KAYO DOT — Choirs Of The Eye (review)

KAYO DOT — Choirs Of The Eye album cover Album · 2003 · Avant-garde Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
Decidedly un-motW.

Choirs of the Eye is the first album from Toby Driver's new band Kayo Dot, formed out of the ashes of Boston avant-garde metal band maudlin of the Well. Several lineup changes have been made and a total shift in attitude towards songwriting, and the result is something that is totally incomparable to any other musical experience you've ever experienced.

One thing that is on everyone's minds (well, everyone who's ever listened to a Toby Driver project before) is how this band compares to aforementioned maudlin of the Well, so I'll make sure to point out the most important similarities and differences during this review.

Choirs of the Eye is the closest Kayo Dot release stylistically to maudlin of the Well, but there is a serious shift in focus in terms of the songwriting. Whereas motW was ultimately a metal band with avant-garde tendencies, Kayo Dot (at least for this album) are much more of an avant-garde band with metal tendencies. Here, the album is much more composition- oriented than its predecessors; of the 5 songs, only one is below ten minutes in length, and even then there are two songs just short of 15 minutes. Choirs is definitely a test of endurance as it pulls you through its dark passages.

Again, the band's style on this album is wholly unique and unlike anything I'd heard of at the time. Whereas maudlin of the Well's principle claim in their songwriting was astral projection (for those unfamiliar with motW's claims, astral projection is the supposed separation of one's spirit from the physical plane of existence through a process called lucid dreaming. The band claimed that they were merely vessels for the music, which already existed in a vast cosmic library in the astral plane, and that this music was merely interpreted.), in Kayo Dot, Toby completely denounces such methods and prefers to work on normal compositional terms, yet stating that Kayo Dot are an evolution or natural progression of maudlin of the Well. Atmospherically, Choirs of the Eye doesn't have the same sort of spacey undertones that past motW albums have had, but at times it does have both a pleasant, earthly atmosphere to it, and at other times it takes on a scary and dark, but worldly semblance.

Avant-metal is a rather limiting way to describe the music found on this album. While the album is more avant-garde than it is metal, certain sections reach such a crushing heaviness that it cannot be classified otherwise. Much of it relies on new-age abstract and it has a lot of minimalist elements, yet it also has equal doses of avant-metal, 20th century classical, avant-jazz, chamber rock, goth rock, and the like. At times it can be pleasantly bright, then go to oddly discordant, to frighteningly dark, atmospherically heavy, all without warning, given the incredible avant-garde nature of the album. An amazing amount of work is done with layering all the parts of the music, vocally and instrumentally, and at parts when all of the instruments are playing, each seemingly trying to one-up the other's part, it turns into a wildly insane yet surprisingly calculated chaos in sound architecture. These massive spots of sonic density are incredibly remarkable to behold, and are excellently contrasted by the equally well-done abstract minimalism that permeates the structure of this album. When Kayo Dot wants to hit hard, they hit you like an expressionist baseball bat to the face.

A greater range of instruments are used here than in maudlin of the Well's compositions. In addition to the traditional guitars, bass, keys, and drums, instruments like the violin and clarinet get especially big parts. Also to be found on the album are flute, saxophone, cello, horn, trumpet, trombone, and bell parts. They're all balanced excellently and rarely are pretentious or overincumbent in the composition. Toby Driver returns doing guitars and vocals and is given the predominant vocal role this time around. His vocals are also much more varied on this album than with maudlin of the Well; here, he does all forms of soft vocals, harsh growls, high-pitched screams, and at times even flat speaking or whispering, and all parts are performed marvelously. Former maudlin of the Well instrumentalists Greg Massi (guitars), Sam Gutterman (drums), Nicholas Kyte (bass), and Terran Olson (woodwinds) make an appearance on this album and are complimented by 8 other contributing artists. In particular, violinist Mia Matsumiya leaves the greatest impression with some excellent violin parts. All the other instruments are used in moderation and are excellently structured into the framework of the music, though the clarinet suffers from a mild case of being overused, it's not terribly distracting, and works well more often than not.

Jason Byron, formerly responsible for the lyrics and growled vocals in maudlin of the Well, returns to compose the poetry for this album. I say poetry as compared to lyrics because unlike motW, where the lyrics were merely poetic, as often as not in Choirs of the Eye, the lyrics are actual poetry, occasionally even spoken instead of sung. They're rather beautiful sounding and at times even better than the lyrics found in motW's music. While they don't follow an overarching theme or story, they're all very surrealist and suited to fit the mood of the song.

The album opens with "Marathon" in a clashing of percussion and arrhythmic guitars. Some jazzy trumpet adds to the ambiance of minimalist guitars and a sorrowful flute while a distorted voice reads poetry over what sounds like an intercom. It eventually breaks into a dark section with crushing guitars, free-jazz drumming, Toby alternating his high falsetto scream and gut-wrenching vocals, while a whimsical flute and ghostly piano adds to the dark whirlwind of sonic density. Some slow, heavy, chugging riffs give way to a delicate guitar section with some strange, oscillating guitar soundscapes and eerie sounding keys. This confusingly dark passage twists and turns, guided by occasional electronic noise and a soft jazzy drumming. Towards the end a distant voice starts reciting cheerful poetry in a soft, raspy, speaking tone. Eventually the music fades out to nothing as the voice continues reading, conjuring up some strong images. This track is an interestingly inaccessible way of starting off the album and is definitely a piece that needs to be listened to multiple times to really be appreciated.

