Full disclosure: I took this review on fully expecting to hate this album. Readers may remember I already felt lukewarm about Toothgrinder’s 2016 debut Nocturnal Masquerade, whose poppier and less technical take on The Dillinger Escape Plan was bogged down by repetitive ideas and too many generic radio rock choruses. As the New Jersey quintet’s sharp hardcore riffing seemed to be the best thing about Masquerade, I ultimately concluded the band needed to get heavier, slapped it with a 3.0, and went back to eating Chinese food and jerking off. Lo and behold, flash forward to a few weeks ago, when Phantom Amour’s even less heavy first single convinced me Toothgrinder were about to release something about as appealing as doing a Jersey turnpike shot while stuck in traffic on the actual Jersey turnpike. Lasers were charged, colorful adjectives were readied, and my inner angry metal guy was left rubbing his hands and hovering over the keyboard in anticipation.
Only I was wrong. If there’s anything sophomore full-length Phantom Amour proves, it’s that Toothgrinder never needed to be heavy at all. Opener “HVY” is anything but, sounding more like a Stabbing Westward song with its throbbing pseudo-industrial riffs, cleanly picked verses, and smoothly sung chorus that even your Balance and Composure-loving girlfriend will enjoy. Lest you think that’s just a fluke, direct your attention to “Let It Ride,” whose danceable hard rock groove would fit right in with Seether and whatever else is playing at your nearest Coyote Ugly.
Admittedly, there’s still some heavy stuff here. Frontman Justin Matthews occasionally works in some harsh roars amidst the crooning and slick guitars, while songs like “Futile” and early highlight “The Shadow” bounce along on beatdown hardcore verses that add some fierce aggression to the proceedings. Still, on the whole Amour takes far more influence from 00s alt rock than anything in the metal or hardcore world. As before drawing exact comparisons is tough – perhaps the closest would be a heavier and peppier version of Deftones or The Contortionist, with a bit of Periphery sprinkled in for good measure. What also sets them apart is how much is going on in the mix, with thrumming electronics, background screams, and other effects often materializing to make things busier and more interesting. Though the overall production is loud, the bass is thick and burly, the reverb-drenched guitars sound great, and the silky smooth singing couldn’t fit this style any better.
Most importantly, it works. One of the things I’ve always hated about rock is its fixation on singles – record two or three catchy tracks, throw in a bunch of filler, and call it a day. Not so with Amour. Nearly every one of these 13 songs has a damn good hook, and the band’s metallic roots mean the musicianship is far beyond what you’d find on your local 69 FM butt rock radio station. That’s not to say there aren’t negatives: some of the refains do sound quite similar, the verse-chorus songwriting gets a bit too formulaic at times, and a few of these tracks could have been left on the cutting room floor to shorten the 48 minute runtime and strengthen the overall package.
Yet all that aside, on the whole Amour is by far the best rock album I’ve come across this year1, with moments like the mathcore riffing of “Pieta” or the wailing chorus of “Vagabond” ensuring I’ll be spinning this for months to come. There’s great interplay between the harsh and clean vocals, more hooks than a tackle shop, and even some guitar solos and a fucking rap-rock section to make sure you don’t get too comfortable. As if to further cement the fact that lightening their sound was the right choice, look no further than “Jubilee,” which is both the softest and one of the best tracks here. Featuring a nimble acoustic guitar line and breathy heartfelt vocals, the song sounds like it could’ve been this decade’s version of Plain White T’s “Hey There Delilah” if rock still had any real relevance in the popular music sphere.
By the end it’s clear: Toothgrinder have proven me wrong. They never needed to become heavier or ‘more metal,’ and by following their own path they’ve become a far better band than they were just two years ago. Set your expectations accordingly and you may be left surprised.