'Hubardo' - Kayo Dot (10/10)
Although I've never concealed my love and passion for progressive rock, it's been a genre I've viewed through a jaded lens as of late. After all, let's face it: for every sterling artist making the genuine attempt to push the envelope and get daring with their sound, there are a hundred that prefer to piggyback on the accomplishments of those long past; many of the so-called 'modern' prog bands wouldn't be more anachronistic if they were babbling on about the Cold War and the rise of Disco music. It's a sorry state to be certain, but it makes a band like Kayo Dot feel all the more special and vital. Since Kayo Dot's start with 2003's "Choirs of the Eye", and their earlier incarnation as maudlin of the Well, Toby Driver and co. have been making some of the most interesting and adventurous music coming out of the prog rock and metal spheres. Although I haven't fallen in love with everything they've done- "Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue" never really clicked with me- I hold no reservations in calling Kayo Dot one of the finest experimental acts out there nowadays. Observing the ten year anniversary since the release of their debut, Kayo Dot have unveiled what is undoubtedly their most complex and majestic work to date. I've now spent nearly a month listening to it, and it hasn't lost any of its spark or excitement on me. "Hubardo" may very well be the most refreshing piece of work to yet come out this year. At no other point in 2013 has an album dared to compete with the pantheon of my most beloved albums, but "Hubardo" shows no signs of losing its steam. At the risk of sounding overzealous, those who have felt my same frustrations with recent progressive rock should look no further than Kayo Dot. It's not an easy pill to swallow, but adventurous listeners will find their efforts repaid tenfold. This is avant-garde metal at its finest.
Kayo Dot have locked themselves in a constant state of reinvention. From the start, the band is noted and defined for its dedication to change and progression. "Choirs of the Eye" immediately distanced itself from the idyllic sound of maudlin of the Well with a more sombre and jaded approach. With "Dousing Anemone with Copper Tongue" through to 2010's uncompromisingly bleak "Coyote", Kayo Dot began exploring sonic darkness in other ways, escaping the traditional confines of metal music completely. To the point where Kayo Dot had excised use of the electric guitar completely, Kayo Dot made a very surprising and pleasant leap back to metal with "Gamma Knife", this time sounding even less like classic maudlin of the Well, and more like a jazz-infused Deathspell Omega. Although "Coyote" was no slouch artistically speaking, the return to a fresh metal style has been quite the jumpstart for Kayo Dot; it feels like they have been revitalized in a way not heard since the debut. While "Gamma Knife" may have felt like it was only partially fulfilling Kayo Dot's potential with avant-black metal, "Hubardo" expands on the scope and ambition to a degree never before seen in a project by the band. At an hour and a half long, "Hubardo" immediately sets itself apart; more impressive still is the fact that Kayo Dot have accomplished a work of this length without any sacrifice to the consistency or quality of the music. Flowing seamlessly from jarring black metal to post-rock and trippy jazz fusion, I have difficulty recalling an album that manages to be so diverse, yet feel so tight and well- constructed.
Following a familiar Kayo Dot tradition, "Hubardo" opens up on a fairly mellow and deceptively quiet note. Even though the first four minutes of "The Black Stone" feel fairly loose and scattered, it builds a frightening tension that erupts masterfully in the rupture of the song's latter movement. "The Black Stone" also features the long-unheard growls of Jason Byron, best known for his harsh vocals on the Maudlin records. Clean guitars sputter alongside a frantic drumline and Byron's familiar growl, and though it doesn't start off conventionally heavy by the traditional 'metal' standard, it's dark as all hell and evokes a tension that feels like it's going to burst at any moment. Although "The Black Stone"s misleading overture creates a wonderfully dark emotional palette, it does tend to drag on a little longer than would have been optimal. Luckily, once "Hubardo" trespasses this arguable lowpoint, it soars and continues to hover at a level of relative perfection thereafter. By the end of "The Black Stone", Kayo Dot transcend a modernistic classical atmosphere and dive straight into a terrifying black/death metal chaos, the likes of which remind me of Australian lurkers Portal. "Hubardo" leaves a pretty indelible impression from the start, and even then, "The Black Stone" may be my least favourite track on the album.
