Maudlin Of The Well, Kayo Dot, Toby Driver

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

Maudlin Of The Well: My Fruit PsychoBells A Seed Combustible (1999), 6/10
Maudlin Of The Well: Leaving Your Body Map (2001), 5.5/10
Maudlin Of The Well: Bath (2001), 6/10
Maudlin Of The Well: Part the Second (2009), 5/10
Kayo Dot: Choirs of the Eye (2003), 7/10
Toby Driver: In the L..L..Library Loft (2005), 8/10
Kayo Dot: Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue (2006), 7.5/10
Tartar Lamb: Sixty Metonymies (2007), 5/10
Kayo Dot: Blue Lambency Downward (2008) , 5/10
Kayo Dot: Coyote (2010), 4.5/10
Tartar Lamb: Polyimage of Known Exits (2011), 5/10
Kayo Dot: Gamma Knife (2012), 4.5/10
Kayo Dot: Hubardo (2013), 7/10
Kayo Dot: Coffins on Io (2014), 5.5/10
Kayo Dot: Plastic House on Base of Sky (2016), 4/10
Kayo Dot: Blasphemy (2019), 5/10
Ehnahre: Taming The Cannibals (2010), 6/10
Vaura: Selenelion (2012), 6/10
Vaura: The Missing (2013), 5/10
Vaura: Sables (2019), 4/10
Toby Driver: The Pod (2013), 4/10
Toby Driver: Ichneumonidae (2014), 6/10
Toby Driver: Madonnawhore (2017), 5/10
Toby Driver: They Are the Shield (2018), 4.5/10

Boston's Maudlin Of The Well, fronted by vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist Toby Driver, debuted with My Fruit PsychoBells A Seed Combustible (Dark Symphonies, 1999), which featured guitarist Greg Massi, trumpeter Jason Bitner and vocalists Jason Byron and Maria-Stella Fountoulakis. The lengthy songs alternate between prog-rock and death-metal, and employ both growling and clean vocals (both male and female). The mix, including keyboards and sound effects, works particularly well in A Conception Pathetic while it sounds amateurish in Ferocious Weights. There are moments of anemic and melodic quiet in the nine-minute Undine and Underwater Flowers and quite a bit of redundant doodling and random orchestration in the eleven-minute The Ocean, the Kingdom, and the Temptation. The contrast between melody and noise is better framed in the nine-minute Catharsis of Sea-Sleep and Dreaming Shrines, including its free-jazz interlude and magniloquent finale. Compared with Opeth, this was not metal at all, but rather an ambitious kind of prog-rock that also absorbed elements of metal (and, generally, in a rather simplistic manner).

With the addition of guitarist Josh Seipp-Williams and reed player Terran Olson, they became an eight-piece ensemble for two complementary albums that mixed highbrow chamber music (trumpet, violin, French horn, pipe organ, saxophone) with hysterical bursts of heavy metal. The dense, dark and expressionistic Leaving Your Body Map (2001) contrasts with the humble, ethereal and spiritual Bath (2001). The former suffers from the difficulty of crafting a cohesive composition out of the many sources of inspiration. The relatively brief Gleam in Ranks is courageous in layering pummeling beats and new-age synth lines, while in general the songs are parades of different ideas. This eclectic "sequencing" method works in the plodding jazzy power-ballad Stones of October's Sobbing but in general it produces erratic compositions without an identity, that meander from one style to another. They are multi-part suites, with parts that don't quite harmonize. Another notable exception is the nine-minute Bizarre Flowers/ A Violent Mist, that opens with evocative bells in the mix and transitions into a subliminal demonic mid-section before the muscular ending. A powerful blend of jazz, metal and new-age electronica sustains the tension of the two parts of the satanic Riseth He the Numberless.

The transitions within songs are smoother on Bath, ostensibly disc 1 of the two. The Blue Ghost/ Shedding Qliphoth elegantly welds the acoustic dream-like first half to a repetitive neurotic second half. Since it begins poppy and melodramatic and it ends brutal and pounding, Heaven and Weak evokes Bon Jovi jamming with Carcass. Despite the gothic undertones, the ten-minute Birth Pains of Astral Projection is another piece that leans towards pop-metal. The closing ballad Geography is as moronic as pop-metal gets. More adventurous are the metal metamorphoses of They Aren't All Beautifull, and The Ferryman is probably the compositional peak of the album, with its Bach-ian organ solo, a funereal female chant and a coda of musique concrete; followed by another neoclassical-inspired piece, the nine-minute Girl With a Watering Can, opened by a clarinet theme and then a female lullaby with strings before being devastated by thundering drums and shrill guitar soloing. The limitations are obvious: neither of the vocals are particularly brilliant (in fact, wildly substandard), the guitar playing is hardly original, and the strings, woodwinds and keyboards are under-employed.

