Review Summary: Serving only the rhythm and the roar
Moon Tooth’s first full-length album, 2016’s Chromaparagon
, was, by all measures, an incredibly ambitious debut. The dazzling technical chops of guitarist Nick Lee, drummer Ray Marté and bassist Vincent Romanelli were more than enough to earn the Long Island group their “prog” credentials, and Marté’s production work made the whole thing easy on the ears. But it was the group’s unique approach to melody and songcraft, as well as frontman John Carbone’s poetic, emotional lyrics, that truly set Moon Tooth head and shoulders above anyone else in the rock/metal scene. Songs like “Offered Blood”, “Chroma” and “Vesuvius II” may have played host to mind-bending displays of instrumental prowess, but they were always underpinned by both strong, smart songwriting and some genuinely beautiful lyricism, and the album had immeasurably more staying power and emotional heft as a result.
I love Chromaparagon
. It’s one of my all-time favorite albums. However, looking at it through my critic glasses, I can see it isn’t flawless. The band’s idiosyncrasies are untempered and occasionally a bit ungainly. Carbone’s vocals take a bit of getting used to. The song structures sidle right up to the line between “unconventional” and “messy.” And, if I’m really nitpicking here, the bass could have used a bit more definition in the mix too. Still, it made for a more-than-promising starting point. In the 3 years since its release, I’ve been itching to know how (or indeed if
) Moon Tooth would grow and evolve beyond it by the time LP no. 2 rolled around. Well, rolled around it finally has, and I am overjoyed to report that not only is Crux
another fantastic entry in a thus-far sterling discography, but it may well be even better than Chromaparagon
At any rate, it's a sleeker, more streamlined affair than its predecessor, reining in some of the band’s tendencies towards the oblique for a more immediately appealing listening experience. These songs hit more directly than Moon Tooth ever has before, channeling their formidable technical abilities into energetic, sinuous riffing and triumphant sing-along choruses, rather than flashy shredding and wild rhythmic workouts. It’s far from the full-fledged embracing of the mainstream we’ve seen in similar-minded acts like Mastodon
, but the whole thing still ends up feeling… not accessible, per se, but certainly approachable, in a way many acts under the “progressive” umbrella often seem reluctant to really commit to the way Moon Tooth does here.
The production (again handled by Marté, with some assistance from Machine and Lamb of God axeman Mark Morton) gives Crux
a vibrant, larger-than-life sheen. The guitar tone is beefier than ever, the drums pack a mighty punch, and the bass has plenty of texture and presence in the mix even when things are at their most hectic. Perhaps most impressive, though, is the vocal production. Carbone has improved substantially as a singer since Chromaparagon, and the judicious use of multi-tracking here has turned him from a potent, engaging frontman into a downright force of nature. Whether he’s crooning on “Motionless in Sky” and the title track or belting at the top of his lungs on “Musketeers” and lead single “Trust”, Carbone simply sounds fantastic throughout this entire album, powerful and commanding without losing the vulnerability and gritty humanity that grounds the whole thing.
may be a friendlier face than Chromaparagon
, but that doesn’t mean there’s any less going on under the hood. Chromaparagon
’s central thesis was, essentially, “If I express myself as fully and honestly as possible, I can achieve my highest goals.” Crux
reads almost as a direct response to that thesis, asking “What are you really willing to sacrifice to pursue that absolute self-expression, knowing you may not even succeed"”. This question manifests in many ways throughout the album, from the literal trial-by-fire exchange of pain for freedom in “Through Ash”, to the set-jaw determination of “Thorns”, to the tortured romance of “Awe at All Angles”. The shift in tone and focus manifests in some more subtle ways, too. The use of profanity (which was notably absent on Chromaparagon
) signals a rejection of that album’s mostly-prelapsarian ideals, and the creeping influence of politics on “Musketeers” and “Rhythm & Roar” brings an undercurrent of anxiety and tension with the outside world that complements the tracks dealing in smaller-scale personal conflicts surprisingly well.
The instrumentation on Crux
illustrates its lyrics and themes vividly at every turn. The sidewinding guitar work and slightly distant cymbal crashes of “Through Ash” conjure as much billowing smoke and crackling embers as Carbone’s words do. The neck-snapping groove and wild pivots between soulful rock and muscular thrash riffing on “Thumb Spike” matches its lyrical metaphor of artistic-passion-as-toxic-relationship to a tee. The surging, bombastic chorus of “Musketeers” lends a righteous energy to the song’s stridently antifascist message. And, on the penultimate title track, storm clouds roll in over the mix as it mutates from a spacey, psychedelic power ballad into a menacing death metal-inflected beatdown, and the lyrics go from articulate and contemplative to primal and impressionistic. It’s thrilling stuff, to be sure, but digging below the surface proves just as rewarding here as sitting back and enjoying the ride.
, Moon Tooth have truly made good on the promises of their debut, honing their talents into a razor-sharp blade of metallic rock aggression. Thoughtfully written, expertly produced, and stunningly performed; it’s everything a great album should be. This album asks what the pursuit of an artistic lifestyle is worth. That question is still left on the table when the last note of the album fades out, but I’ll be damned if the 44 minutes preceding it isn’t the best argument I’ve heard that it’s worth a whole lot.