Review Summary: A trip down memory lane for Maudlin of the Well devotees laced with some compelling new renderings from Driver's recent projects.Part the Second
can be downloaded in its entirety for free at http://www.maudlinofthewell.net/
Toby Driver's extended discography, which includes Maudlin of the Well, Kayo Dot
, and Tartar Lamb
, is heralded as the keystone of any good contemporary avant garde collection. Driver's originality and ingenuity when it comes to polytonality, orchestration, and blending esoteric ideas from contemporary and antiquity has made him a legendary figure to a broad range of listeners, from the most erudite, scholarly college professor to the most erudite, scholarly 14-year old with an internet connection and a membership to Sputnikmusic. Many avid listeners within that gamut point to one moment in Driver's career as the most important: when Driver dissolved his earliest prominent project, Maudlin of the Well, so he could develop Kayo Dot. At that crossroads, he moved from fringe metalhead to an artist and a composer. Though Maudlin of the Well and Kayo Dot shared many musical ideas and even band members, the gap between Leaving Your Body Map
and Choirs of the Eye
was monumental. Maudlin of the Well was a metal band that experimented in free jazz, neoclassical, and other seemingly incongruous genres, whereas Kayo Dot was an experimental band that knew how to insert popular genres and idioms at key moments to elevate their music from exploratory to transcendent. Now, Toby Driver is the unofficial figurehead of an even more unofficial fellowship of like-minded avant garde composers like Charlie Looker of Extra Life
and Mick Barr of Krallice
. This bellwether status can be traced to that unique interval between Maudlin of the Well and Kayo Dot when Driver jettisoned the cumbersome metal tag that had been attached to his previous project and moved into uncharted territory.
Despite the clear value of this transition, Maudlin of the Well's three LPs are considered some of the finest progressive metal albums of all time and Driver even had a fourth album in mind when he decided to move on to Kayo Dot. This album was a collection of fleshed out but incomplete songs that Driver shelved in favor of recording Choirs of the Eye
, a notoriously convoluted and detailed recording ("Wayfarer" required over 100 tracks to execute Driver's vision). Instead of letting these songs dissolve into the ether, Driver preserved them, and after a number of [a href="http://www.maudlinofthewell.net/producers/"]generous donations[/a] (one of which came from staff writer Jared Dillon) was able to finish the writing and recording process, the result of which is Maudlin of the Well's lost fourth album, titled Part the Second
. In theory this album sits rather evenly between Driver's two identities and possibly serves as a conceptual and musical stepping stone between the two.
As expected, Part the Second
will be an uncanny listen for most fans of Toby Driver. Its overall sound is not a clear member of any of Driver's musical eras, but individual elements can be traced to different musical fascinations Driver has had over the years. From the perspective of Maudlin of the Well, Part the Second
does feel like an album that would come after [i]Leaving Your Body Map[/] and Bath
. Driver had always loved juxtaposing brutal melodic death metal and playful but eerie melodic passages, but as Maudlin of the Well grew, these passages were often interwoven and less jutting in their arrangements. Part the Second
is a more full-bodied realization of that transition with the metal and ambient extrema being reined in for the sake of continuity and congruousness. Other characteristic MotW moments that fans will love hearing include the wailing solo at 6:28 on "Laboratories of the Invisible World..." and the chorus and reverb-laden open guitar chords at 1:04 in "Excerpt from 6,000,000,000,000 Miles Before the First, or, the Revisitation of the Blue Ghost," which strike me as deliberately exact in tone to similar "metal" production tactics on older Maudlin albums. There seems to be a deference given to moments that are singularly maudlin that would sound dated or cheesy in Driver's new music that makes me crack a smile every time I encounter it. As aforementioned, Driver's new projects are represented as well, and in fact, can't help but seep into the fabric of Part the Second
. Driver's access to violinist Mia Matsumiya allows for sweeping Dot/Lamb-esque violin patterns as well as the pizzicato isorhythms that take over the oddball second half of "Another Excerpt: Keep Light Near You, Even When Dying." The strange vocal tactics of "The Lugubrious Library Loft" from In the L...L...Library Loft
seem to pepper the bridge of "Rose Quartz Turning to Glass," sending the plaintive and melodic track to ostracizing and brittle territory. Part the Second
, despite being the next step for Maudlin of the Well, is really a moon ball for Driver who seems to be recapitulating his entire career, a strategy that - thanks to Driver's endless creativity - is rarely tedious.
Maybe the most exciting parts of Part the Second
are the moments that can't be traced to anything Driver has done before. The opening notes of the album conjure the legato tapping of Minus the Bear covering "Gleam in Ranks." The smooth pentatonic piano and solo violin of "Rose Quartz Turning to Glass" sound like they belong to Lou Harrison's Three Pieces
, and manage to sweep me off of my feet every time. The synthesized vibes and bells against the violin of "Another Excerpt..." are from some kind of gorgeous, cinematic dream state previously hidden away in the less challenging back rooms of Driver's music. These moments sound as if they've been gleaned from some other composer and woven in - rather beautifully - into Maudlin of the Well's core sound. Among all of the throwbacks, Driver still finds time to expand his sonic palette in interesting and enjoyable ways.
Unfortunately there are also a few characteristically Maudlin moments that are non-existent in these tracks. One of the reason Maudlin of the Well's three original LPs felt so complete was that Driver always embraced diatonicism on his melodic interlude tracks like "The (Sign of the) Four" and "Interlude 4," and the stripped down "Sleep Is a Curse" and especially the droning electroacoustic masterpiece "Geography." Maybe Driver's style today is too evolved from his simpler and less abstruse Maudlin of the Well moments to revisit those kinds of sounds, but it comes at the detriment of Part the Second
, which feels like it could do better by being more song-focused instead of idea-driven. If Kayo Dot won respect by stripping any traditional convention and structure then Maudlin of the Well was championed for experimenting in novel ways with tried and true genre conventions. These enjoyable variations on existing genre norms like rhythmic loops on relentless death metal double-bass drumming ("They Aren't All Beautiful") or over the top use of an epic organ part ("The Ferryman") were integral in Maudlin's intrigue. And on top of all of that, to lose the pastoral beauty of a song like "Marid's Gift of Art" means that Part the Second
is too convoluted and through-composed for its own good.
Part the Second
is likely the final stand for Maudlin of the Well, and is certainly album for the fans. Driver has since moved on to other projects and other ideas (that clearly make their mark on the songwriting of this album) and has mentioned that he loves revisiting Maudlin of the Well, but more for nostalgia and less for true musical catharsis, a phenomenon he has indicated he seeks in all new compositions. As such, Part the Second
stands as a final testament to Maudlin of the Well's greatness. It neatly encompasses Driver's entire career, tracing his earliest experimentations with metal and prog, his chrysalis into Kayo Dot, and even dangling fascinations and possible future directions. Most importantly though, Part the Second
is a truly great album, not for what it can evoke in a pining Maudlin of the Well fan or what it tells a Driver devotee about the composer's personal progression, but for all it achieves on its own.