Review Summary: Toby Driver and his endless cast of extras have crafted a record that easily aligns itself with the current avant garde scene in New York while still retaining the Kayo Dot touch.
Determining a supposed criticism of Kayo Dot's "Blue Lambency Downward" is a difficult thing. While "Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue" and "Choirs of the Eye" were both extremely eccentric records they both seemed to have clearly present goals. Perhaps something changed in head composer Toby Driver's mind over the course of the past few years because "Blue Lambency Downward" seems wholly different from the rest of his output. Chalk it up to the loss of the previous incarnation of Kayo Dot or perhaps the realizations of the band as a fully functional touring force, "Blue Lambency Downward" feels much more solemn and controlled than the group’s previous records. Sounding somewhere between the avant garde lounge music of groups like Pram or Tom Waits and the progressive New York scene that has embraced groups like Time of Orchids and Colin Mastron's slew of project Kayo Dot have skillfully traded their rigid sense of dynamic build-ups for the more ambient and psychedelic side of "Dowsing". It seems if one thing is clear with "Blue Lambency Downward" it is that Driver will finally be able to shrug off the shadow that his previous band, maudlin of the Well has cast on his career thus far. The album is devoid of any "metal" sections and instead of using heavier sections as the basis of the sound the group has decided to flirt with their more melodic side.
In terms of examining the sound that is prevalent on "Blue Lambency Downward" it is easy to drift towards the finale of the album which comes in the form of "Symmetrical Arizona". First off, the first few minutes of the track greet the listener with a more coherent version of the drifty melodies Kayo Dot have made their patented "sound" over the past few years. Lengthy interplay between saxophone and clarinet skillfully grace the introduction with a softly progressive feel. The song effortlessly moves into a harmonically diverse section that is lead by beautiful interaction between bass, violin and most prominently a lead guitar that comes off extremely typical in its phrasing yet absolutely essential in providing melodic progression in the track. The third movement of “Symmetrical Arizona" is what comes off most surprising though. Kayo Dot throw themselves into a fully '70s prog. rock verse that evokes a sound like nothing they have attempted. Toby's ethereal vocals play themselves across a layered soundscape of violins, guitars, horns, etc. with the band evoking its most easily followed rhythm yet. The section does not perfectly resolve the piece like Kayo Dot's more structured parts have tended to do in the past. Instead it shifts in and out completely supporting the more unconventional ending; stuttered melodies thrown out between various clarinets and heavily palm muted guitar that gives way to a climax that simply never comes. What "Symmetrical Arizona" personifies is the fact that Toby has seemed to compose these songs in a way that they are pushing against being conventionally progressive. While "Choirs of the Eye" was certainly an awkward record it wasn't because of the actual compositions more so the overloads of sound and how the band so easily tossed the structure of rock music aside. The melodies on "Choirs" were what one would expect to hear when listening to metal or rock music so tracks like "The Antique" or "The Manifold Curiosity" spoke in ways that were familiar even they didn’t look like it. "Blue Lambency Downward" seems to be paying tribute to the modern compositional movement of the early 20th century with clear indications to its creator's supposed fondness of Erik Satie and other melodically simple yet provoking minimalists. In turn the melodic content on this album is vastly different and superior when compared with the two previous Kayo Dot releases.
"Blue Lambency Downward" should be prided for its foray into more conventionally lengthed Kayo Dot songs. The album's second and third tracks "Clelia Walking" and "Right Hand Is the One I Want" respectively create short sparse attacks of the Kayo Dot sound. "Right Hand" dizzyingly shifts between lush horn sections and sparse piano attacks into an atmospheric outro that is heavily flavored by Mia Mia Matsumiya's effortless violin playing. Lyrically "Right Hand" marks a somewhat more structured and personal shift from the more dense, wordy lyrics found on the first two albums. "Lambency's" lyrical portions are similar to the style that Toby has been working with in his solo projects; a more intimate and very imaginative prose in comparison to previous lyricist Jason Byron's more cryptic work. Another notable track on the record is "The Awkward Wind Wheel" which has an absolutely gorgeous string portion and a structure Time of Orchids would kill for. Extremely layered vocal parts mark "The Useless Ladder" which delves into a melodic conclusion that seems so close to being cadenced appropriately that when it doesn't it makes the track work marvelously. Finally the title track is a gorgeously psychedelic track which seems to strongly mirror the British folk scene of the '70s in its beautiful touches of acoustic guitars. The only slight misstep on this record seems to be "The Sow Submits" which in all actuality just sounds like something Kayo Dot has already done before albeit not as good.
One issue that can be taken up with "Blue Lambency Downward" is how the production doesn't allow the album to breathe like the band's previous records. "Choirs" in my mind is one of the most gorgeously produced records of recent times and "Dowsing" while a little bare in its style sounded completely organic. "Blue Lambency Downward" sounds slightly hazy the entire time and while it does add an extra gauze of dreaminess to Kayo Dot's sound, it also makes parts of "The Awkward Wind Wheel" and other heavily layered tracks less effective in delivering individual instrument attacks. When listening to an older Kayo Dot song like "Don't Touch Dead Animals" it is easy to discern the wall of sound into individually perfected sounds, “Blue Lambency” makes this difficult. Maybe this is an extremely personal critique since Kayo Dot's two previous records hold such a great spot in my mind in regards to production. All I know is that the main reason I can’t give this album a perfect rating is because of the issues I have with some little nuances in the production.
It seems that "Blue Lambency Downward" while sonically easier to comprehend has become Kayo Dot's most diversely opinioned album. Moving away from their post-rock style build-ups and instead delving into complete organic pieces like "Dowsing" suggested, I find the latest Kayo Dot refreshing. Had the band attempted to recreate their emotionally taxing sound of old they would've in my opinion started to sound dated. Instead, Toby Driver and his endless cast of extras have crafted a record that easily aligns itself with the current avant garde scene in New York while still retaining the Kayo Dot touch.