Skank On 

Ska is dead when the Toasters say so.

Modern ska's greatest asset is a sense of its own mortality, and an insistence that death hasn't come for it just yet. Supporters are energized by a refusal to surrender to fashion, and the pride of knowing they rescued ska from the post-third-wave oblivion. Some fondly remember those mid-'90s salad days when checkerboard Vans were trendy and the dancing dude from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones was a celebrity. Others -- fans and haters alike -- wish all that had never happened. No matter. Ska endures today as an underground, cultish music, revived by those who survived the '90s ride and forgotten by those who didn't.

The Toasters, one of the States' finest ska bands, also exemplify the genre's tenacity. The 23-year-old group is currently headlining the Ska Is Dead III tour, traversing the country in an effort to render its title ironic: Ska will never die, reads the sleeve to the Toasters' last new record, 2002's Enemy of the State. The band is the biggest and best act yet to play Ska Is Dead, and for the second straight year, ticket sales are up.

Following 2003's best-of collection In Retrospect and a consistently surging tour schedule, the Toasters spent their free time slowly piecing together a proper Enemy follow-up -- on this tour, five new songs will complement their back catalogue of thirteen studio full-lengths. Despite many lineup changes over the years (almost fifty musicians have called themselves Toasters at one time or another), their approach to 2-Tone, R&B-inflected ska hasn't changed much at all. Nor has the band's only constant member: founder and bandleader Rob "Bucket" Hingley. At the dawn of the 1980s, the British expatriate and New York resident was frustrated by 2-Tone's relative absence from the United States, so he decided to form a band and a record label. Both became enormously successful -- the Toasters' influence on the late-'80s New York underground ska scene and the mid-'90s national craze can hardly be overstated, and Bucket's Moon Ska Records eventually became the largest and best-stocked ska label in the country.

Half a decade past the movement's peak, Moon Ska USA folded (Moon Ska Europe took its place), but the Toasters have persevered. Enemy of the State (out on the South Bay's Asian Man) was a statement in name and sound -- though industry and popular support had come and gone, it's more of the same classic 2-Tone style. Consistency is key, but there are variations: "Can I Get Another" hastens the record's upbeat groove, "Pendulum" slows it down; "Skafinger" revisits the Bar-Kays' "Soulfinger," while "Barney" honors ska's Jamaican roots.

The Toasters' ageless sound and unflappable attitude confirm that today's most oppressed music is also its most content. In the Enemy track "Dog Eat Dog" -- a bitter take on the rise and fall of ska's third wave -- Hingley expresses what could be the scene's new motto: People take themselves too seriously.


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