By Cameron Grieves
What started out as a solo project for vocalist and guitarist Samuelito Cruz (Never Young, Happy Diving), Toner has now produced two EPs and two LPs, the latest having been released on Feb. 19 under the name “Killing Pace.”
With four releases cranked out in under three years and a now-established four-piece line-up with jangly guitars, booming bass and sharp drums, Cruz has fleshed out what was once a minor side project into a fully fledged and wonderfully melancholic punk outfit.
But just as the Oakland group picks up the prolific pace of release with yet another LP, they are staying true to the wistful, dream-inducing cacophony of sound that has characterized their previous work – indeed it seems the band hasn’t evolved their sound much at all.
This is not an inherently bad thing, however. In this day and age, it’s easy for the reviewer, the consumer and seemingly the entire collective consciousness of music listeners to jump down the throats of any new band that refuses to stray far from established norms of genre.
To do so with “Killing Pace” would be to ignore the interplay between Cruz’s moody lyricism and the crushing weight of Toner’s dream-pop-style punk instrumentation that constructs the right sort of atmosphere this album needs to emotionally deliver. Toner has found their sound and they aren’t giving up on it just yet.
That sound relies heavily on the use of jangly guitar riffs on the part of Cruz and fellow guitarist Maxwell Carver that intermix with Kennan Sommer’s heavy, booming basslines to create a veritable wall of underwater melody like the tube of a gnarly California-punk wave.
Toner rides that wave of sound pretty well, with Cruz’s sad and droning voice humming up every once in a while from the depths of hazy guitar riffs and slow, sharp and precise drum beats. The band really showcases this formula well on the two opening tracks, “BC Hope” and “Sobe Bongwater.”
“Killing Pace” also features a collaborative effort with Tony Molina, a well-known DIY artist from the Bay Area who contributes lyrics to “Nothing I Can Say.”
“New Normal” and “Fader” really slow the album down and lay on thick basslines with catchy and repetitive surf riffs from Cruz and Carver.
“Head in the dirt, sun coming down on my face / and shade sets in on my sin, I can feel the bugs on my skin,” sings Cruz, lending a feeling of utter immobility and quiet anxiety to the dreamy soundscape.
Despite the melancholic and laid-back nature of Toner’s sound, lyrically, Cruz has constructed bitter, wistful and ultimately rather sad poetic sound-bites in each of the album’s short songs.
In “Shoot It Up,” the title seeming to allude to narcotics use, Cruz’s narration is read as more angry and violent than his droning singing voice would suggest.
“Hours deep in an empty garage, so shoot it up, sink low and sink deep / in memory of me because when I wake I know I’m fucked for life. / Living, suffering from mistakes of your time, / I am angry, I am sick in my bones. / Does it eat away inside of yours?” Cruz sings in one of the most powerful narrative passages of the album.
This bitterness and regret is at the heart of the layers of dreamy and melancholic sound that
characterize all of Toner’s releases. This is a group that started out as one man’s solo project and became a space to deliver a single atmospheric purpose – to vent and to escape, and perhaps build something better from the ashes.