majority of what served to comprise a heavy, technical, chaotic, and impactful sound on their previous record, and unfortunately this is most of what appealed to me about Toothgrinder in the first place. This isn’t to say that there is no future for them; the logical next step is to embrace the new direction, refine it, and attempt at making it as striking as possible in the years to come. As it stands right now, though, it’s far too difficult to look past the fact that the vicious, energetic beast that was Nocturnal Masquerade is now merely a distant memory, and that what we’re left with more accurately resembles a timid, startled deer.
Notable tracks: “The Shadow”, “Red”, “Facing East From A Western Shore”.
FFO: Hundredth, SikTh, Destrage
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