Review Summary: MT: Unplugged
Only ‘90s Kids(tm) will remember the visceral impact of MTV Unplugged
. While all-acoustic albums weren’t uncommon, Unplugged
turned the format into a art form in and of itself, offering fans the chance to see and hear their favourite artists strip back the bells and whistles—the distorted guitars, the quick-cut music video camerawork, the stagecraft and shape-throwing—to their core elements of songwriting, musicianship, and emotive ability. At their best, the Unplugged
sessions were unforgettable performances that fed the mythos of the artists and became must-have additions to their catalogues. Eric Clapton’s naked grief and vulnerability in the wake of his son’s tragic death; Layne Staley’s haunting voice rising like a phoenix from the ashes of his wasted body in his final live performance with Alice in Chains; Jay Z establishing himself as the biggest “rockstar” on the planet with an assist from The Roots; Kurt Cobain and Nirvana's most iconic live performance; these are just some of the enduring pop culture landmarks that litter MTV Unplugged’s
legacy. And, while Unplugged
might be long gone, its legacy lives on in millions of outstanding YouTube covers and, now, Moon Tooth’s Violent Grief
finds Moon Tooth reimagining a selection of four standout tracks from their breakout sophomore LP, 2019's Crux
, and adding a new song titled “Six of Swords”. It shouldn’t be surprising that, given their musical virtuosity, Moon Tooth take to the acoustic format like Hunter S. Thompson to cocaine, but it’s still impressive just how well they pull it off. The re-worked songs aren’t radical departures from the original versions; “Trust” and “Awe At All Angles” are slightly
mellower counterparts to their balls-to-the-wall original avatars while “Motionless in Sky” and “Through Ash” are turned from gorgeous winding epics into more introspective, but no less gorgeous, epics. But while the acoustic treatment doesn’t change the songs radically, it does wonders to accentuate their composition and songwriting.
Unsurprisingly, guitarist Nick Lee—already quickly establishing himself as one of the most exciting and original guitarists in the metal world—is more than equal to the challenge of driving the songs without an overdriven amp at hand. He displays incredible physical and musical dexterity, filling out the songs with lush extended chords, cascading finger-picked arpeggios, and even a little countrified flamenco flair. The acoustic format is a little more restrictive to the rhythm section of drummer/producer Ray Marte and bassist Vincent Romanelli, but they play their roles with grace and taste, providing the rhythmic and harmonic foundation that allows Lee to soar. But as good as the instrumentalists are, vocalist John Carbone steals the show. He somehow finds an extra gear on Violent Grief
, ramping up the intensity and dynamics of the already acrobatic vocal performances on Crux
. The notes he hits on the final chorus of “Trust”, and his effortless switching from low croon to falsetto to belted notes on “Six of Swords”—accompanied by hypnotic arpeggios, haunting cellos countermelodies, and some exotic percussion—are spine-tingling in their raw power. “Six of Swords’ ” only fault is that it is more of a slow burn and less immediate than the other songs, but proves to be no less charming.
's one flaw is that, assuming you've already listened to Crux
, Moon Tooth maybe stuck a little too
close to the songs' original arrangements and, apart from Carbone’s vocal performance, don’t really explore any new dimensions on the re-worked songs. If you've never heard of Moon Tooth this is a great, though very unrepresentative, introduction to the band, but otherwise Violent Grief
won’t offer many real surprises. On the other hand, this familiarity, complemented by Marte’s excellent production, gives the album a comfortingly warm and earthy atmosphere which, given the current state of the world, was maybe the band's intention all along. The first seven months of 2020 may have robbed us of summer barbecues, traditional family camping trips, and a life without facing the realities of police brutality and economic collapse, but Violent Grief
harks back to a world that, even if it wasn’t really simpler, sure felt like it. A world that only ‘90s Kids(tm) will remember.
Album stream/download here: https://moontoothny.bandcamp.com/
"Awe At All Angles (Acoustic)" video: https://youtu.be/Ai0Gq7_U4AQ
"Six of Swords" video: https://youtu.be/mpoKtH1Fu8U
 Rolling Stone’s list of the best 15 MTV Unplugged