Led by the bizarre and brilliant Toby Driver, avant-garde/metal/whatever group Kayo Dot has created some strange music recently (as one may expect from a guy that has previously dabbled with astral projection in his songwriting). Perhaps in an attempt to pump some blood back into their abstractions, their fifth album Gamma Knife takes a look back at the dynamic range of their first two albums, 2003’s Choirs of the Eye and 2006’s Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue, showing each extreme on its own over the course of five tracks. Two soft tracks bookend the set with three heavier tracks in the middle. Strangely, the band decided to only record the first and last track in the studio and record the rest live at Littlefield in Brooklyn, NY.
“Lethe” is a really promising opener, bringing back the delicacy and melodic sensibility of the group’s best work. Lightly strummed guitars and tubular bells support Driver’s soft croon as the piece slowly unfolds into a creepily beautiful hymn being sung in, imaginably, an old cathedral.
Then things take a weird turn. “Rite of Goetic Evocation” is the first of the three live recordings and it introduces a black metal sound. Stylistically, it still works with the intro (the cathedral image makes sense now) and the band tries to incorporate Mia Matsuyima’s trademark violin as well as saxophones into the maelstrom, but it often sounds like just a muddled mess of sound. This is in part due to the low-budget live capture, but there is no doubt that even in a more controlled setting the chaos would abound. Certainly chaos was the goal, but these guys are capable of better (see: “Aura on an Asylum Wall” or the conclusion of “The Manifold Curiosity”).
On their earlier releases, Driver’s screams were noticeably cathartic and his feelings translated to the listener. There was a certain magic about how his croon was met with sweeping clarinet and then destroyed by crushing guitars and drums and a frightening shriek. There was so much to take in, but it was so clean, so compelling and, most importantly, so real. They were onto something. It’s a wonder how they got to be so impenetrable since then. Gamma Knife starts to bring that magic back, but it doesn’t quite get there.
This can mostly be attributed to Driver’s inability, or perhaps refusal, to write anything resembling a song anymore. Even the longest of tracks on Choirs of the Eye had a clear impetus and direction. The melodies were strong and the dynamics were stronger.
So, the next two tracks follow a similar format, black metal with avant-garde and jazz infusions. It’s often intriguing but never impacting. The title track, however, winds things down quite nicely – easily the prettiest thing they’ve done since “Immortelle and Paper Caravelle” – complete with gorgeous, subtle piano and jazzy guitar accompaniment. It is still very much an avant-garde composition, but it emotes like nothing this group has done in half a decade.
All of the elements that made Choirs of the Eye the cult classic that it is are hiding somewhere in here, but the band often fails to bring them to the foreground. The album has more in common with Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue, in that it’s imperfect, but massively imaginative with some very fine moments peppered in, although that one was much more consistent and sounded a whole lot better.
Nevertheless, this does mean a step in the right direction for Driver & Co. At its best moments, the band is on the verge of black metal’s greatest breakthrough in years, but the poor production and sometimes poor execution cause the band to miss their mark.
In 2009, Driver reunited his old band maudlin of the Well (several members have also been a part of at least one Kayo Dot release) to release Part the Second. It showed us that Driver could still write melodies and appropriately epic compositions. If he can take that same approach with Kayo Dot on their next album, the result will be something astounding.
Kayo Dot – Gamma Knife tracklist:
- “Rite of Goetic Evocation”
- “Mirror Water, Lightning Night”
- “Ocellated God”
- “Gamma Knife”