I’ll be honest–I brace myself before starting a Toaster release. Historically, Todd Elliot has alternately shocked me with experimental weirdness and surprised me with comparatively calm thoughtfulness. On Beacons he skews toward the thoughtful side, working guitar and electronics into some quite emotive spaces. (When he sent me the album, he noted that it had been a while since he had done any “Hypnagogue style” music.) Which is not to say Beacons doesn’t swerve a bit toward the challenging side in places. Of course it does. The first wavering notes of “Spider” that welcome you to the album feel uncertain and a touch off-kilter. But as the notes turn to sighs and start to layer on, they become warm and quieting, yet never quite give up that quirky edge. “The Fire Sermon” pulls off the same trick of being a little unusual while still pulling a strong emotional thread behind it. Burbling out in an initial rush, it keeps sending its message in a jittery Morse Code of notes that get washed over by larger droning chords. There’s an urgency to it, and that’s the feeling that pulls it forward. “Conventionally Attractive” may try some listeners’ patience as it yawns out its edge-of-discord structure. It’s about the furthest Elliot goes into challenging territory here. The dirge “Apophony” has a strong central darkness to it, with low notes giving off a church-organ vibe as the piece plods slowly forth. I do prefer Beacons when it settles down a little. “Shannon” is a soft ballad with a fuzzy-focus edge from a broad dose of reverb and sustain. “Out of Range” is a stripped-down folk song with its internal charm still visible. Elliot picks thoughtfully over a background of humming drone with a metallic edge.
I don’t think that Beacons will have the broadest of appeal because it does take the listener into some challenging spaces, but I do feel there’s a difference of experience in listening to it closely and listening in a more ambient manner. Dialed into the background, Elliot’s use of warm tones and droning support structures become a melty atmospheric condition that retains a sense of calm even in its most out-there stretches. The rich guitar tones that rise up are bright and honestly simple, little hooks of sound to keep your attention on the music. I like that as Toaster, Elliot keeps challenging himself to find new creative modes and new sound expressions. It means that although I may always brace myself at the start of a Toaster album, I know that I’ll be thinking about what’s going on.
Available at Bandcamp.