It was my first time seeing Toy, which seems strange considering they’ve mostly come from Brighton, with some of the guys even going to the same school as me (although a few years after my time there). It was only through reading our recent Spotlight interview with the band that I made the connection with Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong, who I had seen before they really got going, in a dingy shoebox venue in Shoreditch. TOY are instantly recognisable though, dressed like mannequins for the display window of Beyond Retro or To Be Worn Again. Their music is couched in similar terms; a carefully curated cross-section of retro and more modern elements fused together into a satisfying whole. 60s revivalism, often propelled by kraut-rock beats and soaked in wall-of-noise distortions and ambience that go a little beyond punk, perhaps most recalling the work of their early tour mates The Horrors, who gave them a bit of a leg up by inviting them on the road.
Toy have songs to boot though, which sets them apart from a lot of noise merchants out there. Perhaps it’s a hangover from their Joe Lean days, but where you could happily lose yourself in their noisy slow-jams, it’s the hooks in their songs that really prick my ears up. Unfortunately for my tastes, tonight’s show and the sound in particular, is geared more towards the former. Whenever they hit their stride with a psychedelic wig-out the noise that comes from this tight unit is immense and glorious, but, on several occasions, when they’re trying to recreate a more sophisticated moment from their back catalogue there’s a struggle. Things start off in fine fashion though with an excellent rendition of ‘I’m Still Believing’, only released as a single a week ago and it already feels like it could become their most popular song. But as the song finishes lead singer Tom Dougal immediately begins asking for more vocals in the monitor. We, the audience, universally agree: ‘more vocals’ is what we need! But it’s evident from the fact he and his band mates are still making the same request, six or seven songs in, that ‘more vocals’ had become an impossibility. Dougal, although quite a capable singer, doesn’t exactly have the strongest of voices. It’s slight and airy on record. When artfully balanced by producer Dan Carey there’s a contrast between the wall of noise, the insistent beat and the restrained, almost laid-back voice which creates tension and excitement. On stage tonight the wall of noise wins outright and that sophisticated dichotomy is all but lost. Those excellent backing vocals in ‘Another Dimension’ are a little jarring when they’re out of tune, and it’s a tough part that is going to be nearly impossible to pitch if you can’t hear yourself.
‘Clear Shot’, the title track from their latest record, was a case in point. Played early in the set this is a song of two halves: the dreamy, psychedelic, spacious beginning part simply fell flat, but as soon as they entered into the second half, with its driving rhythm, it soared. ‘Fast Silver’, probably my favourite on the new album, also suffered as the insistent rhythm guitar that makes the song, got lost after the first verse. That’s not to say the night was a complete write-off, there were in fact many highlights and, as I mentioned before, whenever the band got into their pumping, forceful groove moments they were a force of nature. The best moments for me were the aforementioned opening of ‘I’m Still Believing’, the throbbing synth arpeggios and soaring chorus of ‘Dream Orchestrator’, which lifted matters towards the end of the set, and ‘Motoring’ from their first album, which was a fantastic rendition of a track I wasn’t familiar with before the show. I’m also happy to report that the group are great to watch, after I’d assumed their moody image would translate into a sullen stage show, I was quite wrong: these guys were throwing shapes and rocking out just the right amount. It seemed natural and never strayed into cliché mode.
Perhaps I’m just getting on a bit now and I’m being an old git by saying this, but I am way past the volume=excitement stage when it comes to appreciating live music. You have to think, six songs into your set and the sound guy still can’t give you enough vocals in the monitor – maybe it’s time to turn that guitar amp down, just a little?! I like Toy, I really do, but I couldn’t help but leave the show on Saturday night a little disappointed – it felt like a missed opportunity in many ways. A lot of my favourite moments from the new album simply did not translate as well as they could have done in the live show. Maybe I need to see them in a bigger venue where the loud on-stage sound is more justified; or maybe they need to refine their dynamics a little, to allow the quieter, more sophisticated parts of their set to shine just as much as the full-blown parts. Either way I wouldn’t let tonight put me off seeing them again: this is a really good band and some day soon they’re going to be great.