Review Summary: The waters of life, through life
The following is a true story about an experience I had with this album several years ago, one that has shaped all future experiences with it and (I believe) brought considerably closer to its musical and conceptual essence; as such I believe that it is appropriate to present this story in the form of a music review. If you bear with me, the reasons for this will become clear in time. The names have, of course, been altered.
It was December, 2014, roughly a year after Hubardo’s release. I was working in Austria at the time and had received a somewhat text from a college friend whom I had long since lost contact. I vaguely remembered that she had married and moved out to Europe five or six years ago, so I supposed it made sense to hear from her now. Her name was Cynthia and she wanted to meet up.
I was not yet insured to drive in Europe, so we arranged for her to pick me up at a station about an hour out of Vienna, close to where she lived. I was excited to see her again; I regretted losing touch and remembered our college years fondly. She had been part of the crowd I went to gigs with and we’d shared some pretty wayward memories. I wondered how she’d have changed since then. One the train out I played with my scarf and wondered if she planned to go out to dinner or just chat. I wondered what her husband would be like.
Cynthia was in the carpark when I stepped past the ticket barrier, leaning against the bonnet of one of those beefy 4x4 power-mom cars that seem to signify children with no less sharpness than the average wheely-buggy. So that was how she’d spent her time in Austria. We greeted each other with predictable awkwardness and she stepped into the car, apologising in advance for what would supposedly be a bit of a drive. I fastened my seatbelt. The car was cleaner than I expected, none of the childish detritus usually inevitable in such vehicles. Not even traces of fur to indicate a pet. I realised that Cynthia herself had so far told me nothing at all about her new family, and broached the topic lightly:
“So, do I get to meet Mr. Cynthia"”
She smiled. “I guess so, we’ll see where he ends up.”
Right. Well then, back to base. Cynthia turned the engine of her car on and reached for the CD locker. This was more like it - the Cynthia I knew would never go anywhere without a jam or two up her sleeve. But when she withdrew her hand and I saw what it was holding, I almost did a double-take.
“Fuck.” She looked at me.
“Sorry"” In her glove was an almost mint condition copy of Kayo Dot’s 2013 masterpiece Hubardo.
Now, for context here, two things need to be clarified. The first is that at that point the only CD release of Hubardo was a limited edition marketed exclusively in Japan. I could tell in about two seconds that Cynthia’s was not one of these by the English song titles/product information and lack of an obi strip, yet its pristine gatefold design seemed like an official release, which was impossible (the album would later be rereleased on CD in 2017, but until then the Japanese edition was supposedly the only one in circulation). The second thing was that at that point in time (and, to a lesser degree, now) I was absolutely besotted with the album. The disorienting production, the esoteric concept, the gymnastic range of styles and the sheer bombast of the whole thing spoke to me more than any new record in years. So to find a deeply bewildering copy in the grasp of a woman I used to watch scuzzy student bands with was quite the surprise.
I asked her where she got it and she shrugged.
“Oh, just found it in one of Alexander - my husband’s - piles the other day. Seemed the sort of thing you’d like.”
No less mysterious, but also a straight bullseye. In went the album, up sparked our reunion prattle and what we’d done with our lives these past years, and over our ears crept those magical words from the throat of Jason Byron.
To those who thirst: drink. There is water enough for us all…
It soon emerged that Cynthia had changed more than I could have expected. Once she had been the easy kind of friend, the kind I could read like a familiar book. Now I had no idea what thoughts were lurking behind her eyes. Her hands tightened around the wheel and she kept the direction to herself.
The car was cold. I considered asking her to turn the heating system up, but it was already marked as on and set to its maximum. It seemed rude to point this out. I cannot abide rudeness. Night drew in and I shivered.
...that cloudless night by the waning light of a tired moon...
