'Gamma Knife' - Kayo Dot (7/10)
Since the days with maudlin of the Well over a decade ago, Toby Driver has been a consistent force in delivering some of the most powerful avant-garde music of the new millennium. With each album, this group of musicians has approached a different angle with their music, as if Toby and co. are browsing through a cosmic buffet, taking the flavours they fancy most, and making albums out of them. Especially in the case of Kayo Dot, I have felt that each album has a binding musical theme behind it. While 'Choirs Of The Eye' may have been defined by it's atmospheric surrealism, and 'Coyote' by is dreary jazz overtones, Kayo Dot's latest album 'Gamma Knife' is a little more difficult to pin down. Not that its sound is any more abstract than what has come before, but the music on this latest release is more diverse than I would have expected. For the sake of a bottom line, however: Kayo Dot has brought the metal back into their sound.
You might not guess that 'Gamma Knife' is a return to heavier times from its opening track 'Lethe'. The album opens on a very dreamy note, with bells chiming and Vangelis-like electronic orchestrations shimmering. This, and the titular closing piece, both show Kayo Dot in a very laid-back, even ambient frame. Even with Toby's signature brittle vocals, the music does more to capture a memorable feeling than to have particular ideas get stuck in the listener's head. When 'Lethe' closes, the more definitive traits of 'Gamma Knife' start to emerge. 'Rites Of Goetic Evocation' sounds like it could be a track from a black metal band, and it may as well be; the three songs that make up the body of 'Gamma Knife' are rife with growls, screams, blastbeats, and dissonance. The opening chords of 'Rites' sound more like late-era Deathspell Omega than anything else, as big a surprise to me as any, considering the band's music was being compared to Sigur Ros not too long ago.
It's not quite metal in the traditional sense, but Kayo Dot have certainly brought back a much heavier sound to their music. For one, the guitars are back, although the most distinguished instrument in the sound is the saxophone. Yes, the saxophone is there to beckon in the heaviest, darkest moments of 'Gamma Knife', and yes, it works. Take the albums defacto climax at the end of 'Ocellated God', for example. Overtop a fury of distorted screams and intense drums, the usually-jazzy sound of what I think is a saxophone layers over itself and repeats to create a very jarring and off-putting lick. Many more traditional metalheads may label this music as many things before metal, but it is undeniable that Kayo Dot has become heavier this time around.
Although Kayo Dot's latest is heavy, doomy, and metal-ly, I have also said that 'Gamma Knife' is more difficult to pin down than Kayo albums in the past. This is in large part due to the fact that there are five tracks here, and two of them are in stark contrast to the other three. There is certainly dynamic in earlier releases, but this time, the melancholic and soft is ostracized from the brutal and dark, as if it were a musical apartheid. It gives the album a cyclical sense to it, but my impression of 'Gamma Knife' is split in two. Be it dark or light, the music here is inventive, challenging, and often very powerful, with particular regards to the darker-edged material on the album. That being said, 'Gamma Knife' does not feel like a full album to me, at least not the way 'Choirs Of The Eye' or 'Coyote' did. For one, the album barely scrapes the half-hour mark, and leaves me wanting more than what the short length offers. I'm left feeling the same way I did about Radiohead's 'The King Of Limbs' from last year; though the musical quality in itself is quite high, there isn't enough meat on the bones to give it a lasting impression. In that sense, it is much like chicken wings. Had it been made at least ten minutes longer and given a little extra polish, 'Gamma Knife' would have almost certainly left me in total awe.