Phototroph, the dizzying third album by Long Island’s Moon Tooth, feels like a tribute to all the weird, forward-thinking music that’s found itself in rotation on alternative rock radio over the past 25 years. For as long as post-grunge and nü metal have been the dominant genres on terrestrial stations with names like “The Blitz” and “The X,” stranger things have crept in at the margins: Deftones’s off-kilter emotionalism; Queens of the Stone Age’s swaggering, stoned zen; the swampy prog-sludge of Mastodon. For fleeting moments on Phototroph, Moon Tooth resemble all those bands, but the clearest line of influence lay in how their idiosyncrasies serve their outsized ambitions.
Founded in 2012, Moon Tooth quickly outgrew the prog-metal tag they were saddled with early on—not because their music wasn’t sufficiently progressive or sufficiently metal, but because it was those things and so much more. A major distinguishing factor was frontman John Carbone’s voice, which tended toward the blend of soulfulness and grit that Chris Cornell perfected on early Soundgarden records like Louder Than Love and Badmotorfinger. Carbone’s expressive, emotive singing raises the ceiling for Moon Tooth, carving arena-sized hooks into their jagged compositions. The thrill of Phototroph is hearing how well they’ve learned to balance out their experimental and poppy inclinations.
On “Nymphaeaceae,” the band sets an extended metaphor about water lilies against a winding maze of distorted riffs, burying a vulnerable vocal hook deep inside the labyrinth. The open-hearted “Carry Me Home” is more emotionally direct but equally complex, soldering southern-fried blues licks inspired by the Allman Brothers Band onto its wiggy, progged-out din. The closing title track might be Moon Tooth’s finest song. It begins with an acoustic guitar passage reminiscent of Rush’s “Closer to the Heart,” but when the crunching power chords and pounding drums come in, the song morphs into a driving, anthemic rocker that sounds more like Foo Fighters than anything prog-related.
That’s no coincidence. In the press notes for Phototroph, bassist Vincent Romanelli summed up his sky-high aspirations by saying he wanted “to Dave Grohl this shit.” Guitarist Nick Lee added that he wants Moon Tooth to be “the next Metallica.” It’s a credit to the dialed-in writing and larger-than-life performances on Phototroph that neither one of those comparisons seems insane. With songs like these, Moon Tooth have a real shot.