We were on a thin, winding road through steep hills. Conversation subsided somewhat, though not at an impasse. I supposed that this was her first time hearing this album, which made me a little reticent about talking over it. Moonlight occasionally flood through the mountainscape on the horizon and the sweeping clamour of Thief and Vision Adjustment To Another Wavelength seemed to turn what would have been a shaky drive in a frigid car into an unlikely adventure. It was almost romantic. I looked across at Cynthia, wondering if she was thinking the same thing. Her face gave little away, but her eyes seemed younger than they had done earlier that evening.
...he remembered that was where he left it/Though it had less rust back then/Sunlight pushing through the eaves...
Zlida Caosgi (To Water The Earth) had been my favourite song on the album, once. It’s a song about revitalisation, discovery, animation. It sounds absolutely electric, and I think Cynthia picked up on this very quickly. She kept shifting in her seat, restless somehow. I half expected her to put her foot down and drive on full-tilt, but after the first couple of minutes she pulled into a small lay-by.
I looked at her questioningly. It was clear she needed to say something but was having trouble finding the words. Or the strength. I let her take her time. And then:
My face must have been blank for a second. Maybe I frowned, my mind at work. Maybe I glanced at the empty back seats, at the disorientingly pristine state of the family car. Maybe I just stared at her, unsure why of all the people in the world, I was the one in the passenger seat with her that night. Whatever. I held her gaze and uttered the appropriate response:
“It’s okay...well, it will be. We’re young enough to drift along, right"”
I made a generic noise of encouragement, not trusting my emotional radar enough to commit to any firm statements. She shivered, as though she felt the cold for the first time, and then suddenly our eyes met and we both knew how aware I was of her sudden chill. Time slowed and I had several thoughts at the same time, of how beautiful she been fifteen years ago, of how we had danced and drunk through the nights and laughed about how there was never anything between us, of how her old face had stretched and bleached itself into a new one, still there somewhere but without any of its old lifeblood and love of life, of listening to this album for the first time with my friend Padge who had broken into laughter at that unforgettable eruption of synths in Zlida Caosgi, exclaiming “them keys sound like they’re up to no good.”
Something magnetic happened and the next thing I knew we had gone from a tentative kiss to all over each other on the backseat. Neither of us were really thinking anything, we just let the moment carry us as the moon rose in the sky and the First and Second Operations played out over the stereo. It lasted longer than I would have expected, but Cynthia didn’t waste any time when it was over; she was back in the driver’s seat and we were onwards. She seemed warmer with me though; neither of us said much on the rest of the drive - we were silently taking in what had just happened - but her presence next to me seemed considerably more accommodating than it had before. Is this how people change"
...the poet stretched his limbs and dressed and wandered out to see the blessed grove and mound and the sound of water that was not there before…
After a short while, the lights of a driveway finally came into sight. Cynthia turned her headlights down and turned off; home, sweet broken home, I presumed.
I presumed incorrectly. The residence at the other end of the driveway turned out to be a moderate sized Schloss, lit up and surrounded with people in tuxedos and empty vehicles that presumably belonged to people in tuxedos. I turned to Cynthia,
“Where are we"
“We’re at a party,” she said as though it was the most self-explanatory thing in the world, which (I supposed) it was. I went with it,
“Want me to come with you"”
“I’d like that,” she said, and I could tell she meant it. I looked again at the tuxedos and was about to open my mouth - I hadn’t come in anything close to appropriate dress - but she waved a hand,
“There’s a jacket in the trunk.” Jesus Christ she had thought this through. I gestured at my jeans and sneakers,
“Sure they’ll be okay with this"” She laughed. It sounded like dead leaves rustling,
“Sergei, people only see what they want to see. You just need to give them the chance.”
Back then my career was just beginning to shift gears, and it was years before I recognised the impact of her words on its future shape. I reached for the jacket. And then everything changed. She reached toward the stereo and carefully, deliberately, turned it off just as Passing the River was nearing its end.
