Review Summary: Sun goes down behind landscape seeming/alien in its nightmare evening.
The ever-fluctuating beast of Kayo Dot is clearly intent on never falling into stagnation or predictability; subverting expectations is how they work fundamentally. Frontman Toby Driver and a large cast of collaborators never make the same album twice, frequently changing everything about how the previous record sounded. Driver has laughed off fans berating him for changing genres between albums, and has once again shifted his musical focus in the wake of recent events. Since the success of avant-garde metal masterpiece Hubardo
in 2013, Driver has made it clear that Kayo Dot would mold into something new once more. Coffins on Io
and Plastic House on Base of Sky
(PHOBOS, one of the moons of Mars) emphasize electronics over experimental metal. The latter acts as a logical progression from Coffins on Io
while entrancing the listener with eccentric, alien compositions.
The most impressive aspect of PHOBOS
is how naturally immersive it sounds without relying on typical genre-bending techniques (loud-soft-loud-soft dynamics for a quick dose of variety) within extended compositions. The avant-garde explorations are dense and unrelenting, with the only reprieve in the form of the softer, shorter closing ballad “Brittle Urchin.” These qualities serve as a sharp contrast to the neo-noir, gothic elements of predecessor Coffins on Io
. While its smooth nature faintly remains, Kayo Dot have opted for more vibrant, dense layerings of electronics and bass guitars. Overall, the band has again defied categorization or genre barriers, creating a truly original and puzzling album of sci-fi madness. For example, the evocative, spatial epic “Rings of Earth” sees Driver hauntingly singing of satellites circulating like vultures around dying worlds. Apocalyptic keyboards and pounding drums accentuate the death knell outro, reminiscent of some other-dimensional funeral dirge.
Flurrying keyboards and frantic vocals are a near constant throughout, drawing on the styles of Coffins on Io
and taking them to frenetic heights. The subtle use of guitars also adds to the wondrous energy the album exudes throughout. These qualities are at their most unhinged in the middle section, with high voltage synthesizers building to massive climaxes within “Magnetism” and “All the Pain in All the Wide World.” The latter begins deceptively, as lush, almost accessible electronica. This transitions to droning synth patterns while odd bass lines provide an unsettling backdrop, soon descending into a chaotic whirlwind of agitated rhythms and haunting echoed vocals. While not the most climactic section of the album, it stands as one of the strangest passages of music the band has ever recorded. The song’s climax contains improvisational vocals not included in the liner notes. Driver has insisted that Kayo Dot’s music is always planned and rehearsed ahead of time, with this moment marking an uncommon departure from that formula.
The lyrical themes are fitting for Driver’s frantic, eccentric vocal delivery as he explores an unsavory Orwellian nightmare. “Amalia’s Theme” carries a mystical tone as it tells the story of a female oracle within a degraded, dystopian future. Themes like these throughout PHOBOS
are reminiscent of sci-fi films like Bladerunner, Brazil, Total Recall, and Logan’s Run. More arcane and occult imagery appear throughout as well. The esoteric subject matter of “Magnetism” marries these elements together exceptionally, the music swelling and permeating the listener’s mind in the album’s climax. A high-pitched droning synth pattern plays over keyboard layers in highly unconventional time signatures; frantic percussion patterns drive along the otherworldly chorus as vocal wails paint surreal, haunting imagery of drug-addled wastelanders in alien cities, perhaps here on earth in a far distant, unfamiliar future.
As previously mentioned, the dust settles on “Brittle Urchin,” a comfortably odd, reflective outro reminiscing on the album’s abstract themes. It ends PHOBOS
on an unsettling yet tranquil note fitting for the band. Some will find Kayo Dot's latest difficult to digest, at least before the quieter closing song. Ultimately, it is a demanding listen, one of the most challenging the band have released. Driver and co. have always made a point to subvert listener’s expectations, and this latest ranks among their hardest to grasp. Each listen yields fresh discoveries, particularly with the role of guitars subtlely adding to the screaming walls of sound the album at times descends into. To reveal all the album’s secrets would lessen its impact, and a full listen of the esoteric Plastic House on Base of Sky
will show how rewarding Kayo Dot can be, as evolved and mesmerizing as always.