Sometimes a live performance is the best way to hear a new band. Fortunately, this was just the way I first experienced New Jersey hardcore quartet Toothgrinder, during a concert with Revocation and Fallujah last winter (and headlined by the beachy progcore of The Contortionist, oddly enough). I was already interested prior to the show from reading about the wild on-stage antics of front man Justin Matthews, and he definitely delivered. With his fist-raising roars and a physically commanding presence, Matthews easily won the crowd, stomping around stage like a Jägerbomb-fueled King Kong and climbing atop amplifiers like the place was his personal jungle gym. The spectacle impressed me enough to check out 2014’s Schizophrenic Jubilee EP, a five-song racket of riotous, tech-y hardcore that retained enough instrumental prowess to still feel ‘metal.’ I wasn’t floored, but was intrigued enough to snatch up full-length debut Nocturnal Masquerade to see how well the group could continue channeling their Garden State fury.
The answer, fortunately, is pretty damn well. Not unlike a djentier and techier Every Time I Die, Masquerade combines a fuck-all attitude, tightly riveted melodies and rhythms, and a sense of abrasive aggression into a 42-minute package that feels like getting a piece of steel wool shoved down your throat—yet it remains hooky enough to wash it down with something sweet afterward. Take opener “The House (That Fear Built).” Moving from its quick and springy Eastern-sounding opening, the song bursts into a series of chunky, sharp hardcore riffs that climax with a set of wailing cleans delivered by bassist Matt Arensdorf. Later, “Despondency Dejection” features a simple main lick that builds tension like a screw being tightened into one’s skull, while the opening of “Coeur d’Alene” wouldn’t sound entirely out of place on a Periphery record, before a pounding gutpunch riff breaks in to remind one that this is still a hardcore album first and foremost.
The most surprising thing about Masquerade, however, is how much more accessible Toothgrinder have become. While Jubilee featured sparse clean vocals, here, they complement Matthews’ hardcore shouts on nearly all 12 tracks. Sometimes, it’s welcome, like the ascending vocal line in the verses of early highlight “Lace and Anchor,” or the repeated wailing of “saaaavvvvvvvve yourrrrrself” that beckons a melee of spitfire riffs and a ripping solo in the second half of “Schizophrenic Jubilee.” Other times, it sounds like the band can’t decide whether they want to be metal or radio rock. In the record’s middle third, songs like “I Lie in Rain,” “Diamonds for Gold,” and “Dance of Damsels” feature some vocal lines that veer way to close to awful 2000s alt-metal like Evans Blue or Theory of a Deadman for my liking. I lived through that shit once, that was more than enough.
The problem is exacerbated by the production. While the mix is keenly balanced and the guitars have a terrific amount of bite to them, everything just feels a tad too clean and safe, particularly with Arensdorf’s polished cleans. It’s especially disappointing because Jubilee’s sharp and raw production seemed to fit Toothgrinder’s style better, and several of my favorite tracks here are re-recordings from that EP. Fortunately, things have improved in the DR department, with a range just high enough to ensure moments like the silky leads that conclude aforementioned “Anchor” and the gang shouts of closer “Waltz of Madmen” aren’t lost in the shuffle.
Overall, Nocturnal Masquerade is an enjoyable and energetic record that I wish I could endorse more enthusiastically. Unfortunately, in addition to my aforementioned woes, the staccato vocal and riffing patterns get a bit repetitive by the end, and songs like the title track probably should have been left off altogether. In the future, I hope Toothgrinder dial back the rock influence and diversify their songwriting a bit, as it’s clear these guys have both the inspiration and the instrumental chops to pull off something mind-blowing. For now, we’re left with a record that’s passionate and unique in sound, but may have stretched itself a tad too far in trying to reach a broad audience. But hey, at least the live show kicks ass. And props to a front man who can even make lines like “I’m not a ghost or a saint, I’m a runaway train, and now I’m running right over your head” sound not just convincing, but actually pretty awesome.