Abandoning the "metal" part of the equation, Toby Driver renamed his project as Kayo Dot, a seven-piece ensemble (three guitars, violin, trumpet, drums and bass) that debuted with Choirs of the Eye (Tzadik, 2003), perhaps the most accomplished fusion yet of prog-metal, post-rock, jazz and classical music by any band. After the abstract haunting soundscape of the ten-minute Marathon (partially ruined by the final, totally unnecessary, spoken-word section), the 14-minute The Manifold Curiosity deploys flute and violin to create a calm but tense atmosphere and then unleashes an infernal heavy-metal orgy. The eleven-minute Wayfarer is a more traditional fantasy that borrows from the suites of early Genesis and the melodies of latter-day Pink Floyd. The 15-minute The Antique is instead a typical meandering Driver composition that parades a number of ideas but fails to build upon each one for the next one. Nonetheless, it ends with one of the peaks: the Robert Wyatt-ian piano ballad of the last five minutes. Two big pluses: Driver abandoned the melodic temptations that led to so many awful poppy moments, and limits the singing, which is definitely not the ensemble's forte.

Kayo Dot's Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue (Robotic Empire, 2006), featuring new drummer Tom Malone, was more obscure and abstract than its predecessor, with a stronger emphasis on vocal theatrics. The 11-minute Gemini Becoming the Tripod begins with a vocal mayhem and then sinks into a hyper-psychedelic dilation of time before turning into a psychotic recitation in a disorienting soundscape. The theatrical aspect is again prominent in the eight-minute Aura On An Asylum Wall but this time the piece evolves towards a cinematic flow of chamber noir jazz before the distorted grinding finale. The 18-minute On Limpid Form is the band's most psychological composition yet. At first, the singer intones a lame litany, but this is chewed up in a slow methodic torture of both distorted and thundering riffs. The relatively spartan music becomes more and more nightmarish through endless, unnerving repetition until all that remains is an ear-splitting hiss amid a percussive orgy. Driver's clean singing is terrible and goes on forever in the 14-minute Amaranth The Peddler, but the last five minutes are dissonant poetry that matches the time dilation of the beginning. Throughout the album a myriad of alien sounds appear, evolve, disappear. For example, the core of the ten-minute Immortelle And Paper Caravelle is a trite trumpet-driven soul-jazz ballad, but it is preceded and followed by cryptic sonatas. Overall, this album represents a new formal zenith for Toby Driver. If all the previous albums exhibited limited skills in composing and performing skills, this album marks the maturation of Driver as both a composer and a conductor.

The band was de facto reduced to Toby Driver and violinist Mia Matsumiya on Blue Lambency Downward (Hydra Head, 2008), an inferior work that sounds like leftovers from previous albums.

Toby Driver capitalized on his experience with large-scale arrangements for his first solo album, In the L..L..Library Loft (Tzadik, 2005), which contains four lengthy compositions performed by a chamber-rock ensemble of guitar, trumpet, trombone, piano, violin, cello, bass, drums. In reality, the performers were members of Kayo Dot, so it was a Kayo Dot album in disguise. Kandu vs Corky (Horrorca) is a 15-minute suite that slowly but steadily incorporates a subdued orchestral chaos, percussive sounds of plucked strings, distorted guitar drones, a cosmic choir of "om"s, floating trumpet laments, and a screaming maniac. Steadily but surely the contrast among these colliding organisms builds suspense and uncertainty, like watching a suicide bomber walk into a Buddhist temple and then hearing the explosion. The Lugubrious Library Loft layers several experiments on top of each other: two vocalists that employ open-throated techniques, prepared piano a` la John Cage, Glenn Branca-esque dissonant guitars, four-hand piano clusters, bells, and all of this escalates to a wall of noise. The 18-minute Brown Light Upon Us layers a thick drone over the distant sound of a rock trio (physically performing in a different room from where the microphone is located) and then drenches recordings of ordinary life into a viscous pulsing magna of drones, processed until there is only a feeble choir of ghostly voices. The eleven-minute Eptaceros is an austere adagio movement without a melody, replaced by the slow-motion plucking of a guitar and a loud trembling cello drone. Halfway into the piece, loud breathing noises and sleepy singing alternate with savage trumpet dissonance, with piano and violin timidly commenting in the back. The feeling is, as often with his slower compositions, that we entered the introverted psychedelic mood of David Crosby and Robert Wyatt, but transposed to a glacial extraterrestrial scenario.

