Kayo Dot Live in San Francisco
by Nick Greer
January 7th 2009 | 17 Comments
For the entire interview with Toby Driver, click [here].
"The most noteworthy part of the fan response [to Blue Lambency Downward] has been that many people seem to 'get' the music once they see it performed live." -Toby Driver
The above quotation, though reluctant to suggest that there is an easy or automatic way to understand the music of Kayo Dot, does shed some light on the bridge between their studio work and their live show. Certain elements or ideas in the music may become salient or apparent when played live. This catalytic effect seems to never be more important than in reference to Kayo Dot's most recent album, Blue Lambency Downward, which was met with both [glowing praise] and [unilateral derision] by both critics and fans.
The negative responses are all rare glimpses at the obvious question fans of Toby Driver's past work had upon first hearing BLD, "Where's the metal?" The heavy, distorted guitar and screaming that existed in moments in maudlin of the Well and on Kayo Dot's first album Choirs of the Eye started to phase out on Kayo Dot's second full length album, Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue, and is completely absent from Blue Lambency Downward. Listeners who expected huge dynamic escalations and dissonance to emerge from the pensive, slow sections were left with a case of aural blue balls. Driver's response to listeners who wondered where the climaxes had gone does a lot to explain the subtle intrigue of Blue Lambency Downward. "Their youthful groping listening habits wanting us to speed up at the end and moan more. We are finding ways to create more meaningful climaxes that don't rely on harmonic ascension, tempo increase, volume increase, or adding more layers." Blue Lambency Downward is an album that looks to engage in legitimate catharsis through different channels. Such a change seems natural for Driver who himself acknowledges, "I create music cathartically. So if I'm never able to escape a screamy, angry, dark vibe, then I'm failing at creating a cathartic experience."
When I saw Kayo Dot perform at the Hemlock Tavern on October 8, I got the sense that maybe the way I had approached Blue Lambency Downward included too much of that youthful groping Driver mentioned. I too am a fan of Driver's previous albums but felt somehow deflated after hearing Blue Lambency Downward and upon experiencing the songs live, I had a newfound appreciation for what Driver was doing. It's not that I didn't "get" the album before, but I felt like hearing the songs done in front of me helped me access nuances I would have otherwise not noticed. Furthermore, my revelatory listening experience was not sifting through and discerning all of the albums' complexities, but more coming to terms with its unique sense of escalation, atmosphere and pacing. Driver's insight is particularly helpful here: "I don't necessarily try to make things as 'elaborate' as possible, because I don't think that the magic of music lies in complexity. What I did want to do in terms of arrangement on [Blue Lambency Downward] though, was to write music that relied on many different colors to express itself, but be able to manage that with a live lineup of multi-instrumentalists. So it was important, when writing, to not allow the music to carry itself into obvious bombast or other instantly gratifying devices that would not be able to be reproduced live." When the dual-guitar and grandiose orchestration of Choirs of the Eye is stripped away, Kayo Dot's sound relies on those subtle but diverse colors to make its case, which is a valuable interpretation that may be lost when experiencing the album alone or holding it up against their back catalogue.
Despite Driver's claim that Blue Lambency Downward is not about complexity, one wouldn't be able to tell from the set up. Driver was wedged up against his Marshall stack, stage front left in order to keep eye contact with the rest of the ensemble, who were also strategically arranged among the gear. Drummer Dave Bodie was circumscribed by his drum set and a collection of Zildjian gongs. Violinist Mia Matsumiya was front and center and controlled the groups computer and sampling needs, and even got into a little bit of handheld percussion. Rounding out the ensemble were multi-instrumentalists Daniel Means, who played guitar and tenor saxophone, and Terran Olson who manned two keyboards in the back and stepped up with Means to play clarinet as well. The stage was so densely packed with gear and performers that when Driver moved over to the keyboard annex to perform "Right Hand Is the One I Want," there was an element of blocking and timing required to pull off the transition.
This gear arrangement and complicated set up had a profound effect on the sound though; not only had they replicated the tones and balance of timbres and dynamics on Blue Lambency Downward with impressive fidelity, but they also trumped the feel of the studio release. Driver's rich harmonies and delicate orchestrations were aurally engulfing and had a mesmerizing rapture-like quality that gave the performance an extra life only hinted at on Blue Lambency Downward. The aforementioned expressive "colors," went from subdued watercolors to rich acrylics, all without succumbing to bombast or grandiosity. A key to this is readily observed when considering the ensemble. Having two woodwind instruments and brushed drumming creates a subdued, muted aesthetic that is much fresher and engaging when one is literally surrounded by the unconventional timbres of the arrangement.
