Anyone with any kind of partiality towards math-rock will recognise its stalwarts as either American or Japanese. This is an undisputed fact. Maybe Ireland will occasionally sit contemplatively in the corner, obsessively hammering away on a child-friendly vibraphone, but for the most part, there is a very pronounced King and Queen.
Both countries have made significant advancements in 2015 so far, with Chon’s Grow and Monobody’s Monobody matching the crest of Tricot’s rise to fame and LITE’s consistently soaring popularity. Fans of the latter breathlessly welcomed back Toe last month, after an agonising 6 year wait for a new LP, with what seemed like a communal feeling of nerves as to whether such a gap would have heralded a completely new direction for the Japanese four-piece. Any mirrored nerves on the band’s part of a potential waning fanbase would have been quickly forgotten upon embarkation on their recent, and almost sell-out, tour of the States.
It’s unlikely the crowds would have found too much to complain about in the new set. New album Hear You offers a largely inoffensive continuation of where the Tokyo boys left off in 2009 with For Long Tomorrow. Those of a more conservative math/post-rock persuasion might find some particularly long vocal hairs in their instrumental soup, but that would be nothing they weren’t warned against in Toe’s previously tentative foray into the world of the voice.
Third track, ‘Commit Ballad’ will probably do little to endear such fans. The drawing of the vocals to the forefront seems to have forced all instruments into passive and vaguely disinterested support roles, while the vocals themselves remain as breathy and unimposing as they were six years ago, suggesting little has been shorn from the band’s seemingly lingering apprehension to utilise voice. Fifth track ‘Song Silly’ persists in a likewise, semi-committal fashion, though the male vocal line this time provides a more steely focal point alongside the trademark, questionably-pronounced lyrics. A simple yet simply good song, this is far from vintage Toe, but it’s hard to draw up a lot of faults.
The instruments still have licence to find their own voice, however, and this is seized upon by drummer Kashikura Takashi in typically explosive manner. Intro and follow-up tracks ‘Premonition’ and ‘A Desert of Human’ are stages for the widely revered drummer to re-enlighten listeners with a talent that has lost none of its potency over Toe’s bridging years. The stripped back set-up of two acoustic guitars and a bass provides a perfectly minimalist endoskeleton for what is essentially one evolving drum solo.
Takashi retreats back with the rest of the band in the ‘World According To’, a song full of infectious grooves but with very little of the depth or passion that made them one of Japan’s top math-rock bands. The overarching sound is of a band withdrawing from the daringly abrasive noise they most often created in 2005’s The Book About my Idle Plot on a Vague Anxiety, and the loss of a tangible energy that would usually erupt in abundance during live shows.
Fortunately, following track ‘My Little Wish’ offers a hint that this elusive well of energy is still ripe for tapping. Rightly chosen as the early release track, it whetted many an appetite for the forthcoming album with an enthusiastic nod to the past, showcasing the perfect balance of drum-lead vigour and complex, flamboyant electric guitar interplay. ‘G.O.O.D L.U.C.K’ is imbued with a similar vivacity, this time with drums and tabla working well with apparent cheerleading chanting to offer up a welcome alternative for the somewhat lacklustre ‘オトトタイミングキミト’ and the downright bizarre ‘Time Goes’.
Whether through use of foregrounded vocals or general stripped back instrumentation, it’s clear that Toe have set out their stalls now as a more commercial band. This is nothing critical of a group of Toe’s longevity; the band have been active since 2002 and still feature the rhythmically displaced guitars and palpitation-inducing drum lines that made them one of Japan’s most beloved musical exports. As is or will be the case with all of us, emphasis shifts from life’s euphoria to life’s melancholy. Toe have embraced this notion gracefully, and so should you embrace Toe.