There seems to be a running theme with Toothgrinder where you forget how much of a welcome presence they are within hard rock and metal until they come back around. Both Nocturnal Masquerade and Phantom Amour have really only held up with time, and given that they’re the sort of band for whom sitting still never feels like an option, the avenues for creativity always feel vital and vibrant, regardless of where they last ended up. It’s an important point to consider going into I Am; their last piece of material was a rather lackluster cover of Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, but with that being its own thing and kept deliberately separate from this third full-length, the room for Toothgrinder to do basically whatever they want is primed and ready for them to take advantage of. As tired as the adage is, they’re one of the few bands within hard rock for whom the possibilities are boundless.
And as is so easy to predict at this point, I Am is another great album for many of the same reasons as its predecessors – Toothgrinder are willing to sweep in a far wider breadth than virtually all of their contemporaries, and encompassed in a formula that’s defiantly progressive with just enough accessibility to prevent it from losing its way, it’s about as good and forward-thinking as modern hard rock gets. Furthermore, the fact that Toothgrinder can still pack in an album’s worth of excitement is enough to earmark them as a pretty special talent, and like all of their albums that have come before, I Am is no different whatsoever.
And make no mistake, even three albums in, Toothgrinder are in no danger of falling into any sort of rut, and the fact they’re able to maintain such creativity and versatility really speaks to their abilities to bend what could otherwise be fairly rote rock and metal beats into their own thing entirely. The churning radio-rock angst of ohmymy and soaring balladry of My Favorite Hurt are more than capable of slotting into any number of mainstream rock playlists, but there’s an elasticity and unkempt quality to Justin Matthews’ vocals that’s immediately recognisable as something totally their own within that structure. Similarly, both The New Punk Rock and too soft for the scene, TOO MEAN FOR THE GREEN serve as criticisms of rock’s over-commercialisation and genre elitism respectively, and while there’s a viciousness to them both that leans closer to an off-kilter metal side, it’s not like the hooks don’t stick ridiculously well. It feels as though Toothgrinder are simultaneously playing to their strengths when it comes to their own inventiveness, and also holding up their most convincing mirror yet to the emotional turmoil that underscores so much of I Am, and to see it culminate in an album that sprawls and expands but still hits with concentrated force really is great to see.
The kicker, though, comes in how Toothgrinder never lose sight of their vision even for a moment. A track like no surrender in The House Of Leaves might swell from its acoustic foundations into a stomping metal banger, but it’s a transition that feels totally natural while still keeping its rawness intact. There’s nothing necessarily distinct about the production itself – guitars and drums have power and crunch while the vocals have a dirtiness to them without being swamped – but Toothgrinder use it completely to their advantage, and the results ultimately have a wonderful uniqueness that never goes ignored.
And while it might seem strange to say, it’s what makes it generally difficult to evaluate a Toothgrinder album. It couldn’t be further from being boring, but there’s a consistency within the band’s creativity that rarely changes, even if the results always feel like their own beast. I Am is no different either, another brilliant, far-reaching album from a band who might have that identity firmly locked down at this point, but are always able to find something fresh and exciting to do with it. It’s why Toothgrinder are one of the most underrated bands in modern metal; there’s not another act that pulls off the feats that they do, and the fact they’re not so much more revered than they are really is just wrong.
For fans of: Clutch, Deftones, Sleep Token
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘I Am’ by Toothgrinder is released on 11th October on Spinefarm Records.