I’ve been a huge Kayo Dot fan for a long time. This is the brainchild of Toby Driver, who you may know better from the prog-rock/avant-metal outfit Maudlin of the Well. For this reason, Kayo Dot is usually stuck in with metal and rock reviews, but the music is pretty genre defying. This album has lots of noise, some drone metal, black metal, some prog metal, some 80’s style chill rock, some woodwind quintet fusion (is this a thing?), jazz, choral music, and practically anything else you can name.
I haven’t been as into some of the recent stuff, but this album brings back more of his older style. The first half of this album feels very similar to some of the first albums. There is a lot of large scales works that are pretty much composed for a large ensemble which has a drum set and guitars, but also includes instruments such as flute and clarinet. We’ll ignore the first track for now, and say that the first half doesn’t really break any new ground as far as Kayo Dot is concerned. It consists of sounds that should be extremely familiar to the long time listener.
The first half is really solid and interesting in the same ways that we’ve come to expect. What I want to move on to is the second half which is a pretty new direction for the band. When I only want to listen to half of this epic (an hour and 38 minutes) album, I start with “The Second Operation.” I usually am waiting the whole album for this song anyway.
This is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard all year. It is a thirteen minute track that might feel really slow and poorly paced at first, but it is just a wonderfully patient build to the end. It uses a really interesting and dense harmonic language. This isn’t “pretty” in a simplistic way (like the piano stuff at the end of the new Dream Theater or something). It has lots of dissonance which adds to the beauty and several simultaneous melodies played by french horns, trumpets, violins, and guitar. It dies to a mostly vocal work, and then climaxes back up at the end with everything coming back. I absolutely love it.
I should say that the entire album actually is “an epic” in the sense that it is one long story told in song. What I find really interesting on this half of the album is the sequence of songs starting with “And He Built Him a Boat.” These songs bring back some metal influence, but overall the melody and vocals sound like folk songs. Even some of the vocal grace note techniques sound like ancient music. It gives the impression that this story really was preserved through oral tradition and song; just like in ancient times.
This is the main reason I like the second half of the album so much. I think this style works amazingly well with Kayo Dot. I always feel like Driver is a great composer, but sometimes I lose what is going on melodically. The instrumentation and experimentation of the band sitting around what is vocally a folk song (sometimes it sounds Celtic, but others more generic) is a really nice effect and draws out the fact that Driver can actually write great melodies. Then it really gets in your head and you can hear how it gets turned around and used in other places by other instruments.
Let’s talk about some things I didn’t like. Well, I skipped talking about the first track on purpose. First, it doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the album at all. That would be kind of bad if the song were placed somewhere random. But the fact that it is the opener seems like a really big mistake. It just doesn’t seem to add anything, and is a little off-putting to have to start with something that is so stylistically distinct from anything else on the album.
The flow of the album is about as good as you can expect with so much variety, but it isn’t great to me. There is a lot of awkwardness between some of the songs. I don’t really know how this could be fixed, but despite the lyrical content there is a lot of disjointedness between songs. For example, why put the most chaotic song right after the slowest and most beautiful without any transition when the lyrics just continue on? It is a bizarre effect, but admittedly it might be what they were going for.
Lastly, the album is over an hour and a half in length. On the one hand there seems to be some excess of songs (like I said, I’d ax the first track entirely). On the other hand, most songs themselves drag on a bit. Maybe this is just a tolerance I need to build up. My jazz friends don’t like when I complain at a 10 minute solo for dragging on. Just because I can’t keep interest that long doesn’t mean it is bad. I feel like that with some songs here which have excessively long instrumental solos. In fact, since they are free jazz solos it is exactly what I just said. No matter how much I love the second half of the album, I’m still ready at the end for it to be over. That usually isn’t a good sign.
Overall, this is a really great Kayo Dot album. I highly recommend it to any fan of the band (especially if you weren’t that into the last two). Moreover, I think it is definitely one of the more accessible ones for some of the reasons I mentioned above. So if you aren’t familiar with the band, then this album would make a reasonable starting place. Despite the problems, I just love most of this album too much for it to affect my overall opinion. I’ll give this an 8.5/10.
Here’s a sample: