Kayo Dot’s Epic, Experimental Metal: A Retrospective

Kayo Dot

As the sole constant member of the genre-hopping, experimental-metal project Kayo Dot, Toby Driver has made it his mission to circumvent the obvious. This is a band that can swing wildly from operatic doom through neoclassical space-rock to outright electro prog, often within the course of a single epic track; the lyrical depth, whether delivered via growls, croons, or sung in falsetto, is less likely to have audiences waving their cigarette lighters than reaching for the nearest dictionary. (The vocabulary of Kayo Dot’s new album, Blasphemy, includes words like “circumambulation.”) 

It is, therefore, entirely understandable that Kayo Dot have found themselves mostly ignored by whole swathes of the metal community, overshadowed by the likes of Coheed and Cambria and The Mars Volta. And that’s a shame. As their small and fiercely loyal fan base can attest, Kayo Dot’s catalog reflects a project forever evolving, with no shortage of genuine surprises. Here’s a rundown of Driver’s impressive catalog so far.

Kayo Dot

Choirs of the Eye

Believe it or not, Kayo Dot’s debut album was largely inspired by online arguments over compositional methods that Driver and his followers had been having with fans of the Swedish prog-metal band Opeth on metal forums. As a consequence of these disputes, Driver decided to compose a so-called metal album that didn’t have any obvious riffs or arbitrary repetitions. This creative breakthrough made for a highly distinctive and anti-generic brand of structurally-complex orchestral metal, with lyrics provided by Jason Byron of Driver’s previous band, Maudlin Of The Well. (Byron collaborates frequently with Kayo Dot yet rarely performs on their recordings, making him avant-metal’s answer to Bernie Taupin.) It’s a testament to the strength of Kayo Dot’s debut recording that the results were quickly snapped up for release by the Tzadik label, owned by the iconic composer John Zorn.

Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue

Discussing Kayo Dot’s second album back in 2006, Driver observed that “within the online communities, most people who really loved Choirs Of The Eye don’t like the new one.” Such is the cross to bear for any band that refuses to repeat itself. In later years, Driver would define his audience as a “small and loyal group of fans who are curious about everything and have come to accept that exploration is what it’s really all about.” Harder-edged and using far fewer overdubs than its predecessor, Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue boasts a greater live feel. From this point forward, Kayo Dot’s unorthodox compositions and organized aural chaos continued to evolve in accordance with Driver’s lurching and restless inclinations.

Kayo Dot

Blue Lambency Downward

After Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue, Kayo Dot underwent a major lineup shift, with Driver and Mia Matsumiya staying on as the only holdover members. As such, they tapped a slew of “special guests” (i.e. session musicians) to record and tour behind 2008’s follow-up Blue Lambency Downward. Given the mass departure preceding it, the themes of loneliness and despair powering Blue Lambency Downward hardly scan as a surprise, although the music itself was certainly new; around this time, Driver became fascinated by woodwind instruments, which he felt expressed his lonely feelings better than guitars ever could. His enthusiasm for woodwind left certain metal critics scratching their heads, but for Kayo Dot, that’s kind of always been the point.

Coyote

Kayo Dot’s 2010 album Coyote is dedicated to the memory of—and conceptually indebted to—Driver’s friend and collaborator Yuko Sueta, who died the previous year of cancer. A harrowing blend of avant-garde rock, trip jazz, glimmering bass tones, and Scott Walker-esque experimental grandeur, the record skews more somber than the rest of Driver’s catalog, albeit with the same adventurous spirit. The album’s centerpiece is the two-part suite “Abyss Hinge.” The first movement, “Sleeping Birds Sighing In Roscolux,” is a four-minute flurry of tumbling drums and distorted guitar licks. Clocking in at 10 minutes longer, “Abyss Hinge 2: The Shrinking Armature” molds brass blasts into a passionate dialectic on the turmoils of bereavement.

