Review Summary: All ye who enter, abandon all woe
Something about Moon Tooth seems to set music writers scrambling for the most breathless and far-flung points of reference they can find, and I honestly can't say I blame them (see: recommended by reviewer). This band has clearly steeped themselves in every corner of the hard rock canon, and their technical mastery means they have little trouble metabolizing whatever influences happen to catch their fancy, so naturally the sounds they come up with have a tendency to sound just a liiiiittle bit
like a lot
of things. This game of comparisons is ultimately a fool's errand, though, because what Moon Tooth accomplishes is so much more than a mere evocation of previous great American guitar bands, your ZZ Tops and your Van Halens and your Soundgardens and your Deftoneses. They bend any musical idea they concoct to their will with a touch totally distinct from any of their predecessors, as has every artist to truly breathe new life into their genre. If the Long Island quartet's third LP Phototroph
proves anything, it's this— not only have Moon Tooth done their homework, they're the next goddamn assignment.
's flashes of politically-conscious lyricism and overtones of existential fear, and given all that has transpired since that album's release, it would make sense for Phototroph
to double down on the angst and anger for an even darker follow-up. This couldn't be further from the case; the band has emerged from the turbulence of the past few years with some of the most joyful, life-affirming music of their career, packed full of vigor and studded with irresistible pop hooks. This rediscovered optimism finds its locus in frontman John Carbone, who has yet again made a quantum leap forward as a sonic presence. His lyrics, erudite as always, strike a balance between wrenching and resolute, never flinching away from the painful emotions he outlines. Yet his focus here rarely lands on the pain itself, opting instead to focus on overcoming
pain, steeling yourself and soldiering onwards. Just listen to "Alpha Howl", a shockingly delicate and dynamic vocal performance cloaked in stormy metal might. It's the album’s most uncertain moment, but when Carbone builds into a full-volume roar at the end of each prechorus, the feeling is defiant, powerful, an aesthetic expression of agency. When the song finally opens into ringing, triumphant major chords and "impervious to sirens / no meandering," it feels like a truly hard-fought victory, and when the band drops back into the earthshaking intro riff afterwards, it's no longer a wave crashing over the listener, it's a wave we're riding on top of. On that tip, “The I That Never Dies” tempers its initial needling aggression into a liquid, undulating groove with an almost zen mantra sung overtop, while opener "I Revere" tightens its verse into frustrated knots before the chorus exalts "my heart's still beating / so I won't stop believing", directly invoking Journey’s all-time cheese classic while daring you to still take the emotional stakes seriously. It works, exhilaratingly so.
Any fans of the band’s wilder early work needn’t despair, though! For all of its gleaming melodic appeal, Phototroph
ultimately belongs as much to guitarist Nick Lee as it does to Carbone. Here, Lee is a man on a mission, and that mission is to cram every square inch of every song with the smartest, coolest axework he can muster. Each riff and solo overflows with detail, and the guitar tones sound monstrously huge across the board. Early highlights include the full minute of shred that closes out “Back Burner” and the giddy NWOBHM licks peppered throughout the title track, but these are songs that promise to richly reward repeat listens, and moments that passed me by at first are already starting to shine in their own right, like the deftly-crafted atmosphere in “Grip on the Ridge”’s verses. Ray Marté and Vin Romanelli skillfully aid and abet throughout, providing their own distinct sensibilities to the band’s rhythm section without needlessly showing off or taking focus away from the songs themselves. Pay close attention and you’ll hear two gifted musicians elevating the music in subtle, thoughtful ways, but zoom out and it’s suddenly one unified and well-rounded whole.
It only speaks to the band's high standard of craftsmanship that, even with everything it does so right, Phototroph
is still comfortably my least favorite Moon Tooth album to date. The faults are minor almost to the point of triviality, but they are there. The album lacks just a bit in the variety department, with the closest thing to a pace-breaker being the succinct power ballad “Grip on the Ridge”. Especially given the album’s focus on big, feel-good melodies, I couldn’t help but pine a bit for more explorations of the band's softer, spacier side, and their recent dalliances with mostly-acoustic arrangements easily could have served here as a welcome change of gears. Lee is fully absent as a lead vocalist for the first time too, and although there aren’t many places his screams would have fit comfortably, it’s a shame that many of Carbone’s finest vocal performances yet don’t get much to really contrast with. Lastly, second single “The Conduit” has been somewhat divisive amongst listeners, and not undeservedly so. While I can’t fairly call it a “bad” song, it’s certainly their most unwieldy and least thought-provoking creation, getting by on a catchy chorus and a clever third-act change-up while the simplistic main riff and fussy AAL-lite bridges mostly just come and go. The blown-out production cements it as a merely-good sore thumb sticking out of an otherwise-brilliant tracklist.
Slight imperfections notwithstanding, It’s a pleasure to be able to say that Moon Tooth have done it again, refining and bolstering their singular approach to songcraft and keeping things fresh in the process. These are 11 songs that sound nothing like any song the band has offered up before, despite sounding unmistakably like Moon Tooth. Phototroph
has all the makings of a genuine breakthrough, or even a full-on crossover hit, the kind of bold, emotionally-driven rock that’s never truly gone out of style since its heyday. Lee has said he wants his band to be “the next Metallica”. This album makes those ambitions seem astonishingly feasible, but it also leaves a wealth of other paths available for further traversal— a full, beautiful spectrum of heavy music to pick and choose from. Whether they miraculously attain a mainstream success no rock band has seen in years or keep shoring up their reputation as darlings of the sequestered prog-metal scene, I’m already eager to see what Moon Tooth delivers next.