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Music

Toni Halliday, the enigmatic and criminally overlooked frontwoman of Curve

When discussing 1990s alternative acts, it’s typically the same few bands cited as pioneers of the decade. In terms of the American cohort, it’s usually Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots that get the majority of the plaudits in the mainstream. As for the British contingent, not depending on what period you’re talking about, the usual suspects are Oasis, Blur, Pulp and Suede. 

It’s often the case that amid the commercial success of the giants, others bands get overlooked, and the ’90s saw an unprecedented amount of quality groups get surpassed due to just how big its most prominent acts were. 

If we concentrate on the part of the early-mid 1990s that saw the convergence of guitar music and rave culture, the first name that would spring to mind is Irish-British powerhouse, My Bloody Valentine. Their 1991 record, Loveless, set a precedent for all those moving forward who wanted the force of guitar music but also the mind-bending soundscapes of dance. 

My Bloody Valentine are certainly not overlooked, of course, as they are now correctly credited as one of the most influential groups of all time. However, a band that was cut from the same cloth as them are — Curve. 

Formed in London, 1990 by instrumentalist Dean Garcia and vocalist Toni Halliday, the duo would quickly become one of the UK’s most exciting acts, with many an intoxicating tune to boot. They set the live circuit on fire with their mix of ethereal soundscapes with heavy industrial and electronica. 

Famously, Halliday tended to write the lyrics for songs, whilst Garcia concentrated on the music, although this was not black and white. The duo were also helped by the iconic producer Alan Moulder to bring their unique sound to life, and interestingly, he and Halliday are now married. It’s safe to say that without Moulder shaping their beats and directing the multiple layers of their sound, Curve wouldn’t have been so creatively successful. 

Although we could spend hours discussing the effect of Alan Moulder on Curve, our focus today is Toni Halliday, and she makes a strong claim for being the most underrated female musician of the ’90s.

Fusing the transcendental beauty of Elisabeth Fraser with the gothic power of Siouxsie Sioux, on record and live, she was a force to be reckoned with, possessing an intensity that eclipsed some of the era’s most prominent female performers such as Courtney Love, Bilinda Butcher and Shirley Manson. Reflecting the lineage that Halliday comes from, in an interview with MTV’s 120 Minutes in 1992, she hailed Patti Smith and Nico as “marble giants”.

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People weren’t ready for Curve when they broke through with 1992’s Doppelgänger, and a lot of this can be attributed to Halliday. Her siren-like vocals on the album remain as refreshing as they were 30 years ago, and it’s genuinely perplexing that she’s not more well-known. Typically, she’s hailed in shoegaze and alternative circles, but outside of that, she’s been largely forgotten, and it’s high time that changed. If you listen to any of Curve’s five records, you’ll be blown away by her talent, and will be questioning whether she’s of this earthly realm at all. 

Although there are stellar points to be found on all of Curve’a records, you find Halliday at her best on 1992’s Doppelgänger and 1993’s Cuckoo. Be it the sensual ‘Horror Head’, the dance-infused ‘Fait Accompli’, the visceral soundscape of ‘Think and Act’ or the metallic, almost Rammstein sounding ‘Missing Link’, across Curve’s first two records, Halliday delivers some incredible vocal performances, with some challenging lyricism to boot. 

As Halliday sings “we are in paradise” towards the end of ‘Think and Act’, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re actually there, and it rivals even the finest sonic treats that My Bloody Valentine gave us on Loveless. There’s something undeniably mystical about Halliday’s performance on the track, and it’s excellent. 

Given that most commentators on music are lazy, and particularly when it comes to discussing women in the arts, Halliday often found herself being compared to Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson, by virtue of the fact that both were women and both made rock music. 

When you actually compare the work of Curve and Garbage, they’re so different that the likening of Halliday to Manson makes you wince. They’re both eminent, but vastly different. It’s a pertinent point as it shows just how far forward attitudes in the ’90s still had to come, despite it being the decade that promised to bring us into the future. 

Discussing the comparisons to Shirley Manson and Garbage, Halliday said in 1996 that she could “see bits of Garbage in what we’ve done, just like we see bits of Sonic Youth or the Valentines or really any band that was doing something supposedly outside the norm. […] But eventually, Garbage are a pop band, and Curve were never a pop band.”

A true iconoclast in ’90s music, the decade wouldn’t have been the same without Toni Halliday. An unmistakable talent, with bags of character to boot, why not treat yourself to the heady delights of Curve if you’re not already a fan? You won’t be disappointed.

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