Tobisonics is the music project of Toby Davis, a longtime alternative electro-pop artist, composer, songwriter and music producer based in Luxembourg. A lifelong lover of music, he was born and raised in England, and spent his volatile teenage years in a series of, by his own admission, both ‘awful and awesome’ indie guitar bands. But by his early 20s, his increasing struggles with depression and other then-undiagnosed mental health issues led him to abandon music. By his mid-30s, he felt trapped, socially isolated, and suicidal. Finally reaching a breaking point, he sought the help of a psychiatrist, which led to regular therapy sessions and medication. Years of repressed emotions and music welled up inside him came pouring out as he slowly began to heal.
For several years, he used his creative vision and talents mixing, mastering or remixing other artists and bands’ music, but starting in late 2018, he decided to create his own musical works as Tobisonics. About his moniker, he says “All Tobisonics really means is Tobi sounds. And that’s how I think of myself, as a noisemaker, rather than a musician.”
Like me, Toby is frightened by the unsettling trend of increasing authoritarianism and populist nationalism happening across the globe, in what sometimes appears to be a creeping movement back toward a new dark age. Some of his songs – “Military Industrial Complex“, “Eye of the Storm” and “Putin’s Got a Gun Against Your Head” – addressed those concerns. More recently, he’s made the courageous decision to tackle his own personal mental health struggles on his debut album We Need Light in the Dark, which dropped October 7th.
In April 2021, he began working on what was intended to be 4 – 5 track EP in collaboration with spoken word artist Wee Scots Poet, with whom he’d previously collaborated on his single “All the Little Things”. When that collaboration didn’t work out, Toby needed to find a voice, as he’s not a singer. So, he decided to use vocal samples as he’d done with his first single “All These Things”. We Need Light in the Dark quickly developed into a far more personal story than he had ever intended.
Toby explains: “I wanted to make an album that gave people hope; an album that said, the worse things get, the more we need to find the wonder in life. In these difficult times, optimism isn’t naive, it’s imperative to our survival. In doing so, I ended up telling my own story of ongoing recovery from chronic depression/anxiety and PTSD, the lessons I have learned, and the ones I am still struggling to learn. By using recycled voices, from old public service announcements and Sci-Fi B-movies, I found I could hide in plain sight. I found I could talk about subjects far more personal and painful than I could ever with my own voice.“
The seven songs take us on a journey that begins with acknowledgment of emotional pain and poor self-esteem, the struggles of overcoming them, and acceptance of who we are and learning to find glimmers of contentment and peace of mind. On the opening track “Panic“, Toby addresses feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy, fearing he’ll never measure up or succeed, which leads to sleepless nights and bouts of panic – something many of us have felt at one time or another. I certainly have. “The trouble is, if you’re not self-reliant, you’ll never do anymore than just get by. You have more assurance but less self control. Panic. All night long.” It’s a fairly short track, lasting just slightly over two minutes, but makes a big impression. Toby starts with a mesmerizing deep synth-bass groove, then layers a fascinating blend of sharp industrial synths, eerie sounds and otherworldly voices, creating a soundscape that’s both unsettling and captivating, and a perfect backdrop for the man’s rather cold, matter-of-fact spoken words.
On “Scream“, he once again uses eerie synths and otherworldly vocal effects to create a disturbing vibe. The biting lyrics are spoken by both an accuser “I always figured there was something wrong with you. Loser. Failed” and the accused, who’s a demoralized victim: “Loser. Failed. Freak. I’m sorry you made me. Emotion. You made me scream.” And on “How Do You Say Life is Wonderful?” he ponders how to remain positive and sane in the face of so much pain (which isn’t openly expressed, but certainly inferred): “How do you say never give up. Life is wonderful? Never give up.” Toby drives home his message with an uptempo Latin dance beat, bathed in colorful industrial synths and almost playful sound effects, all of which beautifully expresses contrasting feelings of sadness and elation.
“Snakes” addresses what seems to be a reopening of old wounds and resentment, namely toward those who’ve betrayed him or let him down in the past: “The vision of your future starts to crumble. Snakes. This is why I keep no friends. No friends. What happened? I trusted you. Can not stand the lies.” Musically, the song is haunting and dark, with a hypnotic beat overlain with mysterious industrial synths, punctuated at the beginning by a somber ringing bell. Once again, Toby uses otherworldly electronically-altered voices, backed by a mournful chorus of female vocals, to create an even more unsettling vibe.
On the buoyant nu disco track “You Just Have to Dance“, he acknowledges that he has no choice but to move on from all the pain and resentment, and make the best of the life he has left: “Are you sure you can deal with it? Deal with it? Dance dance. You just have to dance. You just have to dance now. You gotta dance. But you can’t win them all.” On “All I Ever Needed“, he speaks of the fear of abandonment and being alone, and begs a loved one not to leave, in this case, his dog Enzo, who suffers from epilepsy: “The thing that makes the difference here Is the emotion that goes along with him. A great great fear of being alone. Being alone. All I’ve ever wanted. And all I’ve ever needed. Don’t leave. Don’t wanna be alone.” With a somewhat complex melody, dominated by a throbbing dance beat that calls to mind that used on the Donna Summer classic “I Feel Love”, the songs feels at once retro disco, yet freshly current.
That ringing bell first heard on “Snakes” makes a return appearance on the closing title track “We Need Light in the Dark“, which brings everything full circle on the album. Toby now recognizes that he must be the source of his own light in the dark, acknowledging that while bad stuff will still come his way and that life will never be perfect, he must do his best to remain hopeful and positive: “We Need Light in the Dark. We gotta help ourselves. But you can’t win them all. How do you say life is wonderful?” Running nearly five minutes, it’s the longest of the seven tracks, and also the most downtempo. The combination of a languid bass groove, cool spacey synths – highlighted by deliciously funky Prince-esque keyboards – and trippy vocal effects create a bewitching soundscape that nicely conveys a restrained sense of optimism.
We Need Light in the Dark is a fine debut by Tobisonics, beautifully showcasing his masterful composition, arrangement and production skills. I’m touched by his willingness to expose himself to the world through his music, and I hope this album will speak to others who’ve experienced similar mental health struggles, perhaps even helping them to come to terms with some of their own issues.