Monday 17 October 2022

Toxik - Dis Morta (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Technical Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 Aug 2022
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Newest in the list of bands I remember from the eighties who ceased to be in the nineties but are now back in business are Westchester County based thrash metallers Toxik. I remember loving the World Circus debut and liking its follow up, Think This, just not quite so much. They stood out from the crowd because they played a very technical form of thrash that I'm sure could be seen through hindsight as progressive, though less so than, say, Mekong Delta, Hexenhaus or Sieges Even. I thought that was it for them and, for the longest time, it was. They split up in 1992 but reformed twice, an abbreviated attempt in 2007 and a more substantial one in 2013 that's still active today.

This is a grand return indeed, for a number of reasons. One is that it truly is a return, the first new studio album for Toxik in no fewer than thirty-three years. That's because 2020's Kinetic Closure is a re-recording album, in which the current line-up took on a collection of songs from the first pair, presumably during COVID. The other is that this is seriously good, deceptively so because it took a little while for me to truly come to grips with what it's doing. And that's as an album, because I'm almost in shock at how immediate songs like Feeding Frenzy and Straight Razor are.

What old listeners should know is that this is even more technical and progressive than they used to be. I went back to dip my toes into the first two albums, which I haven't heard in decades, and it feels like they've taken everything they did and squared it. There's no major shift in approach, but this is emphatically more. And while that's clear from the opening title track, with its fascinating shifts in guitar tone as it finishes up and the hymn it briefly becomes in the middle, it's even more overt on Feeding Frenzy, which lives up to its frantic title.

I seem to alternate between reviewing thrash metal albums where the songs are annoyingly stuck in mid tempo and those where everything's refreshingly fast. Feeding Frenzy is notably faster. It's alternately shred heaven and churning pit fodder. Listening to this song is what the water ought to feel like when a bleeding antelope is dropped into a shark tank. Your reaction is likely to be abrupt shock as you try to figure out what just happened around you. The same thing happens, albeit to a slightly lesser extent, with Straight Razor, which is speed metal from the Agent Steel playbook, and the escalation in Devil in the Mirror.

Needless to say, the band here is tight, because they have to be to play music of this complexity. It may not surprise to find that the relatively new band behind founder member Josh Christian, who has remained on guitar throughout every line-up, isn't without technical experience. In particular, Jim DeMaria, who handles the drums here, is the current drummer with Heathen and has played live with Demolition Hammer. He joined in 2016 while new fish Eric van Druten arrived on rhythm guitar in 2019, so they've had a few years to get inside each others' musical skins.

Dis Morta isn't an easy album to come to grips with. There's a lot here, sure, but it's how it seems to all happen at once that's disorientating. What's odd is that it isn't the overload that takes us aback, as it can be with bands like Fleshgod Apocalypse or Ghost Cries; it's the way it changes on a dime, as if it enjoys teasing us and then slipping through our fingers. Hyper Reality is fascinating, an artistic collage of samples, jagged chords and dissonance. It shifts from peaceful to frantic and there are some eye-opening vocal acrobatics that arrive entirely out of the blue. It feels modern, even futuristic, so Voivod shouldn't take long to manifest as a comparison.

Given that they don't entirely restrict their sound to the progressive thrash metal that serves as the bedrock, there are other names worthy of mention that might seem odd to place alongside a Voivod or an Agent Steel. There's a lot of Crimson Glory here, both in the vocals of new singer Ron Iglesias, who takes the already high pitched style of his predecessors and, like everyone else here, amps it up further, and also in the theatricality of some of the songs, especially the first minute or so of Devil in the Mirror, which is like a Broadway musical but darker and heavier. They go further into power metal too, especially on the closer, Judas, which reminds of Blind Guardian.

The question is probably whether your brain will shut down when hearing Toxik. Feeding Frenzy is worthy of replacing Slayer's Angel of Death as the go to brain meltdown song to put in front of the sort of YouTube reactors who haven't heard anything heavier than AC/DC yet. You got a kick out of Thunderstruck? Oh, you'll love Feeding Frenzy! The sheer pitch of what Iglesias does here is going to be a polariser too, because I'm sure a lot of people, even old school thrash fans, are going to be overwhelmed by his voice. But, if you get past those things intact, then this is likely to be the sort of album that's not going to leave you alone. You'll keep coming back to it for a couple of listens to see what emerges from it that time. And another. And... it's going to be a gift that keeps on giving.

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