Whilst the decision to keep a band purely instrumental can be liberating in some respects, it can also present some issues, especially around structure and theme. Without the verse/chorus progression that naturally forms through lyrics, there can be a tendency for instrumental songs to become meandering riff parades which amble through many changes without really going anywhere meaningful. And with the best will in the world, it’s very difficult to make any piece of music about anything substantive without using words somewhere along the line. With their 2016 debut EP Ode To The Author, Toska proved emphatically that they could write actual songs, and now they have the broader canvas of a full-length album to paint on, they have begun to experiment with a more overt theme. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
With Ode To The Author, Toska set themselves apart from the densely populated pack of instrumental prog-metal bands/projects by infusing their extended, complex and technical work-outs with a looser, more relaxed jam-room vibe and a great big bucket of satisfyingly meaty riffs. The band’s more organic approach to songwriting has also been further illustrated by work-in-progress versions of numerous songs on Fire By The Silos – “Congress” and “Abomasum” especially – being part of their live set for over a year. It certainly seems to be rare nowadays for a band to road-test such a high proportion of their new material on stage before taking it into the studio, but it has clearly paid dividends.
Fire By The Silos is very densely packed with ideas, and it’s nine tracks can appear to be a daunting proposition on first listen. But, for starters, the album is bookended by a pair of tracks named, respectively, “The Herd” and “The Heard” that very much serve as atmospheric scene setters than full-bore Toska songs, as is the title track itself, and “Ataraxy” is a brief piano interlude. This leaves us with five ‘proper’ tracks to get our heads around. Nevertheless, these five tracks still represent a good 45 minutes of music stuffed with twists and changes, so one certainly shouldn’t feel short-changed.
Toska have clearly invested some thought in the running order of the disc. Ultimately, the first four tracks could easily have been released as a follow-up EP to Ode To The Author, and everyone would have been perfectly satisfied. In the second half of the disc, however, the band start to spread their wings, bringing in additional elements that help to hold the attention for the extended run-time.
Introductory track “The Herd” sets the scene, and is an ominous soundscape that gradually crescendos into “A Tall Order”. It is characterised by a particularly portentous ticking sound that, it ultimately transpires, ties into the theme of the album. Fire By The Silos is a dark album, and this theme is post-apocalyptic. Whilst it comes through more overtly in the second half of the album, it manifests in the first in huge riffs smashing together like tectonic plates.
“A Tall Order” is cut from the same cloth as the Ode To The Author material, with uptempo, choppy riffs that push and pull at the time signature whilst retaining a solid groove. “Abomasum” starts, at least, as a more gentle affair, but as it makes its dynamic twists and turns it drops into the most straightforwardly heavy riff that Toska have penned to date, which then opens out into a more expansive variation on the riff that is given a distinctly Faith No More vibe by Dave Hollingworth’s elastic bassline.
A key factor in Toska’s success is that all three instruments are set on a firmly equal footing, each as important as each other. They do not feel, as so many instrumental prog-metal projects do, like a platform for the guitarist. All three give each other space to breathe, and take the lead as the song demands. Even as they start to bring in additional layers, building “Congress” to a towering, majestic finale, their key construct of guitar, bass and drums operating in perfect synchronicity, remains stoutly in the fore.
The album’s title track is another more ambient soundscape, overlaid by the first of a trio of spoken word pieces, telling a fairly traumatic, dystopian tale of a man left destitute by the state he used to serve. The second half of “Prayermonger” combines a lament to a lost world with more typical Toska riffing, as well as a few strings, making it sound like Nordic Giants might if they used heavy guitars. Finally, the album culminates with “The Heard”, a long, throbbing slab of unsettling ambient noises, with more bleak prose slightly buried in the mix.
It would be fair to say that there is not necessarily a lot of replay value in either “Fire By The Silos” or “The Heard” in isolation, but they go a long way towards making the album a more complete, and surprisingly harrowing, experience. Getting properly acquainted with the riffs and structures of the main tracks takes some effort, although it is hardly arduous, and these interludes give the listener in for the long haul a spot of breathing room that prevents the album from becoming an overwhelming torrent of notes.
In short, Fire By The Silos is a thrilling and potent display of virtuosity that – even despite the inclusion of apocalyptic spoken word – isn’t especially po-faced or pretentious. The Riff is undoubtedly king in Toska’s music, albeit one that reigns with extended meters and slightly wonky time signatures, which makes for technical music one can genuinely enjoy rather than simply appreciate.
The additional elements that have crept into Toska’s sound have helped to avoid painting themselves into a sonic corner and made Fire By the Silos an engaging, practically cinematic experience. There is a most uncommon chemistry between Toska’s three musicians, and in flight, they are a truly thrilling proposition. Even those who have difficulty getting a handle on instrumental music are likely to find much to enjoy here.
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Fire By the Silos was released on November 2nd. You can grab it via the Bandcamp link above.