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Baked to a crisp: Wilmington doom trio Toke return to Greensboro

by John Adamian

Wilmington’s Toke are a stoner metal trio.

They don’t hide their fondness for weed or for smeary metal riffs played at glacial paces with battering-ram force.

As a genre designation, stoner metal at least conveys something about the music. In many cases, this is music made by and/or for stoners who like the sound of distorted electric guitars. Call it doom, or stoner metal or sludge — there will be no paternity test involving questions of the music’s DNA. It all goes back to Black Sabbath. (A hat tip must go to Blue Cheer, too.) This is bluesy, riff-based rock that’s as much about an abrasive texture as it is about any particular melodic or harmonic qualities.

Stoner metal conquers with bone-rattling volume and organ-pounding low frequencies. The music would head butt you in the chest if it could, if it cared enough about you to bother. In that sense, it’s music that can’t simply be heard to be appreciated; it should be felt at highdecibel levels to fully internalize its body-dominating properties. Knowing this, Toke takes its sound out on the road as much as possible, both because they understand that touring is the only way for a band to succeed these days, and also because the live show is crucial to the Toke experience.

I spoke with members of the band earlier this week as they traveled through Pennsylvania between gigs. (Toke plays Greensboro’s New York Pizza on Sunday.) Toke — drummer Jeremy Vanleeuwen, singer and bassist Bronco, and guitarist Tim Bryan — have been playing shows for around two years, and their focus on touring has paid off, landing them gigs at doom-centric festivals in Colorado and Maryland. The band came together through mutual friends who ran a tattoo shop in Wilmington.

“We hung out and started talking,” says guitarist Bryan. They had a shared sensibility. They liked to have a few beers, get baked, and listen to heavy and aggressive music. And when they got the chance to play music, it all came together.

“We’d be hanging out drinking, at 2 in the morning, and we’d go to jam and it would be really heavy sludgy shit,” says Bryan.

If file-sharing, streaming audio and the general demise of the record industry has made making a living as a musician even more of a challenge, the members of Toke are content to wander the ravaged landscape, making what they can from the scraps. The band is big on DIY shows, events put together by fellow musicians, galleries or fans outside of the normal club circuit. The crowds and the money might be smaller, but playing to five enthusiastic doom heads can sometimes be more rewarding than performing in front of an audience of 50 people who don’t know or appreciate the music.

“I like playing DIY spots because people genuinely want to be there,” says Bryan. “It’s definitely a good time to be an underground band.”

But it’s not going to be everybody’s idea of the rockand-roll fantasy. The members of Toke routinely end up loading their equipment after a late gig and driving to a Wal-Mart parking lot to get a few hours of rest in the van before heading off to the next destination as the sun rises.

“We’re very adamant about not paying for a hotel room to get two hours of sleep in it,” says Bryan.

In keeping with the time-warp element of this music — the feeling that you could be listening to it glassy-eyed in the back-seat of your friend’s older brother’s Ford Mustang Mach II circa 1974 — Toke is way into releasing their material in a format that people can hold and take with them, stare at for a while. They’re not big fans of the CD. But they do like to sell packaged cassettes of their records, with cool colors and foldout artwork.

“It’s a great physical copy for people to take home.

It’s inexpensive,” says Bryan of the logic behind the tape mini renaissance. “It’s neat to be able to do the physical aspect of getting the cassette.”

You could say that “the physical aspect” is something Toke aims for with its music as well. If sound waves could be made palpable, bands like Toke would have it so.

“We want to make it sound as aggressive as possible without being muddy,” says Bryan.

The band expects to produce a new record later this summer. Look for more cassettes, and maybe some vinyl down the road.

A lot of metal aims for a similar kind of muscle and tension, but other genres achieve it with speed and displays of technical virtuosity. Stoner metal is often content with a stripped-down simplicity and lumbering tempos. Face-melting guitar solos aren’t necessarily a requirement. Drum patterns frequently involve little more than concussive on-the-beat bashing of ride cymbals or hi-hat and steady backbeat smacking on the snare. Toke builds some breathing room into its riffs. It allows a sort of miasmic fog to smolder between the notes. Then there’s the dark howling of bassist Bronco’s vocals. It’s more scraped bellowing than singing. It’s not surprising that end time-minded listeners might hear the workings of Satan in this music. That’s only a measure of its effectiveness in conjuring an infernal mood.

And yet, there’s something almost soothing about Toke’s music too. It’s not completely unlike the chanting of Tibetan Monks or certain types of ominous ambient music. Time feels like it gets trapped in amber. The music approximates some of the effects of THC in that way, slowing down one’s temporal orientation. But Toke isn’t trying to put anybody to sleep.

“We really like to add a lot of aggression into it,” says Bryan. “We want a lot of in-your face. Something that really makes you want to bang your head.” !

WANNA go?

Toke plays New York Pizza, 337 Tate St., Greensboro, on Sunday, April 24 at 9 p.m., with Dirac, Dogs Eyes and Mini Guns.

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