Album Review: toe – DOKU-EN-KAI

By Ethan Bloomfield, Staff Writer
[Topshelf; 2021]
Rating: 8.5/10

Key Tracks: “My Little Fish”, “Esoteric”, Because I Hear You”

Math rock is, to many casual music fans, a mysterious genre. Reaching all the way back to the likes of King Crimson and Spiderland-era Slint, the genre has found itself nestled into many bands across borders and oceans and repackaged for style after style. The Illinois emo band American Football popularized math rock in the mainstream with its 1999 hit single “Never Meant” and has achieved both cult and meme status, acting as both a face of the genre for many that know it casually and as a sort of butt of music circle jokes. Looking deeper, though, the math rock genre has much more to offer than this. 

Read more: Math Rock Monthly: TTNG

Tokyo-based toe, founded in 2000, has made waves in the genre for many years. With six EPs and three full-length albums under their belts, toe has become a beloved icon for many. The band’s newest project, DOKU-EN-KAI, feels like a celebration of the art form, blending a palpable joy for music-making with the trademark atypical rhythmic structures and complex melodies of math rock to produce a culmination of an excellent two decades for toe.

DOKU-EN-KAI is a joyous, emotional record. The instrumentals on all tracks are flowing with passion and grace as the chord crashes into a crying sound in the best way possible. Take, for example, the opening track, “My Little Wish”. The album being live-recorded works heavily in the band’s favor, fuelling the sentiment of celebration as the crowd cheers while the track starts. The drumming, done by Kashikura Takashi, is some of the most expressive, ornate and passionate that one can find. The strings are no slouch either, winding through each other as the track goes on, complementing each other beautifully, with each component never overstepping another. Throughout the entire record, the band is in perfect harmony. 

Tracks like “The Latest Number” (their recent EP’s name, The Latest Number) and “F_A_R” go against the normally instrumental formula by having vocals. This may be the weakest element of the record. Especially on “F_A_R”, the vocals are strange and dissonant, but not in a way that compliments the performance. The notes can come off as sour in a less artistically motivated way and it makes these songs the less desirable parts of an otherwise immaculate performance. Even as they are, the instrumentals are nevertheless impassioned and bring sincerity to the record. 

“Esoteric” is a percussion-led, avant-garde piece at first that blooms into one of the more riff-heavy tracks on the album, leading perfectly into the next track, “C”. Its electric whirring breaks into one of the finer examples of Yamazaki Hirokazu and Mino Takaaki’s immaculate string work. Both of these tracks bring great energy to the back half of the album and rally the listener to the finish. 

“Because I Hear You” , the last song on the record increases in rythmic complexity drastically. The passionate percussion and hypnotic guitar, along with the crowd’s cheering sums up to a track worthy of ending out this project. The crescendo of harmonics and flurry of beats ends suddenly, and the record comes to a close on a very high note. 

DOKU-EN-KAI is an album that is both simple, with its relatively unchanging instrumental style, and yet extremely complex. The songs rise and flow like water, making joyous noise that can only be described as a celebration of rock music and the limits that it can be stretched to. Toe has created a 40 minute experience with a heart full of respect, joy and love that shines through on every track. Even 21 years later, the band is still making refreshing and beautiful music, and hopefully will continue well into the future.

Listen here: 

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