Ska music and one of its most legendary acts have reached a point in their existence where old-school fans are faced with artistic euthanasia-the genre is tired, not as good anymore and dying. But they don't want to let it go.
The Toasters are like the pit bull of the third-wave ska litter. In their youth, they were strong, musically talented and charging. But age, the loss of members, and the depression of the genre has eroded the support the band enjoyed just five years ago.
The Toasters became the kings of the ska underground in the late 1980s through incessant touring and their groundbreaking mix of socially conscious lyrics, jazz, reggae and English beat. The band played a major role in influencing American imitators like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish and Buck O Nine.
The Toasters' style was a sharp change from traditional ska-a slower, more consistent sound made popular in the second-wave by bands like The Specials and Madness.
Gaining momentum in smaller clubs on New York City's lower east side, The Toasters displayed an unforeseen synergy between lead singer-songwriter-guitarist Rob Hingley (aka Bucket or Buck) and the once legendary MC Coolie Ranx. Coolie eventually left the band to form his own project, The Pilfers, and in his place The Toasters hired on Jack Ruby Jr. to bring the dub and rap elements to their signature sound.
Still, their popularity has sputtered.
But herein lies the opportunity that Buck says he's been waiting for. After what he calls "The Great Ska Meltdown" that occurred after the third-wave bands like Goldfinger and Save Ferris rode a short-lived wave of corporate support for the genre, he says the scene has dissolved, and a void exists.
"In a nutshell, there was too much hype and too much money being thrown at bands that weren't any good," Buck says. "I think that popped the ecosystem and people just stopped making ska albums."
The music suffered another disappointing blow a few years back with the collapse of Moon Records, the kingpin of ska labels. The label held the recording rights to just about everybody who was anybody in the ska world. After The Meltdown (which has compilation title written all over it), three of Moon Records' largest distributors went under, each dragging approximately $100,000 of Moon capital with it.
"It was out of the blue," Buck recalls. "We had a little bit of a meltdown of ska, but we didn't expect to have three out of four distributors go down belly to belly and back to back."
With Moon dead, an adjacent plot was dug in the cultural graveyard for ska itself.
Yet the massive hole in the market provides the opportunity for core bands like The Toasters to build the scene back from the bottom. "In a way, it's a good way to get back into it," says Buck.
So Buck started Megalith Records in his basement, recording and distributing ska records to try to repopulate the contingency with worthy bands. This year he put out The Toasters' greatest hits, called In Retrospect. Buck has since moved some of Megalith's distribution rights to older albums and live recordings to Canada's Stomp Records.
The Toasters' last studio release, 2002's Enemy of the System, was a solid album showcasing their energy, brass section and ska savvy, but it failed to get the fan reaction.
The album also served as a mantra for how The Toasters view themselves in music today, specifically with the lyrics of "Dog Eat Dog": "People take themselves too seriously, rolled right over left this scene for dead, just for the record, in case you haven't heard, we're not going out that way."
For the last couple years, the band has been a revolving door of refugees from other fallen ska ensembles. The new recording features trombonist Buford O' Sullivan (ex-Scofflaws), saxophonist Jeff Richley (ex-Rathskeller) and The Sledge has returned on trumpet, forming a high quality horn section. Enemy of the System thus returned the horns to the forefront with good melodic hooks.
"That's something that we used to do," Buck explains. "It's indicative of an older Toasters style."
Which means, of course, that very little is new or groundbreaking about Enemy of the System. But it's fun, and maybe that's what they mean by people taking themselves too seriously.
Their current tour could be seen in one of two ways: either the kings of the underground are spearheading yet another revival, or they've just got nowhere else to go.
But if any band has the road experience, the knowledge to run a ska label, and the ability to pick out hot new talent to rebuild the scene, it's without a shadow of a doubt The Toasters.The Toasters perform at Winston's, 8 p.m. on Jan. 2. $10. 619-222-3802.