Review Summary: The most challenging, progressive, and beautiful album of the 21st century.
Choirs of the Eye
Toby Driver was in a predicament. His jazzy melodic death metal band, Maudlin of the Well, was slowly moving towards a more modern classical style both in composition and aesthetics and he wanted to escape his band's metal reputation. Driver's solution was to rename his primary project to Kayo Dot and begin composing the most epic, progressive, and deep modern classical music of the 21st century. Needless to say, it was a pretty savvy move. They managed to convert their fanbase from metalheads into indie elitists overnight after changing their name, direction, and label (signing to the John Zorn's experimental label Tzadik label). Even now, they have signed to Robotic Empire (Circle Takes the Square, Crowpath, Red Sparrowes) and are furthering their domination of multiple scenes and styles.
Where does Choirs of the Eye
lie? In the brutal, oddball metal of their early years? The progressive metal of their last Maudlin of the Well album Bath
? Their seeming epic metal/emotional hardcore future? No where and everywhere all at once. This album has a style that looks generations forwards and backwards. There are remnants of late 19th / early 20th century composition within the unique key changes and chromatic harmonies that can simultaneously evoke Debussy and Bartok but in a modern time frame. One of the great things about this band is that they can produce these classical ideas on contemporary, modern rock instruments. Listening to the intro of "Wayfarer" may as well be a journey through a slower, classical guitar piece, but with the amazing mixing and sonic variety inaccessible to the famous pre-Digidesign composers. They have spliced concert hall grandiloquence and modern technology more tastefully than any band I have experienced. This balance would have failed if it weren't in the hands of capable composers, musicians, and engineers (I read that one track has 96 distinct and essential tracks to be mixed).
The album has five songs and lasts just over an hour. These songs are long, meandering, and careful. "Marathon" begins brutally with a dense, metal climate only to spill into 7-8 minutes of rambling ambience. This section allows tremolo chords and bell-like rings in the background. This chill disposition is complemented well by spoken word lyrics and a wide variety of warm synthesizer lines. "A Pitcher of Summer" brings back Maudlin of the Well's calmest moments (i.e. "Geography") with Kayo Dot's poppiest, most accessible song in terms of structure and palatability. The song is delicate, with falsetto vocals, arpeggiated clean tone guitar, slow trumpet, and a plain piano backing. Only as the song progresses does distortion find its way into the song, though this device still coexists with the smoother vocals and piano. "The Manifold Curiosity" is a beast of a song (15 mins) that builds to one of the heavier climaxes on the album. That is straight up screaming, double-bass drum, and chugging death metal guitar but this is only after building to this moment for 10-12 mins. You appreciate the moments of abrasive and emotional climax by brooding over it for extended stretches of song. "Wayfarer," my favorite song on the album, begins with a solitary guitar and is built gradually into a faster, more immediate moment, just to spill out into the main portion of the song at the exact moment the singer goes falsetto with "wayfarer." That moment alone makes the album. The contrast of the most beautiful vocals and heavy background music takes the cake. The effect is astounding. The final track, "The Antique" begins with a lot of semitonic harmonies and dirge-like tones. The song paddles around this landscape for a long time as a means to build towards to the climax of the song, which spills out into an extended breakdown with an interesting time signature motif, only to end on a beautiful and unexpected picardy third. It's a trip to be enjoyed with attention and nice headphones. The attention to detail in engineering and composition and unreal. Each track mixed has a distinct flavor. It's a wonder how long this album must have taken to perfect. The labor paid off though. Paid off in full.
Another topic I want to touch on is the choice of instruments. The sensibility of experimentation in terms of instrumentation existed with Maudlin of the Well, but because they were writing jazz metal, hearing a flute seemed corny, but in the context of this giant, modern classical album, those fit into place. The superior mix and composition allow the diverse instrumental ensemble to soar. Present are the typical guitar, bass, and drums of a rock band, which is the spine of the album, and the key remnant from Maudlin of the Well. On top of that is lovely oriental violin, wistful trumpet, ambient keyboard, and an oddly playful flute. All of these instruments find a place to accent the style on this album. The diversity works with the band instead of working against it like with their previous work.
If you're interested in hearing the most forward-thinking band in music today, pick up this album. That will give you just under a year to digest the style before their new album comes out. I personally have listened to this CD countless times, trying to decipher it, and pick out guitar parts, etc. but it's near impossible as a hobby. This album is magnificently constructed, grandiose, beautiful, and absolutely titanic. I enthuse you to listen right now.