Toke Brings Sludge to Denver, Colorado (Live Report)
In the ever-diversifying spectrum of metal subgenres, sludge has always proven to be one of the most elusive and difficult to holistically define. While some genres such as death or black metal are hyper-analyzed by their enthusiasts and thus organized into relatively well-defined categories, sludge is a somewhat more ambiguous, illusory creature. Originally conceived as a highly experimental style, it has been woven into countless other genres ranging from doom and post-metal to grunge and even alternative rock. Although the most recent wave of sludge metal to seep across America has steered the genre into darker, more existential territory by implementing blackened noise and depressive, pessimistic themes, there are a healthy number of young bands emulating a completely different interpretation of sludge.
Taking a rowdier, more NOLA-influenced approach to the stoner-doom stylings of Sleep and Electric Wizard, Cape Fear, North Carolina prodigies Toke have perfected a sound that can only be described as stoner-sludge. With only three years of existence and two releases under their belts, they have gathered a considerable cult following with their surprisingly unique and nostalgic yet unprecedented sound.
Eschewing the plodding pace and prolonged melancholic elegies of doom for a no-life-‘til-leather attitude and aesthetic, Toke’s music is largely a nod towards the raw, mid-tempo, bluesy riffs of classic heavy metal played with the animalistic ferocity of early 1990’s southern sludge. Their live performance a passionate display of everything they stand for. Having seen Toke twice already this year, I’ve come to learn they reside within that special tier of bands whose live set summons an ecstatic and utterly badass energy much greater even than their recordings. Each time I witness Toke’s impressive wall of sound in the flesh, I am reminded of the intensely positive power that live metal can conjure up, and its ability to provide a direct link to the musicians’ primal spirit.
Thus, I was more than excited to discover that Toke’s latest US adventure was scheduled to soon pass through Denver. The tour, which entailed a core run of dates in support of Dubuque, Iowa stoned-doomers Telekinetic Yeti bookended by a smattering of solo gigs, had Toke playing last Sunday at the punk-oriented Streets of London Pub on Colfax. Although they had just convened with the lads from Telekinetic Yeti one night prior, their paths temporarily forked for the former to play a one-off show in Denver while the latter forged ahead to Wyoming to await the tour’s next date in Laramie. This afforded Toke the opportunity to play the closing set on Sunday night, which I imagined would allow them to dive much deeper into their material than they might as openers.
I headed into Streets of London about half an hour before Toke were set to perform, just as the prior band wrapped up their final song. The smallish one-room Pub (which was more of a bar, but I was not there to argue semantics) wore its punk colors proudly; the décor was relatively spartan, with merch tables shoved between the entrance and two pinball machines, and a tiny stage raised hardly six inches above the establishment’s floor. As I waited for Toke to begin, I was unsure of how their raucous, beefy tones would resonate within such a claustrophobic space. Initially, I worried that the set might suffer from the all-too-common issue of attempting to produce an overly massive sound inside a tiny venue.
Suddenly, a gargantuan, ragged tone spilled forth from guitarist Tim’s massive full-cab amp, drowning out Streets of London’s indie-punk playlist and drawing the few dozen attendees toward the pub’s postage-stamp-sized stage, which by then was more than half-filled by vintage tube cabinets and ever vital Orange amplifiers. Just as Toke’s set began, the house lights dimmed and the group was bathed in an eerie green light, which I found utterly fitting for a group of their name.
With no pretense, the band launched immediately into material from their 2017 full-length Orange, slamming the audience with absolutely mammoth, incredibly righteous old-school riffs as jagged edges collided against fuzzy, electric textures. Wicked solos boiled over groovy, infectious rhythms, creating psychedelia in the most hard-driving psych rock sense of the word. This combination of creepy, evil riffs and smooth, free-flowing licks pouring out of the band had a strange yet delicious texture, something that I can only describe as... razor gravy.
During the first few minutes of their set, bassist/vocalist Bronco’s voice was nearly drowned out by the crushing weight of the band’s thick instrumental attack, but the man behind the soundboard quickly adapted to the issue and managed to balance the trio in perfect equilibrium. Already, my fears of a poorly-mixed or overly loud performance were quelled as the room was pounded by satisfying waves of volume -- I knew that the intimate, up-close-and-personal nature of the venue would allow Toke to showcase their rare knack of sounding fantastic in any setting -- rattling the audience’s bones without bursting eardrums.
