Of all the useless genre signifiers, ‘experimental’ has to be the most useless of them all. Even in 2013 where genre-bending has more or less become the name of the game, tagging something as ‘experimental’ doesn’t really say anything at all about the music itself. Experimental refers more to the ethos of the artist, if anything, and their desire to push the boundaries of the norm and tap into the unknown. Sometimes this push moves the music forward; keep in mind that everything we listen to these days would have likely been referred to, or has its roots in something that was referred to as experimental in its time. Music evolves like all other art, and experimentation is at the root of all artist evolution. However, more often than not, what is widely regarded as ‘experimental music’ moves laterally away from the norm into bizarre realms that the collective consciousness wants nothing to do with. There’s a lot of room to thrive or starve in these realms, as they are governed by only the diehards, the ones who really care about the philosophy and evolution of music (well, those guys, and people who have taken way too many drugs).
Back in the late 80’s, a musician named John Zorn began heavily tampering with with the schemas of jazz, rock, and musique concrete to create what he described as a new genre of music entirely. Borrowing from the improvisation of jazz, the abrasion of noise and the aggressive rhythms of rock, Zorn pioneered a school of musical thought that would inspire the fringes of music for decades, whether it be through his collaborative solo and Moonchild releases, through his Tzadik record label or with his band Naked City. Zorn’s influence on experimental music was particularly pronounced in the 90’s and 00’s while he was still actively recording, often with experimental legend Mike Patton. Having nowhere else to really turn to have their music released, many of his spiritual successors ended up signing to Tzadik (or Patton’s label, Ipecac).
Kayo Dot was one of these artists, releasing their debut Choirs of the Eye on Tzadik back in 2003. Embodying Zorn’s penchant for jazzy improv and lead member Toby Driver’s past in prog-metal group maudlin of the Well, Choirs of the Eye was released to substantial acclaim both within and without the sphere of experimental music that Zorn had curated. At the time, it seemed as though Kayo Dot would be the torch-bearers for bizarre “heavy” music in the 21st century, having truly touched on something unique and fascinating with their debut.
Things unfortunately would not play out that easily. The next succession of Kayo Dot albums were received by significantly less and less acclaim, and the creative spark which drove Choirs of the Eye seemed to be replaced by more and more self-indulgence on behalf of Driver (although, to be fair, balancing self-indulgence and actual creative energy in the realm of experimental music is ridiculously tricky). While 2010’s Coyote offered a glimmer of hope for the band, subsequent releases Gamma Knife and Stained Glass reinforced the notion that Kayo Dot had peaked far too early in their career.
In a definite make or break move, a decade after releasing the album which started it all, Toby Driver announced that the next Kayo Dot record would be a 100 minute long, triple LP affair entitled Hubardo. You could almost hear the collective sigh of experimental fanatics everywhere; a triple LP is almost never a good idea, especially for a band that was as notorious for useless meandering as Kayo Dot was. For myself personally, it was only on some nostalgic whim that I decided to check this record out, and I went in to it with admittedly low expectations, under the impression that I would be switching it off relatively quickly.
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A large problem with a lot of Kayo Dot’s music is that they play with the dynamics and build up of tension found in “heavy” music, yet they rarely allow this tension to boil over and be released. Foreplay is great, but I mean, you’ve gotta get down to business eventually. As primitive as it sounds, on Kayo Dot records, you just wanna hear Driver scream for once, because you know that he wants to. But that moment never comes. You can imagine my surprise, then, when the first voice heard on the record is a gutteral death metal grunt (courtesy of former maudlin of the Well vocalist Jason Byron, who also helmed the lyrics behind Hubardo). This distinctively aggressive voice appearing so early in the record (like 20 seconds into the first song) is Kayo Dot’s promise/warning to the fans; you wanted aggression, we’re gonna give you some fucking aggression. And boy do they ever hold true to this. Hubardo is far and away Kayo Dot’s heaviest record, adding a much, much, muuuch needed black metal twist to their Zorn metal that is so utterly satisfying that you can’t help but wonder why the hell they haven’t been doing this the whole time. It’s a fully realized darkness which, by contrast, makes all the other colours of the record seem that much more vibrant. Along with Byron’s death metal roars, Driver adds his own almost screamo-esque emoting to the mix so the heavy parts always feel full of life and variety and never feel boring or one note.
Variety is a key word that (should!) be used when referring to all experimental music, but most definitely applies to Hubardo. While Kayo Dot was always pretty out there, their past albums tend to stick to musical concepts that apply to all the songs on any given record, whether it was the proggy adventurism of Choirs of the Eye and Blue Lambency Downwards or the 80’s neo-goth of Coyote. Defying this, each of the 11 songs on Hubardo exist in their own musical universe, the only tether keeping them together being the lyrical narrative of the record, which you won’t be able to properly parse anyway. This is a record absolutely packed with ideas, ideas which are fully fleshed out and explored in full throughout each song’s roughly ten minute average. What’s most surprising about this record, other than all the screaming and blast beats, is how legitimately catchy the whole thing is. Every track on Hubardo contains a musical motif which sticks around in your head long after the song is finished, meaning that any song off the record can be enjoyed on its own or within the context of the greater thing. This is a massive step forward in songwriting for Driver, a man who once seemed dedicated to making music way too formless and abstract to be memorable in any way. Hell, the second to last song on the record, “Passing the River”, even has an identifiable verse and chorus! (before its drowned out by a 6 minute feedback-riddled guitar solo…of course) And again, like the screaming, instead of making it feel like Kayo Dot is a different band, the addition of actual memorable musical segments makes the band finally feel complete.
During a promotional interview for their then new album Hidden, These New Puritans frontman Jack Barnett described Hidden as “anti-experimental”, as the experimental tag implies “that we don’t know what we’re doing, whereas when we set out to make this record, we knew exactly what we were doing”. I’m sure if Toby Driver was as outspoken about his music as Bartlett is about his, he would have something similar to say about Hubardo. After a decade of trying to live up to the precedent set by their debut, Kayo Dot has finally reached – and surpassed – the level of not only themselves, but of everyone else within their realm of music. John Zorn turned 60 earlier this year, and Hubardo can be seen as the greatest gift this man is likely to receive; a promise that his legacy still shines as dark as ever.
Ridiculous Made Up Genre of the Day: blackened Zorn metal