Record Review: Kayo Dot’s Stained Glass EP

Kayo Dot: Stained Glass EPKayo Dot: Stained Glass EP (Hydra Head, 1/11/11)

Kayo Dot: “Stained Glass” excerpt
[audio:|titles=Kayo Dot: “Stained Glass” excerpt]

Toby Driver and his rotating cast of fellow multi-instrumentalists in Kayo Dot have always embraced the dizzying difficulty of modern composition and the wandering feeling that comes with 10-minute-plus art-rock songs. The heavier moments of its 2003 debut, Choirs Of The Eye (and of Driver’s previous band, Maudlin of the Well), might have tempted some to think of Kayo Dot as a prog-metal outfit, but even then, it wasn’t that simple.

Driver seems to be able to constantly mutate what’s at the center of his music — sometimes tasteful strings, sometimes creepily melodic electric guitar, but often a beautiful, tense mesh of fragments. The lone 20-minute track that is the new Stained Glass EP revels in that unique flexibility.

Attentive metal fans might identify with the heavier moments of the EP, but even then, with so much dispersion and reconfiguration, one can’t be blamed for missing them altogether. Kayo Dot is at ease being eerie for long stretches of time, proven with the extended use of vibraphone, woodwinds, and the creaking glimmer of its string arrangements. Kayo Dot also writes songs that function as arduous rhythmic battles, each element clambering over the others to drive things along while gracefully interlocking. But whereas metal players tend to exchange a flurry of rabbit punches and sharp elbows that eventually blur into a molten mass, Driver composes long-running games of intrigue. Even when the aggression comes out, it’s an outgrowth of sneaky moves and whispered hints.

Vibes, saxophone, and Driver’s vocals begin the piece in a tone that’s somber yet almost reassuring. But this is a kind of intrigue where the game — and the time signatures — can change suddenly. Kayo Dot is adept at recreating the feeling of disorientation upon waking up from a deep sleep, not knowing where you are or how you got there.

It might help to think of Stained Glass as “episodic,” but only for so long. Once divided it into smaller sections, it’s still hard to assign each episode any one mood or repeated melody, so even that idea dissolves. With Stained Glass, it’s a relief to give up on crutches and reference points, whether of genre or anything else.

It’s also useful to forget about most of the instruments having one functional place in the mix and staying there throughout. For one, that assumes each instrument is easily identified, and a few — namely the guitar of Trey Spruance (Secret Chiefs 3) and Driver’s distorted organs, synths, and Rhodes — tempt the listener to think that they might be something else. About three-fourths of the way through, one such element swoops up to take a melodic lead, but it’s mutated by the sudden percussive booms of static around it, remaining graceful but taking on a scarred quality. Once that fades away, the vibes pick up to lead the piece through its last, and most rhythmically busy, couple of minutes.

The percussion won’t always tell the listener where to look, either. It has the same tendency as everything else to slip away for a second and reappear in a new form. There’s enough on here to summon quite an orchestral pounding if it were all used at once, but different pieces of it sneak in at different times, bringing steadiness to the slow eruption that begins early on and interjecting a sense of dread closer to the end of the track.

Stained Glass makes you appreciate how tumultuous things got on the band’s other 2010 release, the full-length Coyote. There’s little here that’s as up front as the toss-and-turn drum rolls of “II: Whisper Ineffable” or the crunchy plod of “III: Abyss Hinge 1: Sleeping Birds Sighing in Roscolux.” When Stained Glass turns violent, gathering harsh guitar and synth solos into its middle, it’s simultaneously distant from that violence, shaping and refracting it through vibes in the foreground. Driver creates such a powerful, illusory space between these elements that at first it’s not obvious that his bass is crawling in between and tying it all together.

At times, Driver makes it sound like a lovely (or frightening) coincidence that all these fractured sounds ended up in the same airspace at once. About five minutes in, there’s plenty of melody to latch onto, and plenty of tingling, shuddering percussion to constantly tempt you to listen between, behind, and around those melodies. The effect of these moments — and the moments that abruptly follow — can be frustrating, offering at once the most rich and the most spread-out version of Kayo Dot one could ask for. Immersion requires the listener to abandon his or her bearings and give in to the chaos.

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