thu 25/02/2021

12 Stone Toddler, Green Door Store, Brighton review – experimentalism can still be pop | reviews, news & interviews

12 Stone Toddler, Green Door Store, Brighton review – experimentalism can still be pop

12 Stone Toddler, Green Door Store, Brighton review – experimentalism can still be pop

Brighton's premier odd-pop rock outfit reconvene with enjoyable results

Ten years ago Brighton band 12 Stone Toddler burst onto the scene with two off-the-wall albums of madly inventive pop-rock. They then vamoosed back out of existence. Now they’re back, preparing a third album for the Freshly Squeezed label, and playing a packed home town gig. The second song they do is a new one, “Piranha” and it shows they’re no nearer normal. It’s a jagged, shouty thing with a catchy chorus about there being piranhas in the water, half football chant, half King Crimson. It’s edgy, deliberately bizarre, and oddly approachable, fun by way of musical obtuseness, just like the band who wrote it.

There have been changes. While wry, pork-pie-hatted frontman Chris Otero and ponytailed keyboard whizz Ben Jones remain from their last incarnation, female guitarist Helen Durden (pictured below) is a new addition, as is drummer Robin O’Keeffe. Clad in a red, sparkly sequinned top, Durden maintains a deadpan face until near the end of the gig, even when playing intricate solos, then she finally splits into a grin, recognizing friends in the crowd. Behind the band is a large screen initially showing their logo, which has an eyeball peering from the "O" of "STONE", then a series of suitably surreal film clips throughout the performance. It’s the only adornment and, after a late start, due to soundcheck faffing with the keyboards, they slam straight into “Come Back”, the punchy opener from their 2007 debut album Does It Scare You?

12 stone toddlerOne of the main ingredients of 12 Stone Toddler’s sound is 1970s prog-rock. Please don’t run off screaming, I dislike prog as much as the next ELP-loathing post-punker, but this band take the style’s perverse stop-start dynamics and sudden time signature flips, and mash them into their own, unique, tuneful gumbo of burlesque fairground sounds, Balkan tints, psychedelia, reggae and so on. They are, in fact, more like an experimental version of Madness than they are prime-time Yes. That said, they stack the first half of their set with a more than necessary share of musically awkward material, as well as a run of new songs which means it takes longer than it should to build a mutual groove with the audience.

By the time they do settle, the partisan local crowd is jigging and welcome a catchy selection of tunes that includes a persuasive dub affair, whose title I didn't catch, and the contagious brilliance of “Candles on the Cake”, a joyfully doomed celebration of the descent into old age (“Some people say, we're not getting older, we're just getting better”), before ending with the piano-led stomper “The Ballad of Al Coholic”, which has a celebratory Tankus the Henge-ish air of Glastonbury’s far flung fields about it. By this point Otero is chatting happily with the crowd and indicates that his band are not going to go off properly before an encore. Instead Durden disappears briefly behind the speaker stack, then she returns equally promptly and they dive into their best-known single, “The Rabbit”, a galloping jazz-jive of theatrical rock’n’roll that causes mass outbreaks of enthusiastic leaping about.

12 Stone Toddler’s return is a welcome reminder that predictability is not an essential quality in guitar bands, and that experimentalism can still be pop. They have some work to do before their live show thoroughly welcomes non-fans, but its second half showed they’re well on the way.

Overleaf: Watch the video for "Candles on the Cake" by 12 Stone Toddler

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