Review Summary: Toby Driver returns to maudlin of the Well in the manner of a newly rich kid who's so exuberant with his fresh status that, upon returning home, he buys the entire town and refurbishes it as his own personal playground.
In the course of my history writing reviews, it has been a cumulatively formed ritual of mine to set down my words while listening to the album still, to begin writing at that point when I am so engrossed in its mood that what I say carries its inflection, and accommodates its tone, to the degree that I fancy I am almost capable of transferring the experience of the album from my mind to the reader's, an investment from one bank to another, with as strong a chance of high yield on the return as possible - no matter whether I enjoyed the music or despised it.
With maudlin of the Well's Part the Second, however, I find myself approaching the experience verbally from a case of silence, not even a car alarm or an alleycat's mew coming to me from the Brooklyn night as I leisurely smoke a cigarette and calmly meet the keys. Music this confident is infectious, bolstering, not only self-sustained, but so thoughtlessly generous that it could sustain me through this review even if I was listening to a three-way mashup of Enya, N*Sync, and The Silence of the Lambs' soundtrack (which I kindly won't). Or maybe it's that if I was to truly write a review permeated by the essence of this album I would have to write it in three different half-invented languages, with my toes, while juggling a metronome and a drunken, organ-grinding monkey.
Sometimes you just don't make the Avant grade.
The Backstory: Toby Driver, along with a host of other tentatively permanent musicians as well as a cavalcade of talented guests, formed in 1996 one of the most popular and respected 'Progressive Metal' bands to ever have their entire discography be out of print at once: maudlin of the Well. They released three albums (1999's My Fruit PsychoBells...A Seed Combustible, and 2001's companion albums Bath and Leaving Your Body Map) which both now and then have been hailed as masterworks of their incredibly insular genre. Even in a fringe metal movement, though, these boys were hanging on by a chest-hair snagged at the edge of the drop, and when they disbanded in 2003 Toby Driver wasted no time forming a new ensemble, Kayo Dot, and releasing an album under it in the same year (Choirs of the Eye, followed by Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue in 2006, and Blue Lambency Downward in '08). This work, Driver informs us, is to be seen as a continuation of his maudlin of the Well work, and one might assume with some justice that it was his way of breaking free of the shackles of a potentially oppressive genre and set-list of expectations.
Enter: Part the Second.
5 years after the break-up, we find Driver hauling out an album funded, niftily, by fan donations, and released to his public for free. It has its roots set in music for a planned maudlin of the Well album, which was quietly shelved as he briskly brought himself to bear on spacious new realms of music with Kayo Dot, and then resurrected the 'Lost Album' in a process which has clearly, and remarkably, been tinged by his sonic and artistic evolution since the former glories of maudlin of the Well.
What is at the core of the stand-alone qualities of all maudlin of the Well's prior works as 'metal' is Driver's genius for the manipulation of atmosphere, by any and all means necessary, and I would consider his work with Kayo Dot an act upon this impulsive instinct which saturates his creative drives. What this album entails, then, to my mind, my ears, fresh from the first and second listens, is an absolute free reign of this impulse. We are no longer clearly within anything remotely resembling metal, and the clearest signal of the presence of Avant Garde dealings is a whimsical willingness to off-handedly adopt preconceived sonic notions: Consider a moment in Rose Quartz Turning To Glass where, after some journeying through slow, curious, and pulsating violin arrangements, we arrive at a moment of almost Dadaistic nadir, where a man is heard making alternately crazed and retarded noises over an unsure grouping of twangs and shrieks from the instruments. This kind of step is only ever a misstep, no matter how revolutionary you are, unless you're packing some serious mojo in your shorts; and, sure enough, it somehow resolves by breaking into a tuneful bit of song (of the sort The Cure would do well to pay close attention to), before riding a quick solo into a more Rocky jam. And if that's not enough, which it never is with this album, the next track chooses to begin with a crassly self-stunting series of discordant lurches, before assuming the role of a man asked to fuse Easy Listening and Lounge Rock, while making both genres palatable (which happens), and then resolve his act by winning a Jeff Buckley impersonation contest. This is the kind of music the Doc would prescribe Ritalin and hope it shut up, but this is not symptomatic of a deficit in the musical attention span: It's just active.
Because that's the trick to this music, that's its deliberate gamble with itself, that it is so active. But the reason it's called a 'trick' is that the album's pacing is superb. It's a flaming man on enough meth to OD a corpse jumping naked out of a plane, but it has a parachute, so what in theory was only frantic and cloying, becomes in practice a spectacle of curious grace under pressure, beauty in suspension. It is this contrast between an abstract reality as nonsense, and a practical reality as music, that ultimately infests the listener. I eventually became so enthralled with the music itself that I stopped counting all the instruments present (approximately 20, my swift research informs me), and my habitual attempts at flagging genre references within avant garde music were likewise abandoned readily to the relentless and aggressive manipulation of my musical expectations, and the basic aural centers of my brain.
So, I was impressed. Because, in the end, what ultimately domesticates and makes native to thought and feeling these processes which are seemingly at odds with both is the genius which Driver has hold of most strongly, the creation and execution of atmosphere, and the ways in which that atmosphere impacts a receptive consciousness.
One thing which I was not stopped from appraising about the nature of the impact, is the absolute comfort of the music in all realms it reaches for, and attains. This is not music which manipulates genre for the sake of effect, but rather music which instills the notion of a total lack in inhibitions, of motivated casualness, of a composition which went where it needed to go, rather than where it was dictated to. There are several notable portions of the record, to give an acute example, scored in time-less music, and yet whenever it is necessary (such as crucial moments in the climactic track) it slips, easy as a breeze through a chink in a wall between opposing armies, into meter, so seamlessly that you might forget the music was ever without time, or fail to notice that there is now time. And vice-versa.
That is a kind of creative control which is much to be admired, and which Driver has exhibited at most every end of his career, and which I believe this album is one of the ultimate expressions of.
At the final judgment, now, I reflect that I have assigned the album a hearty 4.5, because after two listens I know enough to understand it is certainly just that, Superb, but I'm resisting my temptation to label it, here and now, as a Classic 5.0 because I believe that such a rating is only ever earned with time and repeated, sustained listens. And this stands to me as a clear and simple testament to the album's power for the attentive or lax listener (it is effective as both fore- and background music, and situates most exquisitely in the mid-ground of the mind), that fresh off the first listens I am having to fight the urge to give it a perfect rating.
Now for that third hearing.