The dark menace of "Marathon" is surprisingly followed by the cheery bliss of "A Pitcher of Summer". Clocking in at just under six minutes, this is the shortest and most accessible piece on the album. It opens with some soft, bright guitar work and some very light percussion. Toby's voice kicks in shortly and his high pitch gives it a very happy tone. Indeed, the lyrics conjure up warm, fuzzy images of a bright, pleasant summer day at a cottage deep in the woods, nature at harmony with the peaceful structure. Even when the distortion and heavy drumming kicks in, the piece keeps its bright and happy tone while Toby wistfully sings along. Once this section ends the piece slows down considerably and adds more distortion and some horns, though Toby's voice takes on much more of a wailing tone as the piece picks up in density. An intense buildup culminates in two loud, screaming notes. Even when compared to the complexity of the other pieces on this album, this song remains one of my favorite pieces.

"The Manifold Curiosity" is a piece of truly epic proportions at the midway point of this album. It starts out with some soft guitar and some interesting layering while a clarinet plays a sorrowful lead. This section swirls with a sort of swaying sadness before stopping suddenly and going to a simple acoustic guitar strumming for a good period of time. The sound of a person appears as he takes a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket, unfolds it, and timidly reads the track title. The soft acoustic continues with some guitar effects layering and two vocal tracks sing: one in Toby's crisp mid-level voice, one unintelligible under some odd static effects. This section comes to a close for a few seconds before a short fingerpicking bridge that slowly escalates in sound before the entire band erupts into a thundering chorus of heavy guitars and drumming, and a clarinet solo that I'm sure is supposed to be absolutely gut-wrenching but unfortunately almost doesn't work. It does improve shortly after the initial shock, when the guitar chimes in on the melody, and then the piece slowly goes into a post- mid album climax. Some floaty guitars emerge from the remains of the previous section, and very slowly start to build up, both in number and slight increase in noise. After a short while, voices start to chant more poetry, and even these become layered as up to three or four voices speak in an intentionally slight-off manner. Some excellent violins also add to the increasingly unsettling nature of the piece before some odd guitar whines lead into the melody being repeated in heavy distortion. Whiny guitars wail left and right, starting off slowly, guided by an interestingly strong bass. They slowly increase in intensity as the tempo starts to increase, going from a slow trot to a sturdy gallop over the course of nearly a minute. One guitar keeps adding to another, and yet another, and violins join the fray before Toby's wailing voice takes center stage for a brief spell, and all the flailing and moaning pauses with a short, slow three notes, only to be picked up in intensity again, with an increase in tempo. Every chaotic part builds up into a tremendous whirlwind of dense musical aggressiveness, and it peaks in one ridiculously fast torrential downpour of incomprehensible chaos with Toby screaming his lungs out in a way that almost reminds me of Jacob Bannon's voice (of Converge), and then it all comes crashing down with one quick drum roll and a super sludgy bass melody that starts an awesome, upbeat, motW-esque metal section, all ending in seven staccato notes. It's incredible how many twists and turns this titanic piece takes before its startling conclusion.

"Wayfarer" begins with some soft acoustic guitar chords and some awkward keys and then shortly adds a weeping violin. Much of the song up to the first moment when vocals come in has some odd chordwork where the chords are played unevenly or in an odd progression. Toby's vocals come in as soft and high-pitched with some of the prettier lyrics on the album. Some unsettling acoustic guitars pick up pace with the violin before some rolling drums bring the song to a big vocal section at a mid-song climax, some sad clarinets tagging along as Toby sing-speaks some interesting poetical verses before the piece starts over with some soft minimalist material, starting a new buildup, this one taking on a much more peaceful vibe than the one before it. It picks up slack very quickly as some beautiful violins add to the vocal harmonies. Then, all of a sudden, a switch is thrown and the metal turns on, though it's admittedly very bright and happy sounding, with an excellent short solo that dies on a screeching note. The last section ends with harp-like guitars and excellent violin work as Toby wishes a sad but hopeful goodbye to the starry wayfarer.

"The Antique" is another epic and probably the most abstract piece on the album. The first three minutes consist of some empty-sounding, rather chilling abstract minimalist guitar. Eventually some ghostly guitar effects and chilling keys give the already dark piece some added unease. Distortion slowly builds until it becomes a very slow-moving metal piece. Once the song hits the six minute mark the atmosphere becomes very dense and some alternating growling death metal and high pitched screams bring the song to a maddeningly dark level, the screams escalating in intensity every stanza before some haunting keys and whiny guitars escalate this section to a faster tempo. The change of pace brings some unsteady, back and forth chuggy riffing with some deliciously dark and malicious harsh vocals. A brief clean guitar spell gives way to a stanza of roaring metal with blast beats and ferocious screaming that then turns into an absolutely amazing, head-bangable chugging riff section at a huge climax. It returns to the clean guitar spell heard before as the drums begin to increase in speed as though leading up to something, and after a few quick heavy notes it drowns out to nothing but an echoic organ note. The last four minutes of the song consist of some beautiful, foreboding piano melodies, a stern horn solo, and some heavily distorted vocals. This creepy ambiance continues at a steady pace for some time before escalating into one grand note quickly at the end, leaving just the solitary organ note to linger quickly before cutting out to the end of the album.

Thus it ends. Choirs of the Eye is definitely a grower, especially for fans of maudlin of the Well previously unaccustomed to Kayo Dot. I was repulsed by the album after the first listen and it took me a good few months and seven more listens before the album really hit me as the incredible and unmatched musical composition that it really is. My suggestion: go in with as open of a mind as possible and try not to compare it to anything else. Let this dark, twisted piece of avant-garde brilliance drag you through its deep chasms and enjoy the tumultuous and schizophrenic soundscape at every turn.

5 stars, highly recommended for anyone looking for challenging and unique music.

Standout tracks: "A Pitcher of Summer", "The Manifold Curiosity", "The Antique".
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