At the same time, Toby Driver formed Tartar Lamb with violinist Mia Matsumiya. The duo released Sixty Metonymies (2007), with the 16-minute The Lamb, the Ma'am, and the Holy Shim-Sham, and Polyimage of Known Exits (2011), a four-movement suite. Toby Driver at his most self-indulgent.

After an eight-year hiatus, Maudlin of the Well re-united to record Part the Second (2009), another confused, amateurish prog-metal album. After the endless litany of An Excerpt From 6,000,000,000,000 Miles Before the First, or, The Revisitation of the Blue Ghost, and the surreal chamber music of Another Excerpt: Keep Light Near You, Even When Dying that segues into the boring ballad Rose Quartz Turning to Glass, and the chaotic metamorphosis of Clover Garland Island in search of pathos, the twelve-minute Laboratories of the Invisible World (Rollerskating the Cosmic Palmistric Postborder) pays tribute to Van Der Graaf Generator and King Crimson. The problem remains that the playing is substandard and the compositions often sound childish.

Kayo Dot's offshoot Ehnahre (bassist Ryan McGuire, guitarists Andrew Hock, Greg Massi and John Carchia, a keyboardist and a drummer) indulged in dissonant free jams of post-metal with violin and trumpet on The Man Closing Up (2008) and Taming The Cannibals (Crucial Blast, 2010). Later, they released: Old Earth (2012), with the band pared down to the trio of Ryan McGuire (bass), John Carchia (guitars) and Ricardo Donoso (percussion and electronics), Douve (2015), with McGuire now leading a quartet with guitarist Richard Chowenhill, pianist Jared Redmond and Donoso, The Marrow (2017), Quatrain (2020) and several EPs.

Kayo Dot's Coyote (Hydra Head, 2010) is at times embarrassing, but the eleven-minute Whisper Ineffable flirts with Miles Davis' jazz-rock (although in the middle there's a chaotic punk-rock jam) and the 14-minute Abyss Hinge 2 - The Shrinking Armature sounds like an outtake from Canterbury-school prog-rock of the 1970s (Soft Machine, Henry Cow). Tim Byrnes' trumpet, Daniel Means' alto sax and Terran Olson' keyboards prevail over guitars and violin.

The five-song mini-album Gamma Knife (Ice Level, 2012) has very little to commend itself: the orchestral and monastical Lethe, the gothic pandemonium of Rite of Goetic Evocation, and the weird quasi-operatic lied of Gamma Knife.

The 100-minute concept album Hubardo (Ice Level, 2013), produced by Randall Dunn of Sunn O))), begins with a ridiculous, almost self-parodistic, Grand-Guignol skit that lasts ten long minutes, The Black Stone; but that's misleading because this album marks a quantum leap forward for Kayo Dot. The post-jazz fanfare Crown-in-the-Muck is an unusually cohesive and focused metal-jazz jam all the way to the grindcore ending. The nine-minute The First Matter (Saturn in the Guise of Sadness) is both their friendliest song yet and another unusually cohesive piece, a sort of synth-pop version of Pink Floyd's melodramatic elegies. And He Built Him a Boat is an emphatic aria worthy of a Broadway musical. Even the ten-minute Passing the River, whose multipart structure (first folk ballad, then doom dirge, then free-jazz orgy, then back to the pastoral mood) recalls the vices of the Maudlin albums, feels organic and elegant. And, for once, the singing is indeed powerful in the ferocious noisy numbers, Floodgate, Vision Adjustment to Another Wavelength and Zlida Caosgi, which balance the poppy songs. The old problems of inconsistency reappear in the 14-minute The Wait of the World, whose lame ballad pretty much destroys the momentum created by its instrumental free-jazz and rock'n'roll beginnings.

