Perhaps without even intending it, Moon Tooth has been able to create a substantial sense of anticipation surrounding the upcoming release of their first full-length, Chromaparagon. For starters, the only bit of music we’ve really had from them prior to this is the 4-track EP Freaks which I’m finding it hard to believe was released a whole 2 and a half years ago. That EP was incredible, and despite being more or less a tease – clocking in at about 13 minutes – it was nonetheless an impossible-to-ignore indication that this quartet had a huge amount of promise. If you want to know more about it you can read my review, but for now suffice to say that the 4 songs on that release achieved such an undeniably compelling combination – equally forceful and graceful – of artistic creativity and technical proficiency, that a fair amount of salivating for more in the months (years!) to follow would prove unavoidable.
And no, we may not have expected (and certainly not have wished) that this period of saliva-dripping expectation would end up lasting as long as it did, but instead of allowing themselves to fade from interest during that interim, Moon Tooth did quite the opposite by busting their asses off playing live. My own now-temporarily-defunct band played with these guys at a free show at Hank’s Saloon during a typhoon all the way back in April 2014, yet from such humble beginnings they’ve gone on to share stages with GWAR, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Wino, and Weedeater in more recent memory. Point is, these guys are ALWAYS down to play, and they absolutely KILL IT where and whenever they do, and as a result they’ve been getting more and more (very much deserved) respect as one of the live bands to truly watch out for. Fucking go see them NOW.
The last piece of the puzzle is a successful marketing campaign, or web presence, or whatever embarrassingly non-metal name you want to give it. Don’t get me wrong, Moon Tooth without a doubt have much more important things to which to attribute their success – namely talent, innovation, and work ethic – but they’ve only helped their own case with frequent studio updates, live clips, and press from increasingly esteemed outlets. Too often there’s an incongruity between a band’s actual and perceived value; one couldn’t count how many phenomenal bands are woefully unknown, or how many fledgling bands pay way too much to a press agency for coverage that is not yet proportionate to their clout or experience. But in the case of Moon Tooth I think that the two are perfectly balanced; they’re getting some solid recognition, but they’re worked for every bit of it.
But of course with this recognition comes expectation, so let’s finally get to the million-dollar question: did they pull it off?
I’ll start answering this question by considering a relatively obvious comparison which can be (and has been) made between Moon Tooth and Mastodon. I’m not the first nor will I be the last to make this comparison, because there’s a lot that’s similar between the two bands – most importantly, a stunning level of musical precision and artistic creativity that constantly threaten to undermine the context of pure heaviness in which they are presented. And I love Mastodon, but nonetheless have to remove them from any pedestal of godliness and claim that Moon Tooth is, across the board, a more musically talented band, and this applies equally to technical and creative proficiency. I know this is a bold claim but just listen to the album – there’s absolutely no denying it.
That said – and I’m speaking from experience – if you listen to Chromaparagon from start to finish, and then you listen to all of Leviathan, this difference in pure musicality is obscured, and maybe even trumped, by the unqualifiable way that Leviathan, taken as a whole album, just works so damn well. Which isn’t to say that Mastodon are categorically more successful at what they’re out to achieve; perhaps Moon Tooth had no intention of making an album as thematically or aesthetically unified as Leviathan. Maybe they wanted to make more of a Blood Mountain. Maybe – if only for the sake of argument – they’ve never even heard of Mastodon, and I’m an asshole for insisting on the comparison. Bottom line is, it’s typically best to give a band the benefit of the doubt, and assume that the kind of album they made is the kind of album they wanted to make. And then the only question that remains is, are they good at making that kind of album?
Well, if it’s not painfully obvious by now, this album is all over the place. It never stands still, it never tries too hard to do any single, specific thing, and it ultimately presents itself as a labyrinthine treasure trove rather than a focused expression of a singular vision. It goes from pounding metal to dreamy, delicate contemplation at the drop of a hat, leaving one astounded that Moon Tooth can not only do such vastly different things, but do them well, and make such radical transitions feel completely seamless. And in between those heaviest and those lightest moments are a list of stylistic quirks that seems almost encyclopaedic of hard rock music and its offshoots. Consider, for example:
- Slide guitar, retro organ, and the overall dirty blues vibe of “Igneous”
- Spooky funk groove in the intro to “Little Witch”, following by a verse that features a bewildering balance of angularity and catchiness
- Balls-to-the-wall, psycho-prog virtuosic acroBATICs of “Bats in the Attic”
- Extreme metal vocals and blast beats in “Forgive Me Snake Ryder”. Oh not to mention a second and a half of fucking violin
- Song cycle epic-ness (and female guest vocalist-ness) of “Vesuvius” parts I and II
- What can only be described as throwback, fist-pumping thrash on “Belt Squeezer”
- The eventual transition from crawl-groove sludge metal to lush, arpeggiated dreaminess on album closer “White Stag”
But it’s important to note that these are just moments. “Little Witch” is not a funk song, “Forgive Me Snake Ryder” is not a death metal song, “Belt Squeezer” is not a thrash song, and all of them – no matter what fleeting moments of stylistic miscellany are scattered throughout – are nonetheless held together by some kind of aesthetic glue that must simply be “what Moon Tooth does” (and what they do well). And what is that? Well, it’s a tough question to answer, but for me the word that keeps coming to mind is poetry. More specifically, poetry post-Yeats, when it became ok to explore experimental and even avant verse forms rather than sticking to rhymed couplets of four or five iambs. There is a boundlessness to this music, a kind of amorphousness that constantly asserts itself, be it rhythmically, tonally, thematically, etc.
Take a look at “Offered Blood”, which I think is not only one of the best songs on the album, but a great kind of summary of the whole Moon Tooth approach and skill set. The verse on this song shows some of the tightest, most precise, and frankly the most wonky playing to be heard between guitarist Nick Lee, drummer Ray Marte, and bassist Vincent Romanelli. Yet over this breakneck intricacy we get a completely disarming counterpoint in the vocals of John Carbone – lines that seem to float at whim with no temporal or tonal anchor. The tension between these opposite yet complementary stylings is almost unnerving at first, yet allures one towards a greater sense of stability as it proceeds, and eventually empties out into a mammoth riff that completely grounded and completely gnarly. This song – and much of the album elsewhere – is so cerebral and so visceral, often jumping with complete abandon from one to the other, but just as often superimposing them both simultaneously in a way that simply doesn’t seem possible.
Throughout Chromaparagon there is never any prevailing sense of what should be done on a heavy record, only what these guys want to do. And I applaud Moon Tooth for it. The result is sincere, and it is bright, and it is an object of artistic affirmation to be explored and treasured. Moreover – if you’ll allow me to go all the way back to my initial comparison between this album and Leviathan – I think there is something about songs like “Offered Blood” which paint this album out to be a consummate success even if it lacks a unified thematic interest in whales or whatever. These songs are microcosmic; they are as internally diverse, and subsequently as fearless, as the album is as a whole. That is to say, if Moon Tooth had come out with a collection of 12 songs that each sounded completely different, I might not be as impressed. What does really get me about these guys is how any single song can do 12 different things, often without even feeling like it.
In the end, Chromaparagon is a playground. Given how much time and effort, how much blood, sweat, and tears clearly went into this record, it may be hard to believe, but it’s impossible to listen to it and not be convinced that Moon Tooth had an absolute blast making it. They believe in what they do, they revel in what they do, and they excel at what they do. If ever a band has represented “promise” then it is these four gentleman from Long Island. They’ve knocked it out of the park with this full-length debut, and have left me among many others wonderfully optimistic about their future.