Sunday, 17 June 2012


In celebration of the release of Kayo Dot's new album Gamma Knife, here are three futile attempts to capture in words what this most confusing and indefinable of bands sounds like.


A man with a defiantly unique and increasingly impenetrable muse, Toby Driver returns with Kayo Dot album number three. Blue Lambency Downward’s ten-minute title track makes the intention less than clear right from the start with a mordant shuffle, somewhere between spare modal jazz and Gregorian chant, in which even the most tangible structures are made of smoke. The first ‘solid’ moment arrives during ‘Clelia Walking’: a brief eruption of Crimson-esque battery surrounded by sombre strings and weightless bassoons.

There’s very little precedent for Kayo Dot. They have the air, and very occasionally the aesthetic, of a left-field experimental metal band (whatever you take that to mean). However, your angle of listening may suggest jazz (wine bar or free), prog, contemporary classical or even ambient. It’s mostly about constantly shifting planes of space through which beautiful, discordant elements meander, sometimes converging in violent catharsis – see the ‘Awkard Wind Wheel’s focused technical abstraction and terrifying clarity of vision.

Although Driver’s wafting vocal has been lazily compared to Jeff Buckley, the closest thing you’ll find, in feel and tone, if not in genre, is Buckley Senior, Tim – particularly the albums Starsailor and Lorca. They too have an approach to rhythm, melody and songwriting that’s fluid, near-shapeless. The genius of both Tim and Toby is their ability to shape this ephemeral, elusive aesthetic into compelling compositions. Even more bewildering, complex and vague than its predecessors, which is really saying something, Blue Lambency Downward is exactly the kind of album that will bewitch or repel.


Some bands really do defy easy encapsulation. Kayo Dot make music of a perpetually shifting kind, a writhing, transfiguring sound that possesses elements of prog and jazz and avant-garde composition and art-rock, but inhabits none of them and all of them at once. Their fourth album, Coyote, is a single five-part composition, the lyrics and narrative arc of which were written by artist and close friend Yuko Sueta in the final stages of terminal breast cancer. Given that, lines such as ‘Help me, I’m disappearing’, delivered via Toby Driver’s brittle howl, carry a night-unbearable weight.

Though micro-composed to the point of OCD, Coyote is remarkable not only for its complexity, but for its breathtaking fluidity, the way the wildly disparate moods and methods metamorphose into each other imperceptibly. KD’s former metal leanings have been utterly expunged these days, but it’s notable that they’re just as forceful without them. A greater emphasis on brass adds gravitas and shimmer to the jazzier passages, at times redolent of ’70s Miles, which at any second may flow into doomy, neo-gothic ambience, bursts of kaleidoscopic prog that blossom like fireworks, or an agonising trawl through clattering shaped chaos. More powerful, both sonically and emotionally, than its wonderful but nebulous predecessor, Blue Lambency Downward, this is a unique, draining experience, as immersive as it is ineffable. 


With half their number detained by customs and stranded in France, Kayo Dot are struggling against adversity tonight. Unable to perform a full-band set, the stripped-down lineup of Terran Olson on keyboard and clarinet, Mia Matsumiya on violin and Toby Driver on guitar opt to perform selections from the Tartar Lamb side project. Even more so than KD, this is highly abstract stuff – very gentle, dauntingly subtle but highly complex. Those only half paying attention could feasibly believe that it’s mere improvised wafting, but every single moment is clearly painstakingly pre-planned. Notes wrestle for the right to emerge from nothingness, or pass through each other, intangible. It’s music placed halfway between nirvanic contentment and the chalky ravings of a calculus professor. After the previous bands’ sensory assaults, KD could be seen as an anticlimax in terms of energy, yet their stillness makes them all the more compelling.

(all reviews originally published in Rock-a-Rolla magazine)