Tuesday 27th June 2017
O2 Academy, Islington, London
“Toska - noun /ˈtō-skə/ - Russian word roughly translated as sadness, melancholia, lugubriousness."
"No single word in English renders all the shades of Toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.” - Vladimir Nabokov
Well that has cheered me up no end and got me in the mood for some music. So a wet Tuesday night in June saw me visit the upstairs part of the O2 Academy in Islington to do something I hadn’t done before. I feel a bit guilty, so don’t tell anyone, but I went to see and review the act who weren’t headliners. Mortal sin, cast me down into damnation. Or don’t. I just like Toska, who were appearing before the headline act Drewsif Stalin’s Musical Endeavours.
For those who haven’t been to London N1, the Angel of the South, you would be forgiven for thinking you had arrived at a shopping centre. Because you have. But tucked away in a small mall of shops and fancy restaurants, is the much underrated O2 Academy. The downstairs main venue will hold about 800 whilst the more intimate upstairs will fit 250 at a push. Or maybe 275 skinny goths. It’s a great intimate venue with a good atmosphere and good sound. Although sound levels tonight were on the high end of distorting which, for a band like Toska, can detract from the intricacy of their sound. But tonight’s line up were a fairly broad church of music , within the Metal catalogue, so suited some bands better than others.
Openers were Faces Of Eve a Metalcore/Prog band from Hertfordshire. The four piece were minus one tonight as apparently the bass player had gone on holiday. Not to be deterred the remaining faces soldiered on with the aid of a backing track. Well done lads. At least that increased your earnings by a third. Following on are London’s Sentience, a five piece Progressive Tech Metal group. With twin guitars, it was a heavier riff sound with some ear splitting screams , they could have powered the whole gig with the energy that they put out.
And so to the reason for my visit. First impression of the guys from Toska can be deceptive. Guitarist, and YouTube legend Ra(bea) Massaad is a gentle giant with a very warming personality, quick to smile and as friendly as they come. Drummist Ben Minal seems intense in comparison, very serious with a point to make. And bassist Dave Hollingworth comes across as almost painfully shy, although whilst he is quiet, he has good stuff to say. Put them on the stage and things change. They become three animated virtuosos who are lost in the passion of the playing and the music they clearly love. The three friends, originally from Yorkshire, have been playing together for ten years now and are as tight as a very tight thing (insert your own non-PC comment here). As three quarters of the internet sensation Dorje, where they play a mean Metal Rock with short punchy songs, Toska enables them to get more in touch with their lengthy Progressive side. Dorje has it’s Proggy slant but Toska takes it firmly into that genre.
Most notably, all Toska’s tracks are instrumental. And long. But don’t think Gabriel era Genesis, Rush or Yes. Think Incubus (a huge influence on the band) or bands like Sikth or Karnivool who are firm favourites of the now Brighton based trio. Tonight gives them a chance to play some of their new material. In an all too short 50 minute set, they showcase four new tracks whilst including two tried and tested tracks, 'Illumo' and 'Chalk Teeth', from their 2015 EP 'Ode To The Author', which is available free from their bandcamp website. Or you can donate some money. Go on, go give it a listen and send them some (financial) love. The new material is a progression of their old songs. Well it would be wouldn’t it. It’s excellent and I can’t wait to hear the studio versions to fully appreciate the intricate sounds I heard played live. Whilst they only played six tracks, each track was as good as two songs in their own right. In true Prog style, the tracks were varied in tone, intensity and genre, all within a single eight minute or so hit.
You might think that fifty minutes of vocal-free music would pale. It doesn’t. Each track, although similar, has its own distinct edge. Moving from hard chugging djent Metal to gentle harmonic playing, you are lost in their world. One minute you are lost in the fineries of an intricately picked lick. The next you are battering your head to a down and dirty djent chugalong. And whilst this is Prog in the true sense of the word, it is heavy. With the aforementioned high sound levels it’s verging on the brutal. Bea displays guitar skills that make him an idol of the YouTube world, whilst providing the crowd interaction between tracks. His choice of Chapman guitars, through the iconic Victory Kraken amp head, firmly puts him in the high gain, freight train camp of guitar sounds. He rates in my top 5 favourite guitarists of all times. Ever. Nuff said.
Ben batters an impressive drum kit with the ferocity of a Hardcore band but with the taste and delicacy where needed. This is technical drum playing at its finest. Dave is transformed from the quiet mild mannered man to the wild stepping, finger repping bass God. As you would expect from a three piece, all of the instruments are evident but Dave’s bass is so strong, battering its way through your chest to pummel your inner organs to mush. There is a lot of love in the room for these guys. With a growing audience across the world wide webby thing, this is their chance to see their online heroes in the flesh and performing without the backup of computer based refining technology.
So as a band, Toska doesn’t properly describe them if you take the literal meaning above. Far from being sorrowful or dirge like, they are vibrant and absorbing. No drug induced mind wanderings into the ether, this is a delightful wallowing in the raptures of intricate music played at virtuoso standard by three guys who have studied their art and honed their skills to perfection. Maybe they should have called themselves Tonka, after the indestructible toys of our youth. Strong, powerful and likely to last forever. And to bring you hours of joy.