While Kayo Dot albums of the past tended to focus on, and flesh out one particular style, "Hubardo" is notable for how diverse and varied it is. As "The Black Stone" should indicate to new listeners, there's quite a sonic range Kayo Dot choose to work with here. Their take on black metal- pregnant with saxophone and electronic interruptions- is arguably the most memorable aspect of the album, but there's just as much of the album that recalls their more mellow leanings. "The First Matter", "The Second Operation" and "And He Built Him A Boat" all capitalize on haunting ethereal beauty. Toby Driver's longstanding mastery of arrangement flourishes on these tracks, particularly on "The Second Operation", which features a stunning blend of violin, horn and synthesizer that nearly moved me to tears the first time I heard it. "And He Built Him A Boat" was the first track I heard from the album, and I was obsessed with it the first time I heard it. Arguably the most conventional and accessible piece on the album, "And He Built Him A Boat" shares a kinship with a lot of 'cinematic' post-rock; I'm thinking bands like Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mono. Although vocals have never been a strong suit of Toby Driver or the bands he's been a part of, Driver's voice is uncharacteristically strong here, and the accompanying choral arrangements are haunting as anything I've heard. "And He Built Him A Boat" ultimately gives way to "Passing the River", a longer piece that starts off echoing Radiohead more than anything, before diving into a hammered dulcimer and sax-infused metal climax. On the other side of the spectrum, Kayo Dot save their biggest surprises for their newly acquired black metal style. "Thief", "Floodgate" and "Zlida Caosgi" are all chaotic and multi- layered, easily rivaling the technical complexity of Gorguts, Deathspell Omega and any other band that have spent their careers building up this sort of calculated madness. "Zlida Coasgi" in particular may be my favourite song on the album, managing to balance heaviness, atmosphere, beauty and catchiness to a degree of perfection I don't think I've ever heard before.
Existing fans of the album may remark that I failed to mention "Vision Adjustment to Another Wavelength" when listing off the heavier tracks. I might explain that choice by saying that it deserves a pedestal of its own entirely. While "Zlida Coasgi" may be the track that I enjoy the most, it's "Vision Adjustment?" that makes up the album's most terrifying, leftfield and experimental moment. Frantic saxophones are mixed in with mind-blowingly weird electronic textures, inhuman screams and indecipherable guitar patterns, creating one of the weirdest things I have ever heard in my entire life. I'm not sure it can even be done proper justice in writing. Just listen to it. Listen to it. I'm pretty sure that song alone earns "Hubardo" its bread.
The album ends on a surprising note; while much of "Hubardo" has been passed between black metal and more ambient post rock, "The Wait of the World" closes the album with a psychedelic and very modern take on jazz fusion. As if Robert Fripp and John McLaughlin joined The Mars Volta and had some sort of lurid acid party, it evokes a feeling of eeriness and unease quite unlike the band's metal output. In case anyone reading this has heard it, it's a similar experience to Steven Wilson's own fusion freakout "Raider II" off 2011's "Grace for Drowning". Quite an unexpected way to close off an album, and an excellent one at that. As is the case with most albums deserving of a masterpiece, "Hubardo" excels just as much with regards to its execution as it does with the compositions themselves. While "Gamma Knife" felt a little low-budget productionwise, it feels like no expense has been spared in fulfilling their music this time around. While many albums this complex generally suffer from a feeling of being too sterile and focused on clarity, "Hubardo" sounds rich and organic, like a classic analog album if it was injected with precision and crystal clarity. With maudlin of the Well and even a lot of Kayo Dot's material, I was never overtly blown away by the demonstration of musicianship, but since they amped up the complexity with "Gamma Knife", Kayo Dot have been terrifying in this regard as well. Very special commendations go to the drummer Keith Abrams, who passes me as being a sort of metal-oriented Bill Bruford with the way he's able to intone every beat and hit with detail and texture. Abrams changes up his drumwork to accommodate whatever given style is happening on "Hubardo" at the time; he sounds well at home as a fusion drummer just as much as a metal drummer. Did I mention "Hubardo" has some of the most impressive blastbeats I've ever heard on record? Yes, there's that as well.
It would have been nice to have heard violinist Mia Matsumiya perform a little more on this album, especially since her showcase towards the beginning of "The Second Operation" is breathtaking. Listeners coming from a more distinctly metal background will note the unconventionally meaty presence of saxophones on the album. Daniel Means and Terran Olson offer a double sax attack, the likes of which I've never heard work so well in a metal context. Especially on "Vision Adjustment to Another Wavelength" and "Floodgate", it's difficult to imagine the music sounding so scary and chaotic, had the saxophones not been there.
It's uncompromising, rich, and for my money, it's an instant classic. I have long considered "Choirs of the Eye" to be one of my favourite albums ever, and a month into experiencing "Hubardo", I have to say that this one trumps their debut by a noticeable margin. Always pushing the envelope forward, it's my hope that this album gives Kayo Dot the exposure and attention they deserve. Even from the length alone, it's not an album that all prospective listeners will have time for, but I don't think I've heard an album this year that has created such an awe in me; only the new Gorguts and The Ruins of Beverast albums have even dared to compete. "Hubardo" is the sort of album that only comes around once in a while, and I won't even try to predict where the band goes next from here. Total mastery.