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.

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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.

The Cure – Bloodflowers (2000)

I somehow feel music is a seasonal thing, or at least my own musical tastes have a cyclical way of manifesting. The Cure is the first band of the year for me, and has been for many years now. What I mean by this is that after each new-year’s eve, sometime in January, I get this longing for their soulful, sensitive melodies, the sad, spacious music which can complement the fading winter outside, just as it seems more stubborn than ever before, more reluctant to give in to the prolonging day and the sweetly scented breeze which seems to announce spring. I like this soft, comfortable cycle, it feels right somehow, and today I decided to give in to the urge and listen to Robert Smith’s affected, dramatic voice spin tales of confusion and analyze his own moods while weaving such a wonderful context for the listener to do the same.

Bloodflowers seems to be an underrated Cure album, or at least that’s the vibe I’m getting from such vague sources as YouTube comments and random reviews. But you know how it is with “first albums you hear” – they have a way of sticking with you through thick and thin, and they it’s very rare that they can be replaced by other, more well-received offerings from the same band. I guess for me Bloodflowers is the definitive The Cure record, even though it seems to lack the tremendous contrast their songwriting has displayed throughout their career. You see, it seems Robert Smith has a bit of a bipolar way of composing his lyrics – they’re either crushingly depressing and morose, or unbelievably sweet and upbeat; there seems to be little grey area in between. I guess that’s why Bloodflowers might seem less reflective of The Cure’s general modus operandi. If that’s the case, however, I suppose I’m a fan of grey areas – this album feels so balanced, so deep and so enthralling I can scarcely say I’ve bonded with another one of their records to such an extent.

Robert Smith is often credited, or at least made fun of, as being one of the preeminent inventors of the Goth genre. It’s really no surprise, when their early-eighties album Pornography opens with lyrics such as “It doesn’t matter if we all die”, in the most serious, contained and convincing way. However, Bloodflowers is a far way off from those days, and the emotions and moods conveyed through these songs aren’t as black and white, and nowhere near as bleak, although I wouldn’t call them upbeat either. My feeling is that they’re simply poetic, in a very honest, human way. When I say poetic, I mean highly subjective, with a sprinkle of the arrogance of generalization, the need to make a private feeling make sense in the grand scheme of things. But the bottom line is these songs remain very discreet, very personal, it’s one of those albums which always seems to talk only and directly to you, sometimes whispering softly, other times having true meltdowns of panic and anguish, and yet always maintaining a certain detachment, a way of remaining kind, gentle, even when saying the most dark, despairing things. It’s this gentle wisdom I appreciate most about Bloodflowers, this candid, sweet, nurturing attitude, even in the face of horrific conclusions.

“The world is neither fair nor unfair” is a lyric which seems to fit in perfectly with the themes approached in the much darker Pornography and Disintegration albums (after all, Robert Smith once said he saw those two and Bloodflowers as a trilogy of sorts), but it’s delivered with an ease of mind, a resigned, warm attitude which has the paradoxical effect of sounding upbeat, as if there’s a human element after all, a form of communication, undeniable and ever-present between individuals, which is enough to ride out the bad dream and the burden of analysis.

The music itself does a tremendous job of complementing this deep, meditative mode of thinking on Robert Smith’s part, sounding full, immediate, slightly predictable in a wonderful, familiar way. It’s also much less artificial, dehumanized than it used to be in their eighties albums, which gives me a wonderful feeling of having broken through an unusually long and frightful night, of having escaped from a seemingly endless tunnel. The instruments, in their bountiful dialogue, project a cool, shimmering white lambency which to me translates into the simple, satisfying feeling of hope. Bloodflowers tells me “everything is going to be alright… and even if it isn’t, it still is”. Get it? I’m not sure I do, but on some level, just feeling it is enough.

Enjoy this longing, bitter-sweet album if you will. I stand by my feeling that it’s perfect for January days, so unsure of their own phases, when “from dawn to dusk” seems to pass in the blink of an eye, or rather, it seems there’s really nothing in between and it’s all just one nebulous dawn/twilight, painted in grey and faded, sullied purple. See you soon!

O.Children – O.Children (2010)

This band offers beautiful shallowness of a kind one can’t help admire. Listening to them is like watching models step down a catwalk, morose and glamorous. You might not care about fashion, but on a purely physical – in a theatrical sense – way, you can’t help but admire the focus they seem to project, the dedication and sense of self-importance they radiate. Of course, this has always been one of the more appealing characteristics of everything goth. The sense of skin-deep drama, the thrill of playing a part, of putting on a costume and blurring the lines between you and your character. I’ve always felt there’s this “fake it ’till you make it” desperation about goths and it’s something I personally feel drawn to, and even though O.Children isn’t a goth band “per se”, their influences show up in all the right places.

The contrast between singer Tobi O’Kandi’s deep, resonating, spectacularly sexy voice and the frozen, digital melodies the band weave is perhaps the main attraction this outfit has going for them. As I said, influences are very easily discernible, but this tension transcends all of them. What’s more, O.Children manage a very alluring mix between two apparent extremes on a thematic level. On the one hand, you have the goth quality, which induces visions and moods of night-time cities, rainy and cold, in which one might roam for hours, bumping into people as if they were objects – a particular sense of alienation and of being addicted to loneliness. And on the other hand, there’s an explosion as if every once in a while a wall of multicolored neon lights light up and everything makes sense and everyone’s connected and solitude is just irony. And none of it really matters very much in the long run, so no worries there, it’s just about recognizing how pretty a frown can be, for a little while.

