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23 Mar, Saturday
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Review: Toy – Empire Music Hall, Belfast

Belfast’s Empire Music Hall, with it’s vaudevillian façade and curious appeal played the perfect host last night to an evening of similarly described musical artists. Kicking off their latest tour and treating Belfast to an evening of aural curiosities were Brighton-bred shoe-gaze psychics Toy, opened by Dublin neo psyche transplants Melts.

Currently stalwarts of Radio 6 and with their dark star steadily rising on the scene, Toy are well and truly on the radar since recently dropping their new and most fully-realized album to date. Happy in the Hollow has been met with high praise, showing innovation, evolution, and a fine-tuned focus for Toy. Clearly out to share the new album in all of its hypnotic glory, the guys would perform Hollow almost in its entirety on this first stop of their European tour. 

The Dublin-based five-piece Melts started the night playing to a largely empty room. It was a shame no one was there to flood the floor and take on the roiling psyche revival rhythms that demanded dance moves. Reveling in the bass driven opening number with wailing organ tones, their lead singer’s eyes rolled upwards while belting purposefully flat refrains. Keeping things rolling right along with the fledgling band’s most popular track “Skyward”,the few in attendance were treated to a rim tapping drum line, bubbly pedal effects, and cries of outrage echoing from the bandmates’ lips.

As Melts slowed things down, quavering tones bled from a unique bit of hardware on stage—an old-school, wood-paneled organ of untraceable origins stole the scene with its mood-setting vibes. A cutting surf swagger rang forth from the guitar beneath pummeling vocalizations of “All that’s dead is gone.” The singer was giving it his all, but this unfortunately wasn’t quite enough to thrill and please the ear, unrefined and slightly heavy handed. When left unsupported and vulnerable on lighter tracks, his voice wasn’t a standalone gem.

Overall the sound produced was really cool, but definitely underappreciated at this wee gig. While Melts’ reincarnation of 60s psychedelia preserved all the driving and dark, urgent yet grave hellion havoc of a bygone era, I felt the band’s full potential yet to be fully met. They finished strong with their new single “Echoes”,which perfectly executed a stride into half-tempo, a chilling slow-mo fade, before snapping back into its beachy racing pulse with crashing cymbals and beaming keys. Swelling like a psychotic carnival, the set was engaging for its repetition and drone, but lacked depth lyrically and vocally. 

The band that has been creeping their way into pockets of fans across Europe in the past few years finally made their way to the Belfast stage. The five guys of Toyslinked out onto the stage with some strong haircuts, dressed in various swatches of black. It was all too easy to get lost in their blasé intensity from the get go as the group laid down a driving drum beat overlaid with eerie keys and skittering guitar. 

I could tell that there was singing but I didn’t hear a word of it over the wall of melancholic volume characteristic of the shoe-gaze genre. Sorting out their mic levels for the second song revealed a simplistic, brooding melody. Vocals were carried up by both frontman Tom Dougall, all the while strumming away on a truly battered guitar, and bassist Maxim Barron, moving animatedly about the stage. The two, accompanied at times with oohs and ahhs by their bandmates, the guys crooned back-to-back tunes from Happy in the Hollow.

Toy brightened things up a bit with the slightly more melodic harmonies and lighter sound of “I’m Still Believing”from their previous and well-received release Clear Shot. But this levity didn’t last long as Toy was clearly dead-set on playing through their latest album almost in its entirety. An other-worldly synth and a subdued sound prevailed as Toy showcased their most creatively steeped efforts to date. 

Their musical growth was especially apparent in the stoic march-like tune “Last Warmth of the Day.” The bass was buzzing heavy in the drum-kit and speakers, but as I plunged in a pair of earplugs the song was transformed it into an ethereal and tender ballad with an epic guitar pattern. Following this, Toy showed evidence that their experimentation with sounds and genre is clearly paying off with seven-minute behemoth “The Willo”. This song dabbled deep into a 60s vibe with its storytelling, folkloric musicality and organ diddle. The eclecticism of this new album made for a set that kept the audience guessing at every turn.

It wasn’t just the song choices that was so enthralling. The band themselves held an indescribable fascination. Like a group cooked up in some Noel Fielding fever dream, the guys were just wonderfully weird to watch—drowsy and daydreaming, dead eyed, mouths gaping like half gutted fish. But the freaky etchings cascading from the speakers was undeniably well-crafted. From fatalist Gothic processional hymns to 80s industrial pop overtones, it felt as if the band was indulging all of their deepest fantasies, and pulling them off seamlessly in song. Between guitarist Dominic O’Dair’s slide guitar stylings, simple but effective bass lines, the ever-shifting modulations of synth keys, and even a cheeky drum machine thrown in here and there, everything melded impossibly together. 

Whenever the pulsating gloom of more dozy songs like the new “Strangulation Day” became too much, Toy managed to pull the audience out with a “happier” number from the band’s infancy, like the downright catchy “Reasons Why” and carefree jaunt “Motoring”. While the meager crowd was primarily dazed throughout the gig, swaying minutely in a conservative semi-circle, Toy got their feet moving for their final number, naturally plucked from the latest album. This eager track fittingly titled “Energy” had everyone rocking out to the kicking beat—complete with a drum breakdown featuring the fast fingered fellow—alongside funky spoken-word lyric play.

Without much warning, the boys inconspicuously retreated to the shadows from whence they came, never to be seen again. No doubt the absorbing artistry the crowd was privy to that evening would continue to ring strongly in their minds long after they are gone. Unquestionably the reputation of this mind-bending ensemble will only grow until next we see them pass through our city.