Toyah Willcox | Bill Rieflin | Chris Wong
THE HUMANS are an innovative, three-piece, contemporary rock band comprising Toyah Willcox, Bill Rieflin and Chris Wong. The group brings together four lifetimes of musical experience, experimentation and craftsmanship. The band are the brainchild of Toyah Willcox.
THE HUMANS were formed in 2007 after Toyah was invited by the Estonian ambassador to tour Estonia. Highly experimental, the band reflects the distinctly different musical backgrounds and life experiences of its members. This creative formation marked a radical departure for Toyah who comments: “The songs are deconstructed down to the bones of raw experience, exposing human nature and irony”. Dispensing with the conventional rock band line-up, the DNA of The Humans consists of the voice (taking much more of a role as instrument) flanked by two bass players, with no designated drummer or guitarist. Although recorded and live work can include programmed drumming, beats or guest guitar, the intention is to allow space for the vocal to sit above and alongside the soundscape rather than compete with the noise of a rock band.
Before they had ever set foot into a recording studio, The Humans premiered their material in 2008 with a sell-out series of concerts in Estonia attended by the Estonian president. These songs then formed the basis of their debut album We Are The Humans (2009), which was recorded in Bill Rieflin’s homeground of Seattle. Produced by Rieflin, the 10-song album was mixed by Don Gunn & Rieflin and mastered by Simon Heyworth (Tubular Bells, Brian Eno). It was released in May 2009 to coincide with the band’s return to Estonia to headline at ‘Tartufest’. Album highlights include the eerily, ambient Quicksilver, the majestic, Demigod and the live band-groove of Icarus. The Humans quickly carved out their sound as European experimental meets West Coast American grunge with overarching avant-garde and filmic qualities.
The album received its UK digital release in September 2009 along with the band’s first single, These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, a provocative, 21st century twist on the Nancy Sinatra classic, featuring guest guitar from Robert Fripp. This track was recently used by the BBC on their television coverage of the World Cup football final matches, reaching a substantial audience of worldwide viewers and listeners.
The Humans marked their first ever live UK appearances with a series of warm-up concerts in the very intimate and beautiful surroundings of St. Michael’s & All Angels’ Church and St. Anne’s Church, Worcester. These were followed up by dates across the UK, featuring special guest Robert Fripp playing live with the band.
They also appeared on the bill of acts invited to perform at The Roundhouse for the Helping Haiti fundraiser concert. The Humans tour culminated in a headline date at London’s Scala, yielding a 4-star, review from the Financial Times who concluded it was an “intriguing, often terrific, show” with “programmed beats, sinewy, rumbling rhythms, a kind of twisted funk”. Their set included a presentation of the entire debut album, newly written songs and their unique interpretations of These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ alongside the Hendrix classic, Purple Haze.
THE HUMANS have dedicated three years to establishing their sound, songs and performance. Crystallizing what is at the core of The Humans’ manifesto, their second album Sugar Rush (2011) bears a cinematic density with stirring moments of exhilarating energy (Sugar Rush) tender contemplation (Love In A Different Way) and brooding soundscapes (Sea Of Size). The album also features guest guitar on all tracks from Robert Fripp. Igor Abuladze joined The Humans on their US and UK tour in 2011 in support of the album Sugar Rush.
The Humans release their third album, Strange Tales, digitally in March 2014, The Humans played live gigs in support of the album release in the West Coast of America April 2014 and across the UK in April 2015.
SUGAR RUSH ALBUM REVIEW / elsey Valadez
The Humans’ new 13-track album, Sugar Rush, is experimental, edgy in the simplest of ways, and nothing you can ready yourself for. It’s the musical equivalent of a drive through a part of town you’ve never seen, and just when you think you’ve got the area figured out, you pass a sign welcoming you to the nearby town with restaurants of a different vibe, and even the sky looks a bit different. But don’t consider driving back now, because you’re on a one-way and the scenery stays intriguing.
The opening track “Titanium Girl”, is gritty, with even grittier lyrics. Things slow down a bit on the second track, and steadily picks back up through “Sea of Size”. A lot of the album has a deep, almost dark feel with primal drums that are never too complicated, and grungy guitars, with unforgiving vocals. But then the listener meets a track like “Put a Woman On the Moon”, which features fast synth sounds, sounding like the soundtrack to a sci-fi movie about robots and space.