If O.Children have a shortcoming it’s the lyrics. Sometimes they really feel forced, a bit grating and a bit gratuitous. However, I’m not much for lyrics in the first place and never have been, so for me it’s no big deal. And it’s not even a constant issue, some songs really have an added sense of drama and urgency which stems from the words. But, bottom line, nobody should care what a voice like O’Kandi’s sais, as long as it keeps saying it.

So, now, so close to Halloween, in this month of celebratory decay, I (broken)heartily recommend O.Children, the perfect band to try and reenact the constant costume party of adolescence. Also, I enjoy the fact that it’s the first time I get the chance to post a full-fledged video and some very good live footage!

Cranes – Cranes (2008)

I had a bit of trouble deciding what to write about today, simply because of the tremendous amount of music which I keep fresh in my mind and relevant in my life. After much internal debate I settled on a band about which I don’t know much and I can’t say I adore, but which has made a significant impact on my perceived musical routine this year.

Cranes is a surprisingly old band. They got started somewhere around 1986, which is amazing, considering how ferociously up-to-date and visceral their music sounded even then. I should explain that, for me, the ’80s feel like a silicone and silicate wasteland of musicians falling in love with artificial sounds and methods which rarely hit the spot and manage to stay away from sounding gimmicky. The only other example of an excellent band from the ’80s I can come up with right now is The Cocteau Twins. Of course there were several other figures of note which I can respect without particularly understanding (such as Kate Bush for example), but my general feeling about the decade stands. Nevertheless, Cranes blew a wide and refreshing hole in my theory the first time I heard them. Seeing that they’re a pretty recent discovery, I can’t say I’ve gone over their entire discography, so I’m not acutely aware of their evolution, but listening to one of their first albums and fast-forwarding to 2008, there definitely seems to be a red line going mostly unbroken. Much less anger now, but much more refinement and subtlety, all placed under a generous, shady, crimson colored umbrella of mood.

The self-titled 2008 album seems to be the most subdued work of theirs I’ve heard, a long way removed from the savage, sorrowful “Starblood”. Gone are the limping, broken drum lines, in favor of textured and spacious sonic enclosures. They seem to have gone from dusk to dawn, if the comparison serves. However I feel that the drama is still there, but shifted from content to structure. Their recent songs begin and end abruptly, change pace midway, so far as to seem sometimes undecided, until one remembers that Cranes have never had a very stable, cookie-cutter approach to crafting their soundscapes. One needs to be patient and in a certain state of mind to see it though, since I think the band also has a make-it-or-break-it characteristic. The vocals are, no doubt, highly distinctive – so much so that I don’t deny the possibility of them being extremely polarizing. This is only a theory, but I suspect that’s why this amazing band hasn’t enjoyed mainstream popularity to my knowledge. Alison Shaw has been infusing Crane songs with a childlike quality, simultaneously innocent and eerie for over twenty years and for this resilience alone I figure the band deserves some respect. To stumble upon a concept which mops the floor with Coco Rosie and be confronted with the tremendous difference in popularity level these two bands enjoy is one of the more frustrating aspects of being constantly on the prowl for surprising musical discoveries. But I digress…

Cranes provide music to explore familiar places by. What I mean is that the feeling I get while listening to their songs is that there’s a film over reality, a film which can crack and under which objects relate to each-other very differently.  Put your headphones on in one of those unsure seasons, walk around at an unsure time of day and realize that you can in fact convince yourself there’s a way of looking at things as if you’re a fish inside a little round fishbowl. Smiles get distorted, the reflections in shop windows don’t quite correspond to what they should and your senses might even exchange priorities leading to odd moments when you realize you’ve been following a scent for the past few minutes and that you never actually do that normally. The world grows under the Cranes’ influence, space expands, the distance between things swells and you get to see them in amazing detail. The first time I experienced this effect was one evening in spring, when I found myself staring through a dentist cabinet window left conveniently uncovered, as two doctors were working on a patient. The man in the chair looked back, our eyes met, and I left, but I kept thinking about that moment ever since. It’s like a magazine cut-out which I carry around in front of my eyes every time I think about that night, and it branches out into a myriad possibilities. What if I had stood there, taking notes of what I saw. Would the doctors have reacted? Would they have believed the patient trying to mumble that there’s a creep outside the window studying their every move? What would it have been like, had our roles been reversed? Innocent and eerie, remember?

There’s a wealth of poetry jumbled up in words when one tries to describe music in general, but somehow Cranes doesn’t directly activate that mechanism in my mind. I suppose their minimal, almost surgical approach is enough to keep you grounded, in opposition to the apparent dreaminess of their music. Cranes are clinical anatomists of the dreamlike background of reality. They’ll take you there but they won’t let you linger. They’ll cut you out as soon as you start to settle in. To my ears, Cranes patrol the frontier of the skin.