The group’s attitude toward their music was, as always, displayed evidently in their stage presence and overall appearance. The heavily tattooed Bronco sported a typically flamboyant mahogany leather jacket with metal studs that oozed hard-partying, rock-n’-roll vibrations. Tim was slightly more understated in a black denim vest, but his tongue-in-cheek sense of humor was made clear via a bright yellow Seinfeld patch sewn into the fabric. The band’s permanent drummer Jeremy was absent, replaced by Charlotte native Taylor Arthur, who matched the passion of his compatriots tenfold. Much of sludge metal’s heft comes from the hard-hitting power of the individual behind the skins; by the unbridled savagery on display that night, it was clear that Taylor clearly understood the importance of his role. Getting a chance to speak with the band after the show, I learned that he had been enlisted to play the tour only three weeks prior. Given such a short period of time in which to learn and perfect Toke’s repertoire, I was amazed by how easily he integrated his percussion into their overall sound, performing each song with the kind of reckless aplomb one might see in a touring veteran of several years, not one month.
Though their music falls definitively within the parameters of sludge, Toke’s personality interprets the style through a more sleazy, laidback lens, with an energy that often calls to mind a boozed-out 1970’s Sabbath-on-speed vibe considerably more lighthearted than that of fellow sludge groups. This is not at all to say that the group’s sound is derivative; rather, they surge light-years ahead of “throwback” bands by paying tribute to a bygone era without simply rehashing its songs. Instead, they utilize only the best ideas of the Iommi-worshipping creed while infusing them with an audacious, modern sound that is thoroughly fresh and novel. Their potency is undeniable: not one head in the audience remained un-banged, and not one pair of horns was withheld in praise of Toke’s awesome might. Their idiosyncratic juxtaposition of contrasting stylistic approaches is universally appealing, and when witnessed live it can win the respect of nearly any metalhead who is willing to listen.
Despite their late start time, Toke played a relatively short set, only filling up about 45 minutes in total. As their performance drew to a close, they announced their last song and dove into a rousing rendition of "Blackened," one of their heaviest tracks. But after the song had ended, the crowd was clearly not yet satisfied. Without even the slightest break in volume, every member of the crowd (myself included) exploded into cheers, whistles, and chants of “one more song." Toke seemed surprised by this, and quickly looked to each other to gauge their next decision: after a quick nod from one of the Pub’s employees, they maintained their position on stage to play “Four Hours For Hours," the final track from Orange.
This seemingly unplanned encore was yet another testament to the band’s unique vigor; never before have I seen an encore in such a tiny bar, and I doubt I will see another any time soon.
Ultimately, the night’s experience was simply more compelling evidence for Toke’s versatile performing ability; they are capable of sonically encapsulating any space with robust panache, from an urban dive bar like Streets of London to the Paradise Pool stage at Psycho Las Vegas. They create a steamroller of sound that thoroughly fills the room, yet never becomes overly deafening (although this statement must be taken with a grain of salt, given my considerable hearing damage). Most incredibly, they seem to accomplish this balance without hyper-technical production or meticulous, constant adjustments made to mix and tone. It is as if they are blessed by the twin spirits of sludge and cannabis, divinely inspired produce only delectably evil creations.
I cannot help but to wholeheartedly love everything Toke does, both live and in the studio. I fully expect to see them take their rightful place as legends within the stoner and sludge metal pantheons, hopefully sooner rather than later. Hardworking as ever, Toke is constantly on the road, bringing their raw energy to every corner of the nation -- if they come to your town, make your best effort to come out and support the group.
-- Thomas Hinds
Toke is still on tour. Dates below:
11/22/18 - Vancouver, BC - Astoria
11/23/18 - Bremerton WA - High fidelity lounge
11/24/18 - Olympia, WA- McCoys
11/25/18 - Seattle, WA - Funhouse
11/26/18 - Portland, OR - Tonic Lounge
11/28/18 - Sacramento, CA - Blue Lamp
11/29/18 - San Jose - The Caravan
11/30/18 - Freno, CA - Full Circle Brew
12/01/18 - San Diego, CA - Til Two Club
12/02/18 - Los Angeles, CA - Union
12/04/18 - Tucson, AZ - Club Congress
12/05/18 - Albuquerque, NM - Sister Bar
12/07/18 - Wichita, KS - Elbow Room
12/08/18 - Springfield, MO - Outland Ballroom
12/09/18 - Bloomington IL @ Nightshop
12/10/18 - Louisville, KY - Highlands
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