Toy, The Horrors’ gloomier younger brother, have been guilty of not living up to the promises that their self-titled debut deafeningly announced back in September 2012. Since then, 2013’s Join The Dots and 2016’s Clear Shot felt too easy, resting in-between mechanical krautrock rhythms and swirling shoegaze. Although very ‘in vogue’ over the last seven years, Toy never struck the balance between great songwriting and spectacular walls of sound that their first full-length managed.
However, Happy in the Hollow feels like a watershed moment for the Brighton band. Having split with Heavenly Records in 2018, signing with Tough Love and then releasing their first self-produced record, Happy in the Hollow was always going to be a make-or-break album.
The first track, ‘Sequence One’ instantly feels more direct than anything on their last two releases, maintaining the fingerprints of their well-documented influences, but with a greater emphasis on melody and a much more confident and convincing vocal performance from Tom Dougall. This song is emblematic of the album generally, as melody seems to have been the key driving force behind much of the songwriting on Happy in the Hollow. This is refreshing to hear, and gives the band a vitality that hasn’t been present since 2012.
There are still moments where Tom’s thin and ghostly vocals can’t quite go toe to toe with the rest of the band’s instrumentation, such as on the track ‘Energy’, where the rattling pummel of Charlie Salvidge’s drumming and the angular post-punk stylings of the guitar line make the vocal performance seem rather limp. On the song ‘Strangulation Day’, the sustained synth notes allow the vocals to take center stage, but they are just not quite strong enough to carry the song. Mercifully, this is one of the shorter tracks on the album.
However, this record is definitely a step in the right direction for the band. The focus on melody has bolstered both the jangle-pop sensibility of tracks like ‘Mechanism’ and ‘You Make Me Forget Myself’, as well as the extended soundscapes in ‘Jolt Awake’ and ‘The Willo’. The latter track reveals a new side of the band’s sound, taking influences from sixties and seventies folk rock bands that give the album much more focus, reigning in the slightly more indulgent psychedelic freak-outs that they were guilty of on previous efforts.
Happy in the Hollow is ultimately the documentation of a band finding a more unique and definitive sound that relies slightly less on wearing their influences on their proverbial sleeve. Stepping into uncharted territory, both personally and musically, has reignited that spark that many saw when the band first erupted onto the scene. Is it flawed? Yes, but Happy in the Hollow has a claim to being the band’s most coherent and engaging release to date, proving we’re not quite finished playing with this particular toy just yet.
Words by Jack Dice