Their set consisted of the first five tracks on Blue Lambency Downward followed by "Gemini Becoming the Tripod" and ending on "A Pitcher of Summer." The performance definitely benefited from the sequential nature of the set list. Blue Lambency Downward is the most through-composed of any of Kayo Dot's albums, so having song to song continuity in the live setting really helped the flow of the performance and contributed to that ensconcing sensation that the music had. The contrast of the brushed swing against the piano and drum isorhythms of "Right Hand Is the One I Want" cast a strange, powerful energy over the audience. The undulating arpeggios of "Blue Lambency Downward" had a hum about them that made Kayo Dot instantly absorbing. And despite the joy of hearing the new songs with fresh ears, getting to see the older tracks was also a treat. Driver wailing and moaning on "Gemini..." echoed and bounced off of the walls of the tiny venue, building up an incredibly grating and vicious texture. Similarly, the slow, pulsing ending of "A Pitcher of Summer" made the venue feel like it was throbbing. Regardless of what era Kayo Dot pulled their songs from, they reanimated the tracks skillfully and really took over the small, dimly lit backroom of the Hemlock Tavern.
Blue Lambency Downward, even when revealing previously hidden facets via live performance, is still Kayo Dot's most mysterious and challenging album. Its reserved approach towards crescendos and escalation is coy at best. However, these difficulties are not the product of any lack of skill, creativity, or inspiration on Driver's part. Now that he has put out his own cathartic experience, it's up to any one listener to get their own meaningful catharsis without listening for obvious or heavy-handed devices (i.e. harmonic ascension, increased dynamics, etc.), and maybe it's this challenge that makes Kayo Dot one of the most progressive and vital bands in contemporary music. A final tip from Driver seems like the best way to approach Blue Lambency Downward, particularly when trying to reconcile the wide range of viewpoints on the album:
"Everyone really knows that nobody wants a band to try to remake their great successes. So I feel this record, like Choirs of the Eye and Dowsing Anemone, was a perfect artistic success; I did exactly what I intended to do, so in response to the positive reviews I would say thank you for being open to it, and in response to the negative reviews I would say don't worry because I have no interest in reattempting a successful statement. I'm trying to create music that defines a personal time for myself but is out of time for others. Audiences, on the other hand, are listening to music to define moments in their life. Kayo Dot seems to work best for those listeners who tend to view the bigger picture, life as a river, exemplified by the fact that the music is about scale and how one measure may not compel until the conclusion of the work when the reason something happened becomes apparent. Who says that the end of this album should define that moment?"
Blue Lambency Downward was ranked #34 on the Sputnikmusic Users' Top 100 Albums of 2008 List and #19 on our staff consensus Top 50 list.
Photography courtesy of Baris Ungun
|I need to listen to this guy more. |
|"It's not that I didn't "get" the album before, but I felt like hearing the songs done in front of me helped me access nuances I would have otherwise not noticed."|
This is exactly what I felt after seeing them live in Munich (in June).
I'm pretty god damn sure there was a sixth member playing sax and clarinette (and the keyboard guy didn't leave the keys). they played the complete Blue Lambency Downward album and A Pitcher of Summer in front of not more than 40 people, with at least one quarter of them only coming because of the opening band "Wishes on a Plane". the concert was pretty much the greatest one I've ever attented - and the circumstances were kinda weird (after the show I hang around alone until 5-6am in the morning on the Munich train station cause the fucking train was more than 3 hours late, completely soaked wet by the rain, fuckin freezin, quite a bit drunk and still not pissed off cause the concert was that great ^^)
|the drummers quite a big bloke according to these pictures ;)|
|Great article Nick, I wish I had the chance to see them live. I'm curious to how they performed live during the [i]Choirs of the Eye[/i] era, with most songs being so textured.|
|great feature! I really want to see this band live, but I doubt it will ever happen. I'm starting to dig Blue Lambancey Downward a little more then my 2.5 review I did. But I don't have a problem with the lack of climaxes or all that. I actually like the approach, it's more classical then anything else. I just find almost all of the songs (minus Symmetrical Arizona) falls apart by the end. Plus The Sow Submits is just plain awful.|
|This is awesome, great work. I'd definitely go to see them live if they ever came across my area. Personally I think BLD is excellent, it's not like they have to top their previous work (mainly Choirs which would nearly impossible anyway).|
|i saw Kayo Dot live a little while ago. they were really great, i agree on a few of the points made here. was this show on the Pelican tour? the setlist from the show i saw them at is definitely similar. |
i like BLD a whole bunch. cool feature.
|It may have been on that tour, but they weren't playing this specific show with Pelican. My this was another leg.|
|BLD is the soundtrack to someone spending the night in an old movie theater that closed in the 60s, with weathered posters of forgotten sci-fi B movies strewn about the walls, some defeated on the ground. Yet the candy at the snack bar is still packaged and fresh. Expiration date: Never.|
|i have GOT to catch this band live..|