You don't have to worry about your physical presence. You can forget everything... - Alejandra Diaz, Toy
It's been years since I was last at a gig, and to my surprise I'm not that fussed. I've very very fond memories of going to plenty of loud sweaty shows back in the day, crammed into King Tuts, the Barfly, the Barrowlands, but I don't miss it much. I remember getting more & more annoyed with audiences, the way some people would treat the performance as background noise to be constantly bellowed over, getting shoved out the way mid-song by thugs carrying pints of overpriced pissy lager, the increasing ubiquitousness of phones, cameras and iPads being held aloft for entire songs (or even the whole damn show). Watching this film of Bowie's last concert as Ziggy Stardust, I was surprised how remarkable it seemed to have an audience so totally focused on the stage, no sea of mobiles above their heads. (To be fair, I've taken my share of gig photos, but only for moments, not for recording whole songs or sets.) I found myself feeling less a part of the audience, that wonderful communal sense of being surrounded by like-minded strangers and everyone totally getting into it... just didn't seem to happen anymore. It's that much harder to lose yourself in the music & the moment (surely the whole point of gigs) when people are regularly barging past you with pints, shouting down their mobiles or yelling an entire gig-long conversation, or you can't see the band because there's a fucking iPad in the way. And, truth be told, as I got older I just got more and more uncomfortable at gigs, part of me just looking forward to the final song and being able to get back home again. So, honestly, I don't miss it much.
Every now & then I'll hear a group and think "by god, I would love to hear that live" - and not in a concert-recording way, in a right-in-front-of-me crowd-surging gut-thumping lights-strobing tinnitus-onsetting volume-you-can-feel sweat-goddamn-everywhere worth-every-discomfort absolute-abandon-to-the-music way. And when I first heard Toy - or possibly TOY - earlier this year, the only thing stopping me from hightailing over to King Tuts for their next gig was the forthcoming appearance of Bagl.
That first taste of Toy, Motoring, was well supported by BBC 6Music, particularly Marc Riley (who had them in for session - you can hear that here), and I played the single over & over, the kind of obsession with one song that I sometimes think I've grown out of but glad I hadn't, while waiting for their debut album to drop. It's an absolutely thrilling piece of music, a psychedelic thrill ride down a Krautrock autobahn driven by drums, as relentless as Leave Them All Behind by way of Popscene, the kind of song you wish would never end. But end it did, leaving me hungry for more - and while Left Myself Behind kept me happy for a while (the second half of that song is blinding) I couldn't wait to find out whether their eponymous debut album would live it up to that stunner of a start.
Months later, I'm delighted to report it does (and you can stream the whole thing via Soundcloud at the bottom of this post). For a debut it's remarkably assured, opening with the cracking Colours Running Out, all howling guitars swerving around the stereo. A couple of tracks later and you hit nearly 8 minutes of Dead & Gone, a highlight of the album that starts steady, then 5 minutes in cranks up to a whole new gear. You can practically hear the blinding lights suddenly burst from the stage as the audience (in my head) loses it in walls of beautiful noise.
There's not a bad song on the album, it's just some are drop-everything-that's-BRILLIANT, some just plain good. At first play it's reminiscent of The Horrors's second album, but not derivative - and the more I hear Toy, the less it sounds like anyone else. There's the frankly sweet My Heart Skips A Beat, which deserves to be the soundtrack to a million college kisses, followed by the spookily woozy Strange. Some tracks hit the ground galloping, others take their time, reeling you in. As Motoring demonstrated so well, they're a band confident enough to let a song keep going - there's way too many great songs out there that finish too soon (Radiohead and Arcade Fire are serial offenders in my book for this) but Toy know just when to keep on, that blissful building on repetition that the Wedding Present would do so fell (cf Kennedy). It all feels right, heartfelt, enthusiastic, even euphoric, free of the sneering too-cool-to-care of others. It's music that genuinely wants to move you and isn't afraid or ashamed to try.
And then there's the finale, Kopter. It's a WHOPPER, just shy of ten minutes and thrilling from the get-go, back on the autobahn, starting fast driven by bass and picking up speed until the momentum damn near falls over itself, yet it never loses control even when they push it faster, harder, more, full tilt all the way to ten, the steadiness of Motoring now careering wildly across the road, lights blazing. I defy anyone to listen to this without their heartrate jumping up a notch, or to not have the distinct urge to break out the air guitar and drums. Despite being a studio recording, the band got in strobes & a smoke machine while recording to try and capture that feeling of playing live - and by god it paid off, because Kopter has that raw power so often lacking in studio tapes. The physical energy of the musicians is so tangible in this song, you can almost see the hair flailing wildly, drumsticks a blur, sweat pouring - and you know it would make a shatteringly perfect last song of the night, worth every aching muscle and ringing ear that followed.
So, yeah, I'm resigned to the fact I won't be seeing Toy live any time soon. But by making an album that's so genuinely exciting, full of so much that's great about live music (even in a studio), it's almost as if I don't need to, because they've captured so much of what's good about a gig into a studio recording, while still being able to listen in your slippers. As good a guitar-group album as you could hope to hear this is, as you might have guessed, highly recommended.