Album Review

Toothgrinder - Nocturnal Masquerade

Released January 29, 2016
Dylan Sonderman

I first became familiar with New Jersey-based progressive metal/mathcore band Toothgrinder when I saw them on tour with The Faceless, After The Burial, and Rings of Saturn in December of 2015. I had no exposure to them before the performance, but they blew me away.

Lead vocalist Justin Matthews has an absolutely commanding stage presence. The whole band was thrashing all over the place and it was great. However, even though they all looked capable of kicking some ass, the guys all had strangely luxurious-looking hair. Really, for how gritty and intense their music and demeanor was, I wondered for a second if I hadn’t mistakenly ended up on the set for some new experimental Pantene commercial. But hair-envy aside, Toothgrinder put on an incredible show. The energy was super intense and exhilarating. The songs were creative, powerful, and memorable.

So, after their set, I went over to their merch table to chat with them, compliment their great set, etc. and saw that they had an upcoming full-length debut album, available to pre-order. I laid down the cash right then and there. About a month later, upon its January 29th 2016 release, I eagerly checked out Nocturnal Masquerade.

Toothgrinder’s lineup consists of Matthews on screaming lead vocals, Matt Arsendorf on bass and anthemic clean singing, Jason Goss on guitar, and Wills Weller on drums. I think Nocturnal Masquerade has some really distinctive sounds going on, or at the very least, familiar sounds blended together in unexpected ways. The high-energy music feels simultaneously intense, angry, progressive, and… catchy.

There’s really a surprising element of memorability to the music, even the really heavy sections. Sometimes I found the contrast between Matthews’ brutally intense delivery and Matt Arsendorf’s clean vocals a bit difficult to stomach. On the first few listens through the album, I felt like the band was maybe trying a little too hard to craft an unforgettable hook or singalong. On repeat listens, though, I found myself wanting to sing along with Arsendorf’s excellent choruses, even if they do sound very 2005-ish. That’s the only way I can describe them, since I can’t think of what mid-2000’s metal band they remind me of. But so many bands get lost in the shuffle doing the same old thing, and whether or not I feel the juxtaposition always works, I can’t get a few of these songs out of my head. That’s got to count for something.

In terms of the instrumental parts, Goss has riffs for days. Clean fingerpicked sections, math-y breakdowns, chugging power chords, you name it. There are also some nice shredding solos that carry some of the songs into proggier territory, especially at the end of “Lace and Anchor.” Weller tears it up on the kit and lays down some excellent fills, particularly on “The Hour Angle” and “The House (That Fear Built).”

What holds the album back in this department are some small production issues. I can’t put my finger on what it is, but to me, the mix sounds a little muddy at times, not as clear or raw as I think would have suited the music. What made me notice this was when I listened to the song “Schizophrenic Jubilee,” which, along with “Despondency/Dejection” and “The Hour Angle,” were re-recorded from Toothgrinder’s 2014 EP Schizophrenic Jubilee. I found myself really preferring the mix of the song from the EP over the version on Nocturnal Masquerade, which is a bummer, because I really love that song.

However, I do like the new version of “The Hour Angle” more, there’s some new guitar harmonies, tighter drum fills, and, if somehow possible, an even angrier performance from Matthews. While the lyrics on the album were occasionally hit-or-miss for me, I can’t get enough of the repeating section from “The Hour Angle,” “So hold time right between the eyes ‘cause you’ll never get it back kid, you’ll never get it back… from my cold dead hands.”

Overall, my favorite track would have to be “Blue.” All of the diverse elements seem to culminate best in this song, and they do so without feeling forced. Also, the haunting chorus (“Maybe we will find the fire”) hits on another level than any of the other clean vocal parts, for me. “Schizophrenic Jubilee” and “The Hour Angle” are also particularly strong. “I Lie In Rain” is a softer, more atmospheric tune (by comparison) and is a nice change of pace that shows off the band’s versatility. I can say pretty confidently too that all of the songs are at least listenable and work well within the album.

Though the record has a pretty unique sound, I’d say it reminded me of Slipknot more than once (think the drums and intensity of Iowa with the choruses of Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses). There were also some djent-y moments a la Periphery. Speaking of that band, Periphery’s vocalist Spencer Sotelo has a nice guest performance on the second verse of “Diamonds for Gold.” Even though that isn’t really one of my favorite tracks on the record, the guest spot adds yet another different texture to Nocturnal Masquerade. Also, in terms of sound and style, I think Toothgrinder definitely takes a strong influence from fellow New Jersey mathcore band The Dillinger Escape Plan. Especially live.

Overall, I think this is a really great debut. There’s a lot of room for growth, but that’s not a bad thing. I think when Toothgrinder really hits their stride, they’re going to blow people away. These guys are already killing it with their live shows and should only keep getting better. Check Nocturnal Masquerade out if you like mathcore, have a taste for hard rock choruses, want to hear a new heavy band that really shreds, or are just angry as fuck and need a soundtrack to your rage.