Heavier than metal
New York experimental-metal band Kayo Dot pushes boundaries of rock
Metal is hip. Not your daddy’s big-haired, armadillo-in-the-trousers variety of metal; rather a very serious-minded intestine-rupturing kind, marked (to varying degrees, depending on where on the black-death-doom spectrum it falls) by walls of distorted chunky low-end, blinding fret-board and double-pedal calisthenics and alternating Cookie Monster/ shrieking-banshee vocals. And while it’s nice to have some weight added to the roster of indie and punk-rock on local small stages, there are a lot of generic crews out there who have jumped on this metal bandwagon, content to riff through the motions and sound just like the last band that played.
New York’s Kayo Dot is not one of those bands. In fact, even though front man and songwriter Toby Driver has been writing and recording projects that get tagged as various kinds of metal—from his early days in his ’90s “mystical progressive-metal” band Maudlin of the Well to the various experimental-, black- and not-so-metal stages of Kayo Dot (which grew from the ashes of MOTW)—his current band is not even metal really. The latest release, Gamma Knife, is being heralded by critics as a return to the band’s metal roots, even though two of its five songs—album opener “Lethe” and closer “Gamma Knife”—are beautiful drum- and distortion-free soundscapes that, while thick with dark gothic atmosphere, are not metal in any conventional sense. (And though the other three much-louder songs on the album are no more heavy mood-wise, they are brain-meltingly more chaotic and noisy.)
“In New York, you can just be any old asshole and start a metal band and people will care,” said Driver during in a recent phone conversation.
“We never fit in completely to any scene,” he added, explaining that they’ve “always been too metal for the classical people,” and too “weird” for the metal folks. “Our peers in New York are bands like Extra Life and Hazel-Rah … a lot of stuff you would find in the ‘brutal prog’ community.”
The bio on the band’s website describes Kayo Dot as a compositional avant-rock band, and that’s probably the best way to put it. Driver is a songwriter who may have metal, rock, classical and experimental influences, but he isn’t beholden to any of the rules or conventions of the styles, and as a result his projects naturally push boundaries by ignoring them all together. Whether it’s Kayo Dot; or Tartar Lamb, the offshoot duo with violinist Mia Matsumiya; or Ichneumonidae, the soon-to-be-released DVD of his collaboration with Butoh dancer Michelle Morinaga.
“Every time we do a record, we do it different,” Driver said. And when it came to Gamma Knife, he explained in an interview with the music and arts blog, Sound Color Vibration, that the album is his “exploration of a black-metal sound,” adding that “My interest is sonic only and how I can use sound to express how I and I alone am feeling. If I were to compare Gamma Knife to previous Kayo Dot albums, I would say the underlying similarity is its sense of adventurousness and utter disregard for rules.”
That approach is what likely caught the attention of avant-garde saxophonist John Zorn, who released Kayo Dot’s first album, 2003’s Choirs of the Eye, on his eclectic Tzadik Records. In fact, Driver was fresh off a trip to the south of France where he performed with Secret Chiefs 3 (the instrumental-rock brainchild of former Mr. Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance) as one of Zorn’s backing bands at the Marciac Jazz Festival.
“It was super-fucking intense, man. It was really a humbling experience,” Driver said. “The way [Zorn] works on stage he tries to keep the musicians on edge. … He gave us a piece of music to play just before going on stage … and 6,000 people were watching.”
There obviously will be far fewer people than that in the audience at Café Coda next week when Kayo Dot hits the cozy stage. While they won’t be subjected to the same ol’ boring metal show, there will be plenty of heavy darkness on display, from the moody-and-quiet classical moments to the mad noise of songs like “Rite of Goetic Evocation” and “Ocellated God.” In fact, if you plan on whipping your head around to the culminating frenetic-ness of the latter, you might as well make an appointment with your chiropractor right now.