, September 18th, 2012 06:14
"Psychedelic" is too obvious, too restrictive a shorthand to describe Toy. But the term - widely deployed by journalists to date in attempting to sum up the band - is accurate as far as it goes. Almost every track on this debut LP is underpinned by a churning, disorienting fog of processed guitars, buried organ work and echo that testifies to their commitment to sensual derangement, visual as well as aural; last week the Quietus revealed how the album was recorded amid a barrage of lasers and smoke machines, recreating the heady atmospherics of Toy's live show in the studio, the better to capture the right feel and mood, and inspire a charged performance.
The fact that Toy would always try to capture an exciting moment, rather than go for a technically perfect take (not something a studio full of smoke and lasers usually facilitates), indicates however that they have a decidedly post-punk sensibility - which is, in fact, what comes across most strongly in the music. Think Wire's melancholy tension, those Buzzcocks tracks where Pete Shelley gives full rein to his love of krautrock, or odd flashes of genius from Swell Maps or Subway Sect. Experimental, yes, but raw rather than polished, sharp edges left in, always favouring urgency and communication over self-indulgent jamming. Each song serves an idea, and if Toy seem "weird", "trippy" and "mind-blowing" (all phrases used in the mainstream music press about the band), then maybe it just goes to show the paucity of such ideas and ambition in most mainstream indie music. And this is the area Toy have set their sights on; above all else, Toy are unashamedly a pop band, with songs that are mostly succinct and driven by hooks and melody, but with a visceral punch few of their peers can match.
Of course, the most reductive dismissal of all commonly levelled against Toy is the received wisdom that "they just sound like the Horrors." Again, there's a small amount of truth in this; half-listening to Toy's album from the next room, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a generic approximation of what you vaguely remember the Horrors as sounding like (for chances are, if you dismiss Toy on these grounds, you're not really a Horrors fan either). But anyone who really listens to both bands will tell you that they're very different. Honestly, the more you play this album, the less sense the comparison makes; a dozen or so listens in, I can barely hear the Horrors in Toy's musical make-up at all. What I can hear is a band with some similar influences, similar enthusiasms. It's little wonder that Faris's gang took to Toy so readily, offering them early support slots and championing them to friends and acquaintances. If anything, based on this record it seems natural that Toy and the Horrors should be friends: bonding over the same eclectic good taste in records, the importance of style and the desire to be more than ordinary.
'Colours Running Out' surges in on a propulsive wash of reversed guitars and motoric rhythm, the rather baroque arrangements in contrast to Tom Dougall's dry, flat, decidedly Southern English accented vocals, unassuming and semi-detached, with just a hint of a sneer. The song rises to a bittersweet chorus that has some of the edgy melodicism of Wire's 'Outdoor Miner', while the instrumental break evokes Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd. 'Reasons Why' is shoegazey pop wrapped around a stately, queasy mellotron hook and a touch of the wistful, 80s acid casualty alienation of certain XTC records, or Julian Cope circa Fried.
This mood continues through 'Dead and Gone', built around a tight, constantly climbing guitar riff that finally breaks into a jazzy, almost bossa nova pastoral-psych chorus. Yet the tension never really lets up, the relief offered by the chorus proving no release at all, and the whole song keeps building, adding more needling, fuzzy guitars, before finally, mercifully exploding into a tinny punk thrash of a coda, like a furious, frustration-solving mass wank.
'Lose My Way' demonstrates another strand of Toy's musical DNA, a distorted love song that nods to the paisley shirts and leather trousers, bowlcuts and tambourine tendency of eighties indie, as typified by the Mary Chain and the first Primal Scream album. Yet those almost ugly distorted jazz chords in the instrumental break, like misshapen sonic standing stones, point to something more original and interesting, before the song closes on a soaring John Squire-ish solo, but buried, typically, in washes of noise rather than double-tracked and signposted as An Anthemic Guitar Moment. The instrumental 'Drifting Deeper' also proves that Toy are more than just another indie guitar band, being a propulsive fusion of dub, Delia Derbyshire electronics, space rock and chiming riffs that, far from being throwaway studio-jam filler, is an album highpoint.
The single 'Motoring' you already know; thrashy, organ-driven shoegaze pop like some lost early nineties classic, the tough, catchy chorus with Charlie Salvidge's drums up front giving it an American, post-grunge edge- Dinosaur Jr, Veruca Salt- where the verses draw on the Thames Valley dream pop of Swervedriver and Ride. 'My Heart Skips A Beat' again relies on a big organ hook and is almost too sugary sweet, but sounds just off-the-cuff and unpremeditated enough to pull you along into its ramshackle rush. It's the sort of song that should soundtrack a million school disco snogs beneath the slowly spinning mirrorball; hell, in a just world, it'd be the Christmas number one.
The album does take a slight dip at this point; 'Strange' makes further use of Floydian 'Lucifer Sam' / 'Astronomy Domine' sound effects, but fails to anchor them to much of a tune, while 'Make It Mine' is a pleasant enough melodic makeshift that chugs along nicely, but is mostly just marking time. It's left to ten-minute closer 'Kopter' to try to pull the album back up to its earlier heights, and if it doesn't quite achieve this then it's still a joyously gonzo rampage; a double-speed motorik bassline, thrashing guitars, a plaintive kosmische melody line on the keyboard, cymbals crashing around like Keith Moon with itching powder down the back of his Fred Perry shirt and, erm, that's it. But the song at least recognises the chaotic sense of fun and abandon that was so much a part of original krautrockers like Faust and La Dusseldorf, and which so many of their imitators lose in treating their source material with a detached, art school reverence.
Toy aren't about reverence, they're not record collector rock. They're a punk and psychedelia informed alternative pop band who, at their best, could actually be capable of making the idea of guitar-based pop-rock interesting and relevant again. That every song on this debut album doesn't hit quite the same heights is forgivable in a young group who, despite the excitement and anticipation around them - and the number of detractors eager for them to fail - are still working through their influences and finding their feet. And let's be clear; this album still contains some of the strongest pop songs of the past few years, plus evidence of a restless, experimental desire to keep moving on that makes you hungry to hear what they're going to do next. Toy are worth keeping.