Kayo Dot are the weirdest, most confounding band in the world, and possibly ever. Each of their 9 bizarre albums has its own distinct mood and personality, to say nothing of how they actually sound. At times, the band appears to be tinkering with its approach and style mid-song. Sonically adventurous and structurally meticulous as they come, lead singer/composer/only constant member Toby Driver (vocals, guitar, bunch of other shit) has forged his own path many times over, taking every release as an opportunity to expand on what came before, to take this strange project to the outer limits of his and his many collaborators’ imaginations. This is as uncompromising as music gets.
If that description sounds pretentious, it’s only because to properly describe the actual sound of the band’s music itself is almost impossible. You end up falling back on meaningless labels like “avant garde” or “modern progressive/chamber” not just because they’re constantly shifting, but because their entire approach to structure and composition is at odds with popular convention, and even unpopular convention. Songs will start quietly and build to a furious, chaotic assault so gradually it will make you wonder “How is this still the same song?” Songs will feel like they’re building up in a normal way, only to take about 5 or 6 left turns before stumbling out on an oddly graceful note. Other songs will just sit there and fill the air with noises you’ll swear you’ve never heard before. Certain songs seem to almost purposefully not go anywhere at all. Then there are various woodwinds, strange percussion instruments, moody, off-kilter keys and dissonant strings used not as novelties or decorations but as crucial foundations their songs are built upon. All of this adds up to a band which constantly challenges and seemingly punishes its fanbase for daring to try to keep up with them, to say nothing of their effect on casual listeners.
Kayo Dot formed after ambient-dream-metal gods maudlin of the Well broke up in 2003, leaving motW soldiers Driver, Greg Massi, Sam Gutterson, Terran Olson, and Nicholas Kyte to recruit a multitude of instrumentalists (including crucial viola/violinist Mia Matsumiya, who shaped much of the band’s early sound) and record Choirs Of The Eye. When people refer to Kayo Dot as “experimental metal”, it’s mainly referring to the style they established on this album, although even here the tag seems reductive. Sure, there are passages of pure brutal thrashing alongside expansive sections of thoughtful orchestration and diverse arrangements, but the songs themselves do not unfold and pay off in ways that you would hear from similar bands in this vein. Opener “Marathon” starts heavy, moves into a dreamy French horn theme with a strong horror-movie soundtrack vibe, descends into heaviness again with one of the sickest, most massively crushing chord drops I have ever heard, runs through a few minutes of total freakout noise blasts before burning out into a calm, soothing keyboard movement with Toby eventually reciting evocative poetry over it. Other songs follow similar dynamic patterns, but man are there a lot of detours along the way. Only one track is under 10 minutes (“A Pitcher Of Summer” – though even their shorter songs find time to go off on weird tangents), the mood is nightmarish and disorienting at best, and the prevalence of blasting metal harshness and seemingly aimless, wandering melodies (“Wayfarer” really is an appropriate title) make this an incredibly difficult, but rewarding debut.
2006’s Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue continues the trend of confused darkness but adds more free jazz elements, toning down the brutality but cranking up the chaos on ultra-slow burners like “Gemini Becoming The Tripod” and “___ On Limpid Form” (did I ever mention how much I love their song titles?) both of which devolve into prolonged avalanches of horrific noise. But tracks like “Immortelle And Paper Caravelle” and “Amaranth The Peddler” start quietly, move through several false builds, and wend their ways toward more elegant payoffs instead. “Immortelle” is especially brilliant in this respect, contrasting suspenseful guitar movements, rainfall-imitating viola plucking, and rumbling cello notes to create an almost soothing atmosphere of dark, pensive beauty.
I have no idea what the title track to Blue Lambency Downward (2008) is trying to do. Technically, there’s a creepy clean opening guitar figure, phased-out effects pedals, a typically inscrutable vocal melody, eerie harmonies and a repetitive high-pitched coda that attains an inescapably tense mood, and the whole thing feels like being perched on the ledge of the tallest building in the world, but never being allowed to fall. Most of the original band left after the first 2 albums, and there is basically zero metal influence left by this point. Toby said in interviews that he wanted these songs to build to more unconventional climaxes that didn’t lean on volume as a crutch. Conscious avoidance of their past musical norms and refusal to repeat themselves would become a recurring theme for this band’s ever-shifting lineup. Despite the lack of loud resolutions, the exploratory jazz-tinged mood pieces like “Right Hand Is The One I Want” and “Symmetrical Arizona” still manage to flow towards their eventual destination with a certain warped logic that shepherds the listener into wholly unfamiliar but endlessly intriguing musical territory.
Tragedy hangs over 2010’s Coyote, an effort that brought more spare and minimal arrangements to the proceedings while pushing the approach of the music toward yet another new style which Toby dubbed “goth fusion” at the time. Inspired by the death of a friend, Toby traded his guitar in for a bass guitar (throwing out fast harmonics and spidery walking lines in “Calynoction Girl”), and crafted an eerie and haunted-feeling album describing the journey of a beloved one’s illness and passing. There is much more emphasis on repetition here, but the acceptance of one musical norm doesn’t make them any more normal. Stained Glass, released in 2011, was one of those “E.P.s as long as an album”, spanning a single multi-part, multi-genre track over the course of 23 minutes that sums up everything KD has been about so far. Bizarre shifts, unsettling tone, a sense of being kept on your toes as a listener throughout, never afforded the opportunity to find any sort of familiar comfort.
Gamma Knife (2012) is where Kayo Dot starts to lose even me. Mia Matsumiya is gone (Toby pointed does not replace her with a different violinist), the band is seemingly playing metal again, but in a much more straightforward way then they used to go about it. They figured out how to combine the brutality and technically exhausting detail of their older work with the more repetitive/hypnotic structure of their mid-period, but it doesn’t necessarily reveal new facets of them. That said, metal fans start here. 2013’s Hubardo, is, to me, a far more successful attempt at blending the two styles. Some of these tracks could even be called “poppy” by their standards. “The Wait Of The World” sounds almost like a hit acid jazz-funk track in some hallucinogenic photo-negative dimension. At the very least, this record proves that Kayo Dot is not afraid of sounding fun.
The slow-motion feint toward more accessible sounds gets (typically) taken even further with Coffins On Io, a spacey near-disco/electro dance record that actually brings in some catchier beats, with a vibe Toby describes as “An attempt to do Blade Runner-style 1980s retro-future noir.” It’s dark club music for only the very weirdest kids. Finally, they released last year’s Plastic House On Base Of Sky to general acclaim, doing away with the uptempo beats from the previous album but piling on more synths and heavily psychedelic keyboard tones and effects to create a movie soundtrack so intensely strange and off-kilter that no movie could possibly be twisted enough to accompany it.
This is going to be the most pretentious thing I ever write here (said the guy who will definitely write something more pretentious than this in the future), but I honestly don’t think we, as a culture, have the ability to understand the music of Kayo Dot at the present. I think they’re trying to show us how, but it’s going to take awhile. I’m not even sure I understand their music sometimes (it gets a little long-winded), and they’re my favorite band! But maybe they’re not meant to be understood, just taken for what they are. A goddamned break-all-the-rules constantly groundbreaking, endlessly inventive, most one-of-a-kind indescribable band there is. You can appreciate that, or you can disregard it and move on with your life. You know which one I choose.
UNADULTERATED BRILLIANCE: Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue, Hubardo, Coffins On Io
FOR RISK-TAKERS: Coyote, Choirs Of The Eye, Plastic House On Base Of Sky
TOO WEIRD TO IGNORE: Blue Lambency Downward, Stained Glass, Gamma Knife