On Kayo Dot’s seventh album, the band goes forward by looking back. The unpredictability of the new album shouldn’t surprise longtime fans. Don’t think too much about that one.
To those who are not “in the know,” Kayo Dot is a band that never settles for an established sound, never does things the easy way, and always puts art forward in its music. Thus, the band has attracted quite a cult following, the type of which contains fans who would defend Toby Driver & Co to the death (and, let’s be honest, Kayo Dot fans are really just Driver fans) — and may actually prefer it that way.
Which is not to say that it’s easy being a Kayo Dot fan. Formed from the ashes of maudlin of the Well, Kayo Dot started off strong with its defining statement and masterpiece, 2003’s Choirs of the Eye on John Zorn’s Tzadik. Although increasingly difficult to pin down, Kayo Dot’s music often attracts descriptors like “experimental,” “avant-garde,” “post-metal,” “jazz,” “art rock,” “progressive,” and so on. Although Choirs was on the always interesting Tzadik, other releases have found a home on the likes of Hydra Head and Robotic Empire, so there’s clearly a lot of variety in the potential fan. One thing that could likely always be said of Driver’s music is that it is challenging and boundary-pushing, perhaps even intriguing. We make no claims about accessibility, and, indeed, over the years Kayo Dot releases seem to be getting more challenging for the casual listener (perhaps a tidbit of note is the rotating cast of characters behind the band, but this merely explains the components of the record rather than the thrust, which undoubtedly rests with Driver).
Enter Coffins on Io, the band’s latest installment, which takes a left turn down into 80’s avant-garde, film noir, and glam rock. Notably absence is the ear-splitting screaming and metal influences; instead, we’re treated to a melodic affair that many have already begun to label “poppy.” Calling the album “pop” is quite a stretch of the imagination, but it’s certainly clear that Driver is using this album to explore a more listener-friendly sound. Behind the scenes there’s still an unsettling, Lynchian tone that is undeniably one of the trademarks of a Kayo Dot release. The flip from progressive, extreme music to the retrofitted Coffins while still maintaining the band’s essence is quite impressive.
But maybe it shouldn’t be. Driver has clearly been one of music’s more daring and risk seeking composers in the past two decades, so putting together an album like Coffins and making it sound so convincingly twisted is all in a day’s work. Due to the album’s attractive atmosphere and oddly trendy sound, Coffins should strike up interest in a group of entirely new fans for Kayo Dot, but I’d also be surprised if returning fans don’t also find this to be one of Driver’s more noteworthy efforts.