Review Summary: Toby Driver has created a unique, sophisticated work of art by composing stunning string arrangements within atmospheric epics.
Toby Driver of maudlin of the Well and Kayo Dot (along with a slew of other projects) released his first solo album in over a decade just last year. What the excellent Madonnawhore
began was a new dimension to the versatile songwriter’s avant-garde and forward-thinking music. It consisted of ghostly songs and a stripped down instrumental line-up, possessing a level of intimacy that was previously unexplored by Driver. His first solo album in over a decade could be considered his most straightforward release by embodying a consistent tone and style from beginning to end, which maudlin of the Well and Kayo Dot have avoided. They Are the Shield
expands on the wistfulness of its predecessor for more complex and dynamic songwriting. Unique soundscapes come alive through an interplay of violins and sublime ambiance, particularly in album opener "Anamnesis Park." Nearly six minutes go by before the singing and main groove of the song even begins, but the violin and keyboard centric intro is so captivating and well-structured that it feels completely natural.
The unconventional writing Driver is known for is at its strongest here, as it is in the best work by maudlin of the Well and Kayo Dot. Violins, guitars, and keyboards drift in and out of playing solo or layered together in a uniquely beautiful way. “Glyph” is a lush, sorrowful piece featuring one of Driver’s most impressive vocal performances. The track crescendos with a cinematic slow dance between achingly gorgeous violins and atmospheric guitar tones. Some moments on the first half sound faintly influenced by early Godspeed You! Black Emperor and later-day Talk Talk in rewarding fashion. “470 Nanometers” is a more energetic piece and an album highlight, reminiscent of the maudlin of the Well reunion album Part the Second
, with dazzling guitar and violin playing and grooving drums.
While retaining focus, They Are the Shield
is able to explore a wide range of dynamics, from unsettling ambient sections to uptempo passages of a kind of undefined middle ground between chamber music and post-rock. Driver lets the influences of contemporary experimental groups and composers like Ulver and Max Richter seep in while making something wholly original. “Scaffold of Digital Snow” possesses a kind of mystique as it begins with solo violin and guitar chords, then transitions to a soaring middle section of stunning string arrangements with singing by Bridget Bellavia, the multi-talented collaborator with Driver on their dark electronic music project Piggy Black Cross. “The Knot” is an ambient ballad that closes the album on an emotional note, as the track builds to a stunning climax that shows the range of Driver’s singing voice and an ethereal blend of piano, violin, and synth tones.
They Are the Shield
does what any musical successor should do, by evolving from what came before. Madonnawhore
was great in its own right, and what Toby Driver has made here is even more expansive and cinematic, with an unpredictable nature somewhat reminiscent of his other projects. As elegant and alluring as the record sounds, it is not without unsettling and strange moments as well, particularly in the eerie “Smoke-Scented Mycelium.” Each listener will glean something different from the album, including the abstract and mysterious lyrics. Toby Driver continues to prove that he’s an uncompromising artist, obviously not averse to trying new musical ideas but remaining focused on the emotional impact and beauty of what a piece can express. They Are the Shield
finds Toby Driver continuing to evolve as a solo artist, with masterful string arrangements and gorgeous atmospheres for one of the finest albums of the year.