Review Summary: the flow of time is distorted
The stars are aligned. October 29th 2021 finds both Kayo Dot at a juncture in their career and myself at a point in semi-adjusted adulthood where it no longer seems mutually flattering to draw firm lines between Kayo’s oft-touted credentials as a capital-E experimental band and the more intuitive fantastical pangs that ultimately make their music so memorable. Don’t get me wrong, their resume still reads like a bucket list for pretentious such-and-suches craving the throbbing tip of the avant garde (we’ve all been there), but the real reason anyone sticks around is the potentially unique access they provide to unlikely pockets of imagination. This hasn’t always been the case - there are certainly Kayo Dot albums best approached as installation hours (2016’s sci-fi flunk Plastic House On Base Of Sky
springs to mind) - but when all is said and done, project mastermind Toby Driver isn’t a great composer because of his proclivity for the unconventional and recurrent mockery of genre constraints, but thanks to his uncommon knack for giving voice to a precious sense of the beyond.
So it goes for the project’s 10th LP Moss Grew on the Swords and Plowshares Alike
. Driver’s work this time around is darker, denser and decidedly heavier than anything he’s produced since his bloated masterpiece Hubado
; the fantasies in question may be a grimmer shade to the campy Blasphemy
or the noirish Coffins on Io
, say, but they’re as evocative as ever. However, Moss…
has deeper roots than the album-to-album progression Kayo Dot has been tracing out in chicanes for the past decade: we’re treated to performances from the founding roster of Driver’s earlier metal band maudlin of the Well, bang in time for their 25th anniversary. The record inherits a lot
as such, in ways that may surprise those who never explored beyond the cosmic whimsy of landmarks Bath
and Leaving Your Body Map
; Driver has dredged up his long-buried death/doom fixations and embraced a tone overwhelmingly geared towards melancholy and occult fantasy, with legendary bands Tiamat and My Dying Bride lurking in the shadows all the while. The album’s more visible facets are earthen through and through, steeped in a pagan tone that evokes marshes, overgrown forests, and decay, all poised like a final breath in a world on the brink of stagnation and backed by occult versesmith Jason Byron’s ever-dense imagery.
The focal point for all this sits squarely behind the mic. Driver, still
developing as an increasingly capable vocalist over time, delivers his most exclamative and extensive performance in many years, growling, howling and shrieking his way through each song like the ex-prophet of a M.I.A. deity. Read: striking, but ambivalent - a lot of the overripe bardness of his Blasphemy
performance lingers on here, but his newfound ferocity equips Moss…
with the stakes and conviction its predecessor so frequently lacked. There is, however, something attritional to his delivery here; his approach is relentless and at times exhausting, hammering at Byron’s verse as though it’s some form of endurance test. At best, the results are mesmeric: album highlight “The Necklace” sees Driver’s throatiest shrieks pair up with a vertiginously tense soundscape that takes cues from atmospheric black metal (all reverb, no distortion!) and dishes out a disarmingly passionate snapshot of a moving final scene (that title is as stealthy as suicide euphemisms go). It’s an entirely new look for Kayo Dot, challenging to a certain degree but also one of the most rewarding tracks they’ve landed since their flagship early records.
“The Necklace” has an emotional depth that justifies such an exerted performance, but in earlier tracks Driver’s voice lands with a bracing theatricality that I’m not always convinced is warranted in such measures. His tone is dour and steely, maximalist in many respects but hard-eyed and short of the sensory kitsch that its death/doom forebears channeled so evocatively, a little too fixated on the grit and grain of obscure storytelling to land the same kind of sentimental body blows. There are exceptions: midway nailbiter “Spectrum of One Colour”’s touch-and-go antics and “Void In Virgo”’s rousing melodic chorus are both a cut above, but the strained quality that runs through, say, “Brethren of the Cross” and “Get Out of the Tower” feeds a slightly awkward sense that someone
may be trying just a little hard to live up to the crushing brief of his adopted style.
However, my main reservation over Driver’s enactment of the Book of Byron rests on the stranglehold it maintains over the band’s instrumental roster. Kayo Dot may so often be about image and fantasy, but Moss…
shifts so overtly towards bearing the weight of its narration that it occasionally struggles to flesh out its progressions with the full contour they deserve. This is less evident on any particular moment of any given song than at the points where a sudden moment of brilliance cuts through the gloom momentarily, only to leave an aftertaste of hmm, could have used more of
. “Spectrum of One Colour” packs several such twists, but the real case study is the gargantuan closer “Epipsychidion”, the only track that truly lets this lineup’s elephant-shaped two-point-five-decade chemistry out of the room. It’s by far the most mobile piece here, unashamedly convoluted as it lurches through a flurry of sections with abandon and finally
reviving that classic maudlin of the Well feeling of every performer bringing their best without any gingerly show of respect for each other’s space. For six glorious minutes, the track runs away with itself, spilling its lifeblood with exhilarating generosity only to burn itself out and seep away in an extended drone coda, lumbering death throes that feel deliciously well earned.
This is the part where the cynical listener twists the closer’s various strong suits back at the rest of the album and uses them as a counterpoint to label it retroactively turgid, but - - - not so fast, idiot paladin. Literally the baseline rule for this whole spiel has been that Kayo Dot caters to moonfaced dreamers more than tetchy avant-jerkoffs, and you were that
close to forgetting it? Back to the fantasy. Yes, Moss Grew on the Swords and Plowshares Alike
has its share of trudge (doom!), and there are certainly lessons to be learned on how far a little restraint can go for a domineering vocal performance, but this is all a secondary concern in the face of the be-all-and-end-all: that irreplicable spark of atmosphere. Even the most sluggish tracks buy into Moss…
’ bleaktimes of decline aesthetic hard enough that its morbid morose adventureshivers become a tone becomes a mood becomes a feeling becomes a dream becomes an engaging listen, and lo and behold we have a journey! A pretty great one, it turns out, coherent in its ups and downs and hits and misses, and momentous enough to terminate in a thoroughly satisfying manner. So - off you hop. Kayo Dot are still the business, give them all your money, take care along the way, goodbye. Lord knows what they’ll have in store for us next time. End.