Milestone Albums: The Toadies – Hell Below/Stars Above


***disclaimer, this is a day late due to St Patrick’s Day and a Deftones concert last night***

Today marks the 15th anniversary of The Toadies defining masterpiece, Hell Below/Stars Above. The world was a strange place back in 2001; “punk” music was basically family-friendly and rap-rock dominated the airwaves with an iron-grip not seen again until Adele popped her head up a decade later. Hell Below/Stars Above was the wrong music for the wrong time, nobody heard the album, and The Toadies never had a chance. For the few of us that did happen to hear the album though, it was a game-changer.

Hell Below/Stars Above came out when I was 16 years old. I grew up in Dallas so, obviously, I knew local legends, The Toadies. Anyone roughly my age in high school could sing along with songs like Tyler and Possum Kingdom. But, all those songs, even though they were only a few years old, were already dated classics from an era that belonged to our older brothers. My burned CD’s were curated by bands like Blink 182, Limp Bizkit, New Found Glory, and Incubus. As cringe-worthy as some of this music may seem in retrospect, everybody listened to it and even if you didn’t love it, nobody hated it.

I heard that The Toadies had a new album out so I drove into the next town over to buy the CD at the now-defunct Wherehouse Music(old man aside – kids these days will never know the sheer joy that comes from tearing the plastic wrap off of a jewel case and putting a new disc into your CD player and waiting in antsy anticipation, having no idea what sort of sound is going to come out).

The disc spins, the dial says 0:00, and, immediately, a furious guitar rips through the speakers and a banshee howl erupts, shattering the world around me. The aggression was breathtaking and absolutely pure. Song after song after song, concentrated energy pumped into the air. I had heard plenty of heavy music before but nothing as ferocious and focused as Hell Below/Stars Above.

Halfway through the album, The Toadies take their foot off my neck, allow me to breathe, and soothe me with the gorgeous, Pressed Against The Sky. The song is so tender and gentle, it, at the time, didn’t even seem possible that it was coming from the same band. Later, I realized that gentle and tender have ugly flip sides and maybe the all the rage we see is because, through some outside force, the tender isn’t allowed to flourish. Once that realization was made, I started to hear the softness sprinkled in through the album, hidden whispers foreshadowing the screams on tracks like Push The Hand. The title track encompasses that whole concept, frenetic energy suddenly relieved of its charge, turning into a loving and warm heartbeat.

Much later, after reading about the rejected album that should’ve come after their debut album, Hell Below/Stars Above took on a much different weight. The band didn’t wait years on purpose. The Toadies actually had taken a fairly big left turn from their debut and their record label wouldn’t accept it. Hearing the demos from those sessions, there is no doubt that songs like Pink and City of Hate would’ve given Foo Fighters a run for their money. But it didn’t happen. So, I would imagine, frustrated and emboldened, the band returned to the studio and recorded Hell Below/Stars Above. What seemed initially to be perhaps macho-aggression all of the sudden became justified anger. When I first heard Hell Below/Stars Above, I thought the songs were about a girl, now I’m not so sure.

I mentioned earlier that even with all the terrible music on the radio, nobody ever changed the station. I played Hell Below/Stars Above for one of my friends and he hated it, couldn’t even make it through the first song. I played it for another, for him it was just “too darn loud.” Hell Below/Stars Above was the album that made me realize that my musical tastes were different than other people. Yes, the album was loud and raw and messy but that made it perfect, and I couldn’t understand why my friends didn’t like it. Until then, anything I liked, at least some of my friends liked as well. This album started me down a path and made it okay to like something that nobody else gets. It gave me freedom to find Roxy Music and David Bowie and Fucked Up and Polyphonic Spree and countless other weird little bands that no one else around me likes. Once the internet really evolved into the beast it is today, I realized there are tons of people just like me who like music that’s off the beaten path, I just didn’t happen to live around any of them. I’m not sure what my musical taste would be like today if Hell Below/Stars Above hadn’t hit me the way that it did. So to that, I tip my hat to all members of The Toadies, past and present, and say thank you. Making the album wasn’t easy and the result wasn’t what you wanted but to me, it is perfect.