Coffins on Io (Flenser, 2014) was the most accessible Kayo Dot album yet. The lengthy compositions are carefully architected like never before, showing a new mastery of studio equipment. The 12-minute The Mortality of Doves begins as a whispered Prince-esque ballad, followed by a lengthy cosmic-psychedelic instrumental break, then returns as a U2-esque chant over exotic beat and saxophone, and tries to end in Pink Floyd-ian apotheosis except that it ends up sounding more like Elton John. Offramp Cycle Pattern 22 offers nine minutes of syncopated British dance-pop of the 1980s, which is excellent background music for a night-club. The album ends with another ten-minute ballad, Spirit Photography, except that this time the mood remains laid-back, the tempo slow, the saxophone sleepy, and the ending even more clumsy. There is no metal left here. The most aggressive song is the distorted, noisy, shouted The Assassination of Adam, but it's not even punk-rock. Driver is the new Todd Rundgren, capable of crafting memorable melodies in wildly different genres, but rarely of shocking.

It is difficult to save something from Plastic House on Base of Sky (Flenser, 2016), a random meandering, derivative songs built around trite pop-soul melodies and syncopated dance beats. The symphonic synth-pop Magnetism is barely tolerable. Waves of synths can't hide the fundamental lack of inspiration.

At that time Driver started playing bass in the post-jazz trio Bloodmist with Jeremiah Cymerman (clarinet, electronics) and guitarist Mario Diaz de Leon. They released albums of lengthy abstract cacophonous electroacoustic improvisations like Sheen (2016), Phos (2020) and Arc (2022).

The next step in Kayo Dot's artistic regression was to abandon the long-song format and adopt a more conventional short-song format. The eight songs of Blasphemy (2019) abandon any pretense of subtlety and songcraft in favor of straightforward melodic rock, peaking with the bombastic refrain of centerpiece (and longest track) Vanishing Act in Blinding Gray. There are, however, two attempts at refounding the band's sound: the theatrical Blasphemy: A Prophecy and the disjointed, electronic, almost glitchy An Eye for a Lie.

Toby Driver also played bass in Vaura with vocalist Josh Strawn, guitarist Kevin Hufnagel (Dysrhythmia and Gorguts) and drummer Charlie Schmid. Selenelion (Wierd, 2012), a tough sounding and eclectic album, sampled ideas from both shoegaze-pop and black metal, although with less imagination than Alcest. The Missing (2013) was a mellower work, evoking the age of dream-pop and shoegaze-pop (notably in Incomplete Burning) with just a pretense of black metal, thanks also to Strawn's imitation of Depeche Mode's David Gahan (strongest in Mare of the Snake). Sables (2019) veered further into the past, towards British dark-rock of the 1980s (the likes of Cure and Joy Division).

Toby Driver also composed a mediocre soundtrack for Eric Pennycoff's short film The Pod (2013) and the soundtrack for Michelle Morinaga's butoh dance piece Ichneumonidae (2014), with Timba Harris on violin and viola and Russell Greenberg on percussion. The latter consists of two charming, almost Stravinsky-ian neoclassical compositions: the 13-minute electroacoustic fantasia Pale Hesychasm and the 15-minute chamber sonata Supercrescentus of Eros.

Driver instead opted for slow, somnolent, stripped-down dirges for guitar, keyboards and vocals on his solo album Madonnawhore (2017), entirely played by him except for Keith Abrams' drumming and two guests on one song. Avignon could be the simplified cover of a medieval-tinged suite by early King Crimson. The Scarlet Whore/ Her Dealings with the Initiate is only borderline musical, but this ethereal, static and anemic dream-pop style is surprisingly effective in The Deepest Hole. Unfortunately half of the songs are just plain dull.

They Are the Shield (2018), which recycles four songs from Live at Roulette (2017), was recorded with two violinists (Conrad Harris and Pauline Harris) and Yeah Yeah Yeahs' drummer Brian Chase. The chamber composition Anamnesis Park sounds like an outtake from Ichneumonidae until it becomes a trivial pop song. Then we realize that the strings are used only to craft a senile, nostalgic, new-age mood, best in Glyph, and with Pink Floyd-ian accents in Smoke-Scented Mycelium.

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(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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