Gamma Knife

By the time of their fifth full-length, Kayo Dot were faced with serious budget restrictions as a consequence of parting ways with Hydra Head Records. Gamma Knife was released independently through Driver’s Ice Level Music imprint with much of the material recorded live at Brooklyn venue Littlefield. Such financial tribulations also appear to have instilled the group with a renewed ferocity, not least on the blistering “Rite Of Goetic Evocation.” It sounds like King Crimson providing the score to a film noir about the Norwegian black metal scene. At little over 30 minutes long, Gamma Knife is the shortest Kayo Dot album. The band still managed to pack more ideas into its half-hour running time than many acts manage to dream up in their entire career.

Hubardo

Kayo Dot’s shortest album was followed by its longest and most overwhelming LP. Now it was time for a 100-minute concept album about a meteor that crashes out of the sky and has an enchanting impact upon a forlorn poet. In many respects Hubardo is not the most accessible place to start when delving into the weird world of Kayo Dot, but it could also be seen as the band’s quintessential release. Opener “The Black Stone” resembles a death metal opera. Final track “The Wait Of The World” is a 14-minute stomper that sounds like a battle between Miles Davis, The Dillinger Escape Plan, and Frank Zappa. In between, Kayo Dot veer across psychedelic space-rock (“The First Matter”), gothy melodrama (“The Second Operation”), extreme death jazz (“Floodgate”), moody post-rock (“And He Built Him A Boat”), and more.

Kayo Dot

Coffins on Io

You’d be forgiven for predicting that Hubardo had used up everything in the tank; turns out, Kayo Dot’s tank is more of a bottomless well of creativity. Abandoning the pristine heaviness and growled vocals of Hubardo, 2014’s Coffins On Io retains the goth vibes but added darkwave and electro-pop influences, while lifting other ideas from ‘80s sci-fi movies like They Live and Blade Runner. It is less cerebral than Kayo Dot’s previous outings, often sounding unashamedly theatrical. The material was partly inspired by moments when Kayo Dot allowed themselves to let their hair down. As Driver told the Machine Music blog, the band and their friends had started frequenting karaoke bars where they would belt out the greatest hits from their youth by acts like Phil Collins, Steely Dan, and Fleetwood Mac. This experience fed into the crooned melodies and lush production of tracks like “Offramp Cycle, Pattern 22,” which recalls progressive ‘80s synth-poppers Japan. Despite the dystopia-evoking synth tones, Kayo Dot were having more fun than ever before.

Plastic House on Base of Sky

While Kayo Dot’s next record could be seen as an extension of the style premiered on Coffins On Io, the band was by no means treading water. Plastic House On Base Of Sky maintained the previous record’s emphasis on synthesizers and clean singing but made everything bigger, richer, and more complex. Setting out to make his own version of anime composer Susumu Hirasawa’s works, Driver layers multiple rhythm tracks on every song, making for a denser and more chaotic sound than before. The list of contributors, meanwhile,  jumped from five people on Coffins On Io to more than four times that number, plus a whole choir. As a result, the epic “All The Pain In The Whole Wide World” plays out like Berlin-era Bowie collaborating with Vangelis on classical music from an alien planet. As ever, Kayo Dot proved themselves incapable of making the same record twice; in that sense, Plastic House is par for the course.

Blasphemy

Arriving 16 years after their debut, Kayo Dot’s latest record has been billed as the project’s most straight-ahead rock album to date; it’s overtly synth-based than the last couple of LPs, while still incorporating moody keyboard textures and electronic squelches. (That said, it should be apparent by now that the thought of Kayo Dot producing anything remotely resembling a conventional rock record is as likely as Slayer releasing a collection of swing standards.) Featuring regular expressive blasts of spidery lead guitar, the album dabbles in intricate post-rock, dark space-rock, and symphonic doom; Driver’s vocal performance, meanwhile, is more powerful than ever. When not whispering like Mike Patton in a circus mask or manipulating his voice with Auto-Tune, Driver exhibits a vocal range to rival Jeff Buckley. Where he and the rest of the band go from here is anyone’s guess, but judging by this record, there’s a lot more weirdness in store.

-J.R. Moores

One Comment

  1. Posted October 3, 2019 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Amazing retrospective, and very much appreciate quoting from our interview with Kayo Dot. If anyone’s interested we conducted a more recent interview with Toby about their 2013 album Hubardo, as part of our ongoing Albums of the Decade interview project. Cheers again!

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