The Toadies – Hell Below / Stars Above

The Toadies
Hell Below / Stars Above

Way back in 1994, the Toadies released Rubberneck, their debut full-length album. It featured the single, “Possum Kingdom,” which you’ve almost certainly heard, even if you had no idea who the band was. Then, the band disappeared. Finally, and to the joy of the fan-base that they have built up through a considerable amount of touring, the Toadies have returned with Hell Below / Stars Above, an album that was finished many months ago but saw its release date pushed back due to music industry idiocy. I guess that’s what happens when the record label you’re stuck with (Interscope) has Fred Durst as its vice president.

The Toadies may have taken seven years off, but they (Todd Lewis – guitar/vocals, Mark Reznicek – drums, percussion, Lisa Umbarger – bass, and Clark Vogeler – guitar piano) sound as fresh as ever. Hell Below / Stars Above may take a few listens to get used to if you have never listened to the band before, but you will eventually be impressed.

Vogeler, who replaced old guitarist Darrel Herbert after Rubberneck, churns out some mighty impressive guitar riffs and solos that were non-existent on the previous album. Meanwhile, Lewis’ lyrics have matured, but his style remains the same; he has no problem switching between scratchy howls and painfully beautiful singing of songs like the lovely “Pressed Against The Sky.”

The album is kicked off with a patented Lewis howl, leading into the brutal “Plane Crash.” As things continue, tunes like “You’ll Come Down” and “Little Sin” show the bands radio-friendly, yet still rocking side, while crunching numbers like “Heel,” “Sweetness,” and “Motivational” will make all Toadies’ fans damn proud.

The dark, sometimes psychotic lyrics that flowed throughout this album’s predecessor are not as prominent. The fantasies of abduction and other twisted tales like “Tyler” and “Possum Kingdom” from Rubberneck have been replaced with more thoughtful, but still very powerful themes. The stories of old do make an appearance or two, they just no longer serve as the backbone: “Give me your hand / And I will hold it forever / On my nightstand / In a box with your love letters,” Lewis sings on “Jigsaw Girl.” It is hard to pick highlights here, because every single track is a solid one. And after seven years, they should be.

Folk god Elliott Smith makes a guest appearance on piano in the title track, which goes from a blazing, up-tempo rant, to a slower, gospel-backed closing, all in a matter of only four minutes. From there, the gospel blends into the closing track, and a definite highlight, “Dollskin.” It is a gut-wrenchingly beautiful finish to what is thus far one of the surprise best albums of the year.