Never one to assume the mantle of outspoken, energetic frontman, demanding adulation from his audience, TOY’s Tom Dougall simply says at the start of their show that they will be playing some new songs. It’s something of an understatement: only two of the twelve songs that comprise the set are familiar, so we can assume that we’ve heard the next TOY album, the recording of which is apparently complete, more or less in its entirety.
Let’s start with the older tracks, then. Heart Skips a Beat, from their 2012 debut album, is a delight, with its soaring synth lines and wistful sentiment. And the title track from 2013’s Join the Dots is magnificent, heavier, squallier and more sprawling than the album version or indeed any previous live renditions. It’s the sound of a band stretching themselves, playing with the template of their established material and understanding where they can take it in live performance.
This has evidently rubbed off on the new songs. We’ve heard no new recordings from TOY since Join the Dots, but they have acted as backing band for some of the singles put out as part of producer Dan Carey’s Speedy Wunderground project, and more recently joined forces with Natasha Khan to form global psychedelic covers band Sexwitch. These experiences seem to have pulled them away from the highly compelling but somewhat more straightforward Krautrock that served as the backbone of their first two albums: they have always been thought of as a psychedelic band, but now TOY seem ready to explore psychedelia more broadly.
A motorik vibe is still apparent in some of the new songs, but more often that mechanical, teutonic sound is spurned in favour of a more pastoral, English psychedelia. Gone are the seven-minute plus slow-builders that were previously characteristic of TOY’s work; the new songs are typically four-minute long psych-pop pieces that express their affinity with the avantgarde in subtler ways. Pink Floyd have clearly been a longstanding reference point for TOY, but they now seem to be informed not only by the sprawl of Meddle but also by the messier wildness of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Also striking is a more pronounced use of backing vocals, as though the use of the voice as additional texture is becoming increasingly important. As yet there is no official announcement about the release TOY’s album number three, but when it arrives it could well turn out to be the record in which they really come into their own.
The staging of tonight’s show is also excellent, the musicians assembled in a row with beams of light striking out above their heads and projecting into the crowd. It’s a simpler but more effective setup than the back projections they’ve used in the past. And TOY look the part too: they are a proper band and they have the haircuts to prove it. Dougall also deserves special credit for being surely the only frontman in contemporary music who habitually wears a black polo neck under the heat of the stage lighting.
Perhaps most impressive is their quiet confidence in what they are doing. There is no encore and scarcely any audience interaction, nor is there any effort to pander to fans by playing better known tracks. TOY’s decision to focus almost exclusively on new material is a brave one and may well have been a source of consternation for some, but it pays off.