Kayo Dot – Coffins on Io (2014)

The new Kayo Dot album is not something one simply ignores. To be fair, this is true of most of their recordings – I’ve always either loved them to bits or simply not understood them, but I’ve never disliked them. However, Coffins on Io definitely falls into the first category for me. I’ll try to talk about Kayo Dot a third time, without repeating myself if possible.

Kayo-Dot-band-2014

In a way, Coffins on Io is a continuation of an older stylistic expedition for Kayo Dot. Their 2010 album, Coyote, drew heavily on an ’80s, goth/post-punk aural sensibility – powerful bass lines driving the songs, ethereal, plaintive vocals, meandering, dark song structures. Many of those choices persist on Coffins on Io, but it is clear that the intent has morphed subtly. Where Coyote was, for lack of a better word, a „concept album” centering on a very bleak theme which acted as a great catalyst for the return to the ’80s stylistic choice, Coffins on Io almost seems like an aftermath to that, like a take-off from the platform constructed by Coyote.

I wouldn’t want to be misunderstood – I doubt the two albums have much in common save for the strong references to the ’80s aesthetic. It just feels as though Toby Driver’s sources of inspiration are taking on a chronological symmetry. Coffins on Io seems to be built around aspects of darkwave, of electronic music such as Tangerine Dream, on the ruins of prog-rock as it was crumbling under its huge mass at the onset of the ’80s. It is glorious to see how these nuclei morph into the unique Kayo Dot molecule, yet again, so much more than the sum of its parts. Kayo Dot will not be confined, will not be tamed – it comes as a great surprise for me that after 2013’s Hubardo (an extremely dense, staggeringly difficult album), Kayo Dot would shift their attention and create Coffins on Io, although it probably shouldn’t at this point. They are the most mercurial band I’ve ever known, and there are no guarantees and no promises.

Coffins on Io has a steadily ascending learning curve, as it were. The more you advance, the more challenging the songs become, but it never asks more than it can give, and it’s never unfair to the listener. There’s also a certain cyclical quality to the album (not unlike their 2012 release – Gamma Knife, but less categorically), where the start and the finish seem to have more in common with each other than with what happens in between. Toby Driver is really on top of his compositional game on this album, and not only that, but he brings forth a completely new vocal technique – his remarkable falsetto, completely replacing the metal growls he would use on previous releases for variation of texture. Overall, the commitment to the chosen aesthetic seems more complete this time around, and Kayo Dot seem to be drawing more on their own experience as well, with gentle, accepting nods to previous sonic laboratories and forays they’ve engaged in. The effect is reassuring and welcome. I’m also glad to see that Coffins on Io is no longer self-released – I remember reading interviews with Toby Driver from the Gamma Knife, Hubardo years, and the strain of having to deal with self-releasing records seemed to weight heavily on him. It feels as though that weight has lifted, at least partially, and I feel Coffins on Io benefits from that.

If you’re curious, if you’re fascinated by the way old shapes can take new meaning, if you’re nostalgic without being anachronistic, then listen to Coffins on Io (and to Kayo Dot in general). Seriously, they’re one of the freshest, most thoughtful, deeply relevant music makers out there nowadays. Enjoy!

P.S.: Three years ago today I started ZaRecords. I honestly didn’t know for how long I would be able to make it last, and I still don’t. For now, it’s still lingering, half way between an obsession and an afterthought. Thank you all for sticking around for so long.

Kayo Dot – Gamma knife (2012)

I figured it was high time I opened this door for myself and review another album from a band I’d covered before. It’s a difficult maintaining such a bubbly attitude towards musical mood from one day to the next, and as it happens this has been a particularly barren Thursday, when for some reason I couldn’t really muster the energy to do much of anything, except listen to the new Kayo Dot album and feverishly ponder (on the music) and plot (on world domination). In any case, here goes, another dose of Kayo Dot.

Source: kayodot.net

I’ve been waiting for this release for two years now, for their 2010 album, Coyote, definitely left me hungry for more and their next release, titled Stained Glass, just added fuel to the fire. While Coyote had a clearly defined concept behind it (a sort-of reinterpretation of the late-seventies and eighties Goth aesthetic from a purely Kayo Dot standpoint), I’m still struggling to understand the underlying concept behind Gamma Knife, if there is one at all. Not that the music needs one to retain its considerable expressiveness, but I can’t help but search for it, seeing as it’s still a release from a band I perceive as eminently intellectual and passionate for connections and references which act above and beyond the musical realm. I was surprised to see that the album is so short, especially by their standards, but I’m pleasantly reminded of how little that means when it comes to substance and actual content.

This is a five-track record, structured in such a way as to allude to their previous method of shifting focus from one genre to the next within one song, but expanded throughout an entire release. The limits between approaches seem more clearly traced, as the first and last track are ethereal, majestic songs of dazzling beauty, while the three tracks in the middle stand on the chaotic, enraged bedrock of metal at its most fierce, but I get the impression the band is playing with a sort-of fractal approach here as well, managing a more subtle and tight weave of modern-classical composition with the black metal element than ever before. I’ve heard these three middle songs, which seem to be the enigma and the key to this record, classified as “black metal” with bold, albeit blind, in my opinion, decisiveness. I’ve heard black metal, and this isn’t it – these songs are so much more, so much more structured and complex in their flirtation with chaos, so much more mesmerizing in their patterns and frequencies. As always, straight-forward classification is a trap Kayo Dot seems to use as a form of temptation, only to pivot at the very last second and leave one’s maw gaping in surprise. Surely, there is ferocious anger and despair in these songs, but these sentiments are presented in such a way that they end up acquiring qualities which clearly set them apart from their labels as base emotions.

The way the album is put together, barely containing this deluge of exquisite brutality between two wonderfully meditative and melodious songs, is driven home by the fact that the material was recorded in two different locations – Lethe and Gamma Knife at Toby Driver’s home studio, sounding looked-after and remarkably well-polished, imbued with what feels like an pristine, white expanse of sound, and the three middle-tracks, in a live location, giving them a rough, slightly distant, muddled sound, which complements their aesthetic very well. One would think that with such division, the album would sound unbalanced but it isn’t so at all. If anything, Gamma Knife uses music to create the image of a bell, crystalline and massive, containing overwhelming resonance and volume. Perhaps this isn’t a random reference, seeing as the first track of the album begins with a delightful musical pattern performed on mellotron bells… In any case, the band seem to be doing something rather odd and slightly scary to me – they seem to have forsaken the concept of clear, easily identifiable melodies, in the search for greater expressiveness and freedom, and they’re taking me along with them, even though I could’ve sworn I was rather conservative on this point. I’m very much a fan of repetition and melody in music and usually condone dissonance and noise only as a pleasing form of contrast, meant to empower the underlying or alternating melody. And yet, here’s Kayo Dot, presenting this tumultuous, challenging record which I can’t be sure I would’ve liked a year ago, and instantly convincing me that I’m faced with a musical treasure. Wondrous…

In any case, I feel Gamma Knife is a great way to break a pattern for ZaRecords and allow myself to delve deeper into the moods certain bands can weave, even if it takes a couple of days. I hope you’ll give this record a spin (excuse the pun), and I’ll see you soon!