I almost started. Of course, it was completely natural for her to stop the music, but somewhere beyond the point of sensibility was this feeling that if she really understood me, if she really wanted me to accompany her, she would have let the disc play out. Just one track left, too. We walked over to the party and I waited for her to make introductions. Various socialites spoke auf Deutsch to us and it quickly became apparent to me that Cynthia did not in fact speak German. I felt a responsibility placed on my own not inconsiderable conversational talents, as though I constantly had to compensate for her silence. After a while I could take no more. I told her I had left my phone, or wallet, or whatever, in the car and promised to return immediately after fetching it. She gave me the key and five minutes later I had the Hubardo disc in my pocket and was approaching the skinny hire-company Luemmel behind the sound desk. I held the disc out and demanded he play the final song, The Wait of the World, out loud. He looked at me, miffed, and made some apology of an apology about his license to take requests. I moved in close, gestured across the hall at the most ornately-dressed patron of the ball I could find and muttered some insistence about how the Frau in question had made her presence here contingent on the song in question being played. He tried in vain to stare me down before bowing slightly in compliance and taking the disc.
Needless to say, it caused a stir. For those unfamiliar, the first section of the song is not so far removed from the big-band romp prevalent at Austrian society balls, albeit a little more lurchy, but the mesmeric chaos that carries the rest of the song was not to the attendees’ tastes. The song, by some miracle, lasted for all fourteen minutes of its runtime and I was granted the satisfaction of completing a full perusal of Hubardo that evening, but I noticed the kid on the desk receiving a scolding from the event manager shortly after. Cynthia drove me back to hers later on and I spent a couple of days there before returning to Vienna, but this brings us beyond the scope of the review - this is, after all, about the story of Hubardo, not of me or Cynthia.
...the eye of Leviathan fell from the sky to enchant the lonely, to love and to die.
A lot of things have changed since that 2014 evening and in many ways I am still trying to process how I feel about that night. Should I feel angry, used, or guilty for allowing myself to enjoy the way things had gone, or even grateful that I had been able to offer a lonely friend some form of recourse" These feelings are still more or less deadlocked, but one thing that has become more lucid is my understanding of Hubardo.
Hubardo, at the end of the day, is a deeply revisional album that marked a creative reunion between the Toby Driver/Kayo Dot of the time of release and many of the members and aesthetic particularities of Driver’s much-beloved earlier project maudlin of the Well. Hubardo is as close to a maudlin of the Well album as Driver has ever released under the Kayo Dot banner, but the necessary regression of this status never struck me until after my experience with Cynthia (and it would probably have never occurred to me if we hadn’t literally been listening to this album at the time).
To elaborate, Cynthia didn’t kiss me because she loved me. She did so because she needed a way of alleviating her own shock and loneliness. It must have felt necessary for her to open herself in that way in order to step forward and, as a friendly face, I was the most comfortable means of doing so at the time. In a similar manner, after a run of albums troubled by less-than-great critical and commercial success (despite their inclusion of his all-time greatest song, Rite of Goetic Evocation), Driver apparently needed to embrace familiar faces and stylings from his pass through the filter of his present band and compositional talents in order to consolidate his band’s foothold on the contemporary radar. The relative success he has enjoyed with Kayo Dot over and since Hubardo would certainly be testament to this.
As cogent as this realisation was, it then led me to reevaluate my attitude to Kayo Dot more broadly. The project is usually described in one of two ways - as a challenging force of experimental music, or as Toby Driver’s creative baby. But perhaps it doesn’t have to be either of them. Perhaps, insofar as music can provide its own narrative, the sound of Kayo Dot is just another piece of the self-fulfilling soundtrack that we like to pretend guides us along. It was through the encounter described overhead that I realised that almost all music, including Kayo Dot (in this case, especially Kayo Dot), derives much of its value through its capacity to tap into something innately humanoid through a quasi-Jungian approach to sonic dissimilation. The paths of our lives are not, after all, set in stone, but appear as a swampy maze shifting through uncertain waters. Music is just one of the ways we use to make those waters look a little less threatening.