Matt Toka - Matt Toka EP (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

Matt Toka

Matt Toka EP (2012)

Reprise Records

In some ways, it's impressive at the volume and intensity of negative reaction that Matt Toka has garnered by simply existing. With the mere act of dying his hair green, donning a slightly torn t-shirt and pulling on a pair of tight fitting black jeans, Toka has caused those in the punk community to rally against his very being, before even strumming a single note. In a way, there are parallels to Sid Vicious and his infamous, and extremely tasteless, swastika t-shirt. Vicious (or his clothier) likely chose the shirt not because of any identification with the Nazis*, but because it had the ability to shock and enrage the old guard. Toka, in picking out his clothes, which are a vague of approximation of what the stereotypical punk rocker wears, seems to sneer "I am taking a symbol that represents a philosophy of great importance to you, warping it for my own use, and there is NOTHING that you can do about it." Indeed, the mere fact that you the reader know who Matt Toka is means he's already won the battle…but not the war.

Even in the post-Paris Hilton age, music acts have to have some value in their music in order to be taken seriously at all. Toka's flaunting of his cartoon approximation of punk gets attention, but that's just the first step. He needs to deliver music of some distinction, be it distinctively great or distinctively awful, but yet, delivers nothing more than bland rockish pop. From just the speakers alone, without visuals, Brokencyde sounds like a cat being mashed through a garbage compactor. Madball sounds like two guys being weird in the gym together even without their scowls and basketball jerseys. But on his self-titled debut, Toka just sounds like music played at the supermarket to cover up the sound of shopping carts clacking and old ladies coughing. It's music designed to fill space.**

The music comes across as a very slick, pop record. Guitars are layered on top of guitars on top of guitars until there aren't so much notes as beats. Then, multitudes of background vocals and blippity-bleeps are put in behind those, giving the whole album a very cluttered feel. It's almost as if the production is there to distract the listener from actually hearing anything else but volume itself and volume alone.

Even on the two acoustic tracks, it sounds as though his voice has been Auto-Tuned so instead of getting genuine feeling, one gets snotty vocals that have no depth of underlying sentiment. In the end, the album is so slick and so retro-computer worked that without the lyrics, it would sound like any other song played at the hair salon to fill noise.

In a way its a shame that too many cooks have spoiled the soup. Despite the slickness of sound, here and there, Toka shows surprising lyrical cleverness. "666" is somewhat self aware of the inherent cheesiness of Satan worshiping in the 2010s. Toka exclaims "Let's get wasted until 6:66 in the morning / Let's get naked until 6:66 in the morning / Gonna party with the Devil / Get high on heavy metal!"

Are those lyrics silly? Sure, but, from an angel, they are actually kind of clever in their self aware ridiculousness. Some of the greatest punk is based around silly lyrics. What makes sillier lyrics in punk some of the most clever is the delivery. You need not look far at the pantheon of punk legends to find heroes that have delivered funny/cheesy lyrics with a self aware delivery that simultaneously has a vicious edge underneath. Unfortunately, where Toka falters is that instead of delivering such lines with a hint of true menace, he delivers them in the same way Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 tries to seduce women in "3am." The lyrics might have multiple levels, but they are knocked down by American Idol crooning.

The delivery again hampers Toka's fairly clever concept on "Courtney." Dedicated to Courtney Love, the song seems to be Toka's love letter to the wife of Kurt Cobain, which ends with Toka himself hoping that he meets the same end as Cobain. Such a dedication to gruesome fatalism is pretty clever, particularly here, where Toka creates the icon for his death prayer out of an actual living person. The lyrics suggest an instability as well as possibly a comment on why some artists are deified directly following a traffic event while others struggle their whole career. But again, the song is delivered in an overproduced, by the numbers approach, which instead of adding to the songs grim premise, removes its underlying danger with synth-strings and an Axel Rose-ish squeal.

And then, there is the bad part. Namely, "I Get Money" is a symptom of everything that is wrong with tween-punk. Built around a booming, almost dubstep bass, Toka raps about how he wishes he was rich and describes what he would do with his money. Unfortunately, while Toka's audience is likely those in its most formative years, Toka describes that if he had money he'd pay lesbians to pillow fight in front of him, fill the Grand Canyon with diamonds and banally "rule the world." Out of all the clever things that he could have conjured with unlimited funds, Toka chooses to waste the time of his short EP on the objectification of lesbians. It's not dangerous. It's not edgy. it's not even insulting. It's just a bore.

Perhaps the backlash against Toka has been a bit too strong. Some of his lyrics do suggest that if anything, he has a firm understanding of word play. And, as the evidence clearly shows, he knows how to get people riled up. Maybe if he looses the $500 per hour producers, and rips out some hooks that aren't targeted to grab onto the latest (or even slightly past date) musical trends, then he'll be able to connect the lyrics to the outrage and create something that will still be able piss us tru punx off, but will also have a reason to exist beyond filling empty air.

*Perhaps my English friends will correct me, but it seems to me that the message Sid Vicious was sending out with his swastika t-shirt is perceived differently in the U.K. than in the U.S.A. It seems to me that, in the U.SA., the swastika represents the concept of racism and antisemitism. Yet in the U.K., at least in the '70s, while the swastika did represent the American notion, it also, and perhaps more directly, represented the concept of "This is the army that bombed your family and probably killed people you love." I would guess a good analogy today would have Sid Vicious wearing an Al-Quaida symbol in lieu of a swastika.

**This record came out on Reprise Records. Frank Sinatra was the founder of Reprise Records. In the comments below, I encourage you describe a scenario in which Sinatra comes face to face with Toka. I encourage you to not take the most obvious description as there is a world of possibility out there.