King Toad

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Jamal River aka King Toad passed away in July 2013. He was a close friend and musical collaborator of Neil Carlill. They had first connected over the interweb in 2008 and quickly became friends and musical accomplices. Neil and Jamal talked, shared music, stories, ideas, talked some more and started projects together.

In 2011 they joined Jeff Mellin to become two thirds of the Three on a Match project. The album contains songs, all with their titles and inspiration from Bette Davis’  filmography.

In May 2011 Jamal came to Salem to spend some time with Gwen and Neil and to play some music. It was the best of times.

A Tribute album to the music of Jamal is in the works. Please ask Neil or Al Angel on Facebook for details.

To listen and buy music by King Toad visit here.

The following piece was written by Gwen Carlill


Last year, Iowa City lost a cultural icon, and the world at large lost its chance to recognize one of its most extraordinary artists. In July 2013, King Toad (aka Jamal River) musician, singer, songwriter, producer, writer, comedian, actor, director, filmmaker, performance artist, visual artist, and video-blogger, committed suicide at his Iowa City home, cutting short a life of relentless creativity and equally unrelenting pain. Over a two-decade career, his output was both consistently outstanding and constantly evolving. Components of indie, pop, rap, folk, and experimental music blended with River’s mordant humor and fearless showmanship, resulting in a sound that is simultaneously distinctive and diverse, melodic and outlandish, charming and melancholy. Tragically, though his work has earned the reverence of a clutch of ardent King Toad followers, River did not live to see it attain the wider attention it deserves; the combined effects of multiple sclerosis and major depression silenced his voice in its prime.

From the early 1990s, Jamal River was a ubiquitous, enlivening presence on Iowa City Public Access Television, writing and starring in a string of exuberant, charmingly low-budget sketch comedies including Naughty Pooh-Pie and Eggnog, and creating the mesmerizing video art series Cold and Grey. In 2009, Jamal and friends Jake Gontero, Brian Lenth, and Hans Hoerschelman created the Jubi Show, an inimitable comic gem that broadcast live, weekly, until April 2013. Audiences at Iowa City’s No Shame Theater frequently witnessed his special brand of musical and comic genius, and he appeared occasionally as a musical guest on local TV and Radio. His various video blogs, hilarious and touching in their examination of everything from the habits of his cats to his deepest existential worries, attracted international audiences on YouTube—they are sorely missed.

Musically, his output was tremendous: eight albums as King Toad, two under his own name, and three more as part of the bands Furious Skinny and the Michael Tabors. Beyond that, there were countless side projects and myriad experiments. To call him eclectic would be minimizing. With influences ranging from the Beatles to Nirvana and the Residents, They Might Be Giants and Ween to Wu Tang, King Toad employed a multitude of styles, imprinting his characteristic intensity and humor on each. But River’s aesthetic added up to much more than the sum of these mainstream influences—he was an all-inclusive curator of sound, drawing from musical traditions far removed from, and uncontemplated by, the genres mentioned. As the Canadian writer Lee Thompson put it, “King Toad is a sound not on any radio station anywhere, but is every station all at once. Inventive, adventurous, infectious, irreverent . . . as if Beck had a weird, genius brother.”

Born Areli Jamal River in the North End of Iowa City in 1978, Jamal was manipulating sound by age four, spinning records at the wrong speed to make them, as his mother recalls, “fast and funny.” A joyously artistic child, he spent much of his time drawing, writing, and composing on an electric keyboard before taking up his first guitar (a present from a musically gifted family member, who also provided lessons) at age fourteen. Jamal quickly developed a guitar style that was both eccentric and masterful. By the time he adopted the King Toad brand, there was scarcely an instrument he couldn’t make inventive use of on his records.

The star quality untying King Toad from the pack was in force right from the first album, 1998’s Squashed—an onslaught of concise tracks bristling with punk-rock exuberance and technical audacity. Over his next three releases, Skin Deep (1999), How to Decompose (2000), and Down with the Ship (2001), River’s clever production and candid, often pitch-dark lyrics came together to produce a stream of enduringly popular tracks—“Bones,” “Any Given Situation,” “Insatiable,” “Flies, etc.,” “606,” and “Mary’s Skull,” to name a few—which, to the initiated, merit the distinction “classic.” It was with the 2003 album Reflux that River first exposed the flipside to King Toad’s manic energy; “fast and funny” gave way to slower, longer, more introspective tracks (exemplified by the superb ballad “When It’s Dark”), adding a new facet to his oeuvre. King Toad’s next two releases, the twenty-five-track double album iON (2005), and 2008’s Why Am I So Romantic (remixed and re-released in 2012), are essential listening.

Since his early twenties, River had suffered from chronic, excruciating headaches. Though repeatedly hospitalized, he found no relief in any of the myriad drugs he was prescribed, and over the years his pain only worsened as doctors failed to find a physical cause. In October 2010, his life reached a sad turning point: after acting on incessant suicidal impulses, River was taken to Mercy Hospital, where MRIs revealed advanced brain lesions. He received a diagnosis of advanced multiple sclerosis. Treatments, such as they were, proved either ineffective or subject to debilitating side effects. His musical efforts resumed, but a sense of mounting hopelessness is manifest on King Toad’s next album, the brilliantly titled Hooray for the Bad Guy, which contains the heartbreaking valediction “Of Human Bondage.” In January of 2013, having barely survived a second suicide attempt, he unveiled an album’s worth of songs he had written and recorded over the previous months. Had he died that winter, the masterpiece that is King Toad’s final album might never have seen the light of day. Released last March, Sideways is, emphatically, a musical suicide note—one of phenomenal depth and agonizing poignancy, each song a vivid articulation of human brokenness, reiterated across a wide spectrum of musical categories. With its lyrics arcing a lifetime of personal pain and regret, and ending on a note of acquiescence so moving that it evokes the substance of eternity itself, Sideways could well be the saddest album of all time.

The shock of Jamal River’s death was—and remains, despite its patent inevitability—staggeringly real to his family, friends, and fans in Iowa City and beyond. It is almost unbelievable that this seemingly endless current of music and laughter is gone and can delight us no more. Still, we are fortunate in the extreme to have known this enthralling individual, whose imagination, charisma, and sheer giftedness left a permanent impression on all who encountered him. And we are fortunate again to have, through his recordings and videos, the body of work he offered the world— a world that gave him little in return, save loneliness and adversity. But the spirit of King Toad is not squashed; future generations, will hear of his legend, and share in the music that changed our lives forever.