Other than this, Sugar Rush is a constant shifting of dark grunge and slower-paced haunts between tracks. Toyah Willcox’s distinctive voice glides along each track in a majestic manner, while the album is carried by a consistent, prominent bass. These may be the only constants to the album, as each track has its own individual tone, and they all maintain that tone from the start of the track to finish–like chapters in a textbook, each has its unique role.
Sugar Rush has hints of a psychedelic sound with a grungy heart. There is enough experimentation to keep things feeling alive and never stagnant, but The Humans never overdo any of it. A hybrid of haunting and sweet, this album intrigues from start to finish.
CONCERT REVIEW / Financial Times, Ludovic Hunter-Tilney
* * * * The Humans are an art-rock band featuring two bassists and one, confusingly, is REM’s drummer Bill Rieflin and Fripp on guitar. Willcox, in a black PVC top, a memento of her 1970s punk roots, led the line with expressive vocals, twirling dances and stylised stage movements: Stevie Nicks meets Brechtian cabaret.
The twin bass players, occasionally complemented by programmed beats, played sinewy, rumbling rhythms, a kind of twisted funk, with Fripp contributing a range of guitar effects, from gnarly riffs and a pounding cover of Hendrix’s Purple Haze to delightfully subtle chimes. On this basis the work of Mrs Robert Fripp and Mr Toyah Willcox, as Willcox introduced herself and her husband, deserves a far wider audience.
SUGAR RUSH ALBUM REVIEW / earbuddy
The Humans have made that record we might have gotten if Tori Amos and Trent Reznor had ever come together for a full album in the late-nineties.
The band are a three piece, consisting of singer Toyah Willcox flanked by two bass players; Bill Rieflin and Chris Wong. Toyah’s smoky jazz hall voice lays over the driving bass lines which are then fleshed out with electronic effects, drum machines, and the occasional guest guitar appearance (Robert Fripp does a bit of playing on this record). Sugar Rush is the group’s second release, and it is a big one. This record sound like it could have escaped from the John Cale archives.
With the attitude of Tori Amos’ best work (but not the raw emotion), Toyah’s voice lays over these compositions that sound almost like Trent Reznor on The Fragile. The result is a record that feels slightly out of time, and comes with the necessary incongruities that come from such a melding. At times it feels like the vocal could have been recorded completely independent of the compositions and put together after the fact. Regardless, the diverging sounds are interesting enough apart and borderline amazing when they find their way to each other. Sugar Rush has the menacing and poignant feel of a jazz seance. On “Pebble”, one of the moments where the whole performance sounds as one, Toyah’s voice flutters beautifully on top of a downright scary bass drive that could have been lifted from any of the last three Tool recordings.
SUGAR RUSH ALBUM REVIEW / William Ruhlmann, Allmusic
Not to be confused with other acts of the same name, the Humans whose second album is Sugar Rush are veteran avant-garde rock singer Toyah Willcox and bassists Bill Rieflin and Chris Wong, a trio formed in 2007 to fulfill an invitation Willcox received to tour Estonia.
The singer-plus -two-bass-guitars line up may be unusual, but it is no more unusual than some of Willcox’s other projects, and in practice, the music is augmented in the studio with other instruments, notably the guitar of guest (and longtime Willcox associate) Robert Fripp of King Crimson, who appears on every track of Sugar Rush. Still, drums and drum programming are relatively minimal in music that nevertheless has a strong rhythmic impetus.
It also has a strong flavor of the synthesized pop of the late ’70s and early ‘80s as heard from such groups as Eurythmics and Yazoo, though Willcox is less angry a singer than Annie Lennox and less passionate than Alison Moyet. She has an ethereal, disembodied quality, even when the music is at its most aggressive, such as on “This Reasoning.” The effect can even be mildly hum orous , as on “Sweet Agitation,” which has something of a ’50s rock & roll/doo wop feel. All of this makes the group name “the Humans” somewhat ironic. But it will appeal to fans of later King Crimson and some of the artier efforts of new wave rock.