Friday, January 18, 2013

Toxik - Think This

Let's be real here...

For years, I'd always given the title of "most overrated thrash album" to Dark Angel's only legit claim to notoriety, Darkness Descends.  Over time, I've been forced to reevaluate my selection.  Darkness Descends is often hailed as a masterpiece despite it having nearly nothing going for it outside of a completely rabid intensity.  No doubt the album is fast and unhinged, but with a middling vocal performance and unmemorable riffs, I'd always seen it as the hyperactive little cousin to much more memorable and (rightly) visible albums released that same year like Pleasure to Kill and Reign in Blood.

But despite me finding it overrated, I still recognize why it's so universally adored.  I acknowledge the merit in the completely crazed performance, no matter how inconsequential the songs end up to me.  I get it. 

Think This?  I don't get it.

I was introduced to the East Coast thrash maniacs, Toxik, via their 1987 debut, World Circus, thanks to a recommendation that I would like them based on how much I like Realm's Endless War.  I fell in love with World Circus pretty quickly, with its completely shitnards bonkers approach to songwriting and the concept of restraint.  It was loaded with Josh Christian's high octane thrash riffs and Mike Sanders's completely inhuman shrieks, and with the help of the great songwriting it all managed to coagulate in such a way that ended up being one of the most memorable albums of the extraordinarily specific "melodic technical thrash with a high pitched squealy vocalist" subniche that seemed to be blooming around this time in metal's history.

But let's be real here, their follow up, the much lauded Think This, is dialed back.  It's less ridiculous, less over the top, more restrained, and more... well, boring.  This is an attempt at maturity, but not the good kind.  It's a good maturity when you grow up enough to realize that everything you believed as a 15 year old was fucking stupid, it's a bad maturity when Metallica decides thrash is below them and they'd rather make dad rock.  This is Toxik jumping straight from Kill 'em All to Load.  I keep seeing terms like "progressive" and "intelligent" thrown around when praising this album to high heaven, and while they aren't wrong, they seem to manifest in all the least interesting ways.  The previously straightforward yet absurdly passionate riffs are now more precise and surgical than before.  This could have been a really cool thing, but it's all dialed back in the sense that the fire they used to carry is almost entirely sapped in favor of this herky-jerky, mechanical guitar playing.  That crazed lunacy is absent in favor of a cold, bereft approach.

At the same time, I understand that that was the point, and that it fit conceptually with the themes of the album.  This is late 80s Big Brother/Reaganomics thrash at it's finest.  The themes of looming nuclear war and the destruction of mankind with the simple flick of a switch and greed and inhumanity and all that happy crap are thrown to the forefront, hammering you over the head with the whole "evils of the government" stuff that every thrash band seemed to be getting off on during the late 80s.  This is fine, I have no qualms with the themes, but I feel like the more lifeless album was a result of the band trying to sonically match the concepts they were presenting.  But this is thrash, technical and progressive as it may be, the music doesn't lend itself to such a dry, barren production.  This shit needs life, and the simple fact that it isn't overloud or brickwalled doesn't mean it isn't suffocatingly dry. 

Musically, I can admit there isn't anything wrong with Think This when standing on it's own.  I'm sure prog fans can love the hell out of this for how technical tracks like "Technical Arrogance" can be, and also for how calm and soothing the ballad, "There Stood the Fence" is.  Personally, I hate that fucking ballad.  It sounds so sappy and weak and out of place in what is otherwise a pretty rocking album (as middling as it may be).  It throws the whole pace out of whack, especially when it's bookended by an ohrwurm in "Black and White" and the absolute best track on the album in "Spontaneous".  Yeah I should clarify that, I don't hate this album.  I think it's overrated to hell and lacks the intangibles that made World Circus so fun, but there are things I like.  "Spontaneous" is by far the best track, with an infectious chorus featuring gang shouts, a fast paced main riff, and rather impressive vocal acrobatics from Charles Sabin.  The parts where the band takes a more traditional approach come across so much better than the needlessly noodly stop-start parts as well, hence why I love "Spontaneous" and "Shotgun Logic" the most. 

Since I brought up Sabin in that last post, I feel I really need to address some quibbles I have with he and the rabid fans of this album.  Namely the fact that he's mediocre as can be.  I don't deny his ability to hit a zanily stratospheric falsetto, but everything else is so goddamn average that the mere existence of them bothers me.  I mean, Sanders wasn't anything special either, but he wasn't going for this clean, melodic performance.  He was an unhinged wildman, Paul Baloff on helium, so his technically "eh" performance was forgivable since he had so much character.  Sabin's mid range notes might as well be him talking with a vibrato, and sometimes I could swear he gets possessed by 1986-era Joey Belladonna because he just wails on notes that sound... wrong.  Like they're flat, he should be juuuust a semitone higher and it'd sound fine.  Hell, on "Spontaneous" (a legitimately awesome track that I adore, I should remind you all), he sounds atonal as fuck during the chorus.  Actually, I think that's my main problem with him.  It feels like he's wandering out of key all the time, he sings like a really slow Kerry King solo.  Listen to "Wir Njn 8/in God" or "Black and White", tell me you don't hear this at all.  The latter song is catchy and all, but I don't necessarily feel that it's for the best reasons.  I get that dull, descending one-phrase chorus stuck in my head whenever I listen to this album, which is more often than I'd care to because I'm always trying to convince myself that I just don't understand how great it is yet.  The more I listen to the disjointed, overly technical riffs coupled with the inconsequential songwriting and Sabin's weird warble, the more I just cement my position that Think This is... well kinda shitty. 

I admit this may be a case of me knocking this album down a couple pegs simply because I liked the previous one so much, but fuck how could I not?  Think This lacks nearly everything that made the previous album so entertaining.  There's no vibrancy or life to this album, it's a strange automaton instead of this wacky carnival explosion that World Circus was.  I understand that Toxik was trying to take themselves in a different direction here, so the fact that it's different shouldn't surprise me, nor should I see it as a failure on a technical level, since they did succeed at making the much more oppressive, cerebral album they'd set out to.  But... but damn they just aren't as good at this.  Sabin's vocals irritate the hell out of me and I'll never understand why he's so universally revered, especially since this is the only album he was ever featured on, across any band.  Christian's riffs are good but have almost zero staying power and are often weird for the sake of weirdness instead of the sake of flow.  I like bits of it, the bass playing is impressive and the solos are wild, and the straightforward bits are good, but there're just so many attempts at cleverness and convoluted oddities that just fall flat that I can neither enjoy this album fully, nor can I comprehend why nearly every other thrash fan on the planet can.  If this herky-jerky, broken, front loaded album with a tone deaf wailer who just happens to have crazy high range is really among the best thrash has to offer, then I'm afraid I'll have to turn in my leather jacket and cut my hair, because this just is not for me.

RATING - 51%

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