Despite having finally decided upon it being my third favourite album of the year, I found this record hugely difficult to form an opinion on and it was a particularly conflicting thing for me. Kayo Dot are my favourite band, and after the absolute transcendence of previous outings Choirs of the Eye and Dowsing Anenome With Copper Tongue - which I cannot even begin to sum up in this introductory paragraph - they had a lot to live up to with their third full-length. Whether or not they did has been debated endlessly among their fans, and, so far, it seems that the general concensus is that the album is underwhelming in comparison to its predecessors, but here are my two cents on how this album is not only a great album in its own right but on how it is a necessary step in Kayo Dot's evolution.
Approaching this album is difficult. Kayo Dot have never been remotely describable as accessible, but unless you have a serious aversion to metal, this is probably their least user-friendly album to date. They have completely dispensed of their enormous celestial crescendos first demonstrated on Choirs and later honed to a finer, subtler art on Dowsing, which did, in a way, provide the listener with something to latch onto on the first few listens (such as the sudden saxophone solo over waves of distortion in 'The Manifold Curiosity') and have completely phased out the dark, heavy side of their sound which provided dynamic contrast and thus some of the most incredible moments in the first couple of albums. But quite honestly, where could they have gone from Dowsing Anenome With Copper Tongue, having exhausted the direction they were going in and in the process created one of the most mind-bogglingly complex and magnificent albums ever? Toby Driver, the classically-minded prodigy who composes all of Kayo Dot's music, has never been one to retread his footsteps, always seeking to explore new territory like a real composer should. Trying to recreate the extremity and grandeur of previous releases would have seemed contrived and fickle. Instead, Driver has turned his focus towards the more melodic side of Kayo Dot, pelting the group face-first into a hazy brand of avant-garde progressive rock that harks back to the Rock In Opposition movement of the 70s. This move may have been made easier by the departure of all the group's members except for multi-instrumentalist Driver and violinist Mia Matsumiya following their last album, and Driver's subsequent enlistment of contemporary prog musicians from bands like Time of Orchids and Behold... The Arctopus that similarly integrate modern compositional techniques into rock music.
The opening title track is a great example of this new sound. The song has a mid-section with hazy flutes, effects-laden guitar and meandering but clearly deliberate drums that progresses using repetition and subtle changes in a similar fashion to some of the buildups in Dowsing, but what stands out is that Toby Driver sings much more frequently than on previous releases, something that is applicable to the album as a whole. Where Driver would previously scream like a madman on tracks like 'Gemini Becoming The Tripod' his voice now never rises above a Jeff Buckley-esque falsetto. What sets this new melodic sound apart from some of the progressive rock releases that it evokes is the sense of very careful composition in the melodies that evokes the various modern masters of composition that Driver reportedly draws influence from, particularly noticeably, to these ears, Claude Debussy's chromaticism and unresolved cadences. Take, for example, 'The Useless Ladder', which finishes on an unresolved cadence: this would irritate and confuse some, but it actually works rather beautifully and effectively. The influence from modern classical music is as present as ever, it's just warped in typical Driver fashion to accomodate all his other ideas.
'Right Hand is the One I Want' incorporates a creepy kind of Eric Dolphy-style jazz, alternating between eerie piano/vocals and gorgeous woodwinds. Just when you think you've got it figured out, though, it heads off on a tangent into a lovely, ethereal midsection which is punctuated by a beautiful violin solo from Matsumiya. Five out of seven tracks on the album are under seven minutes long, something that is unusual for Kayo Dot who have become known for their sprawling 15-minute epics. The concise nature of the album makes it a satisfying listen because it never overstays its length. 'The Awkward Wind Wheel' is an interesting track in that it, over its chaotic three and a half minute duration, manages to match the ideas of pop and the avant-garde much in the same way that Time of Orchids do.
The best track on the album, and the one that seems to be closest to the ideas and sound of Dowsing Anenome With Copper Tongue, is closer 'Symmetrical Arizona'. The track progresses slowly and deliberately, with a gorgeous melodic progression first carried by the woodwinds, then by a surprisingly conventional (though sparse) guitar solo, and finally by Mia's violin, but always anchored by what sounds like a vibraphone (another idea that seems to hark back to Eric Dolphy). The tension eventually reaches a high point - and, for the first time on the album, the tension is resolved by a crashing drum fill which gives way to four minutes of all-out progressive rock bombast. The fact that prior to this point the album has been constantly building tension but then leaving it unresolved makes this release all the more surprising and effective, Toby Driver again subverting expectations. The most interesting bit of the final few minutes is the rhythmic groove which they slip into towards the end... jittery clarinets provide some beautiful ornamentation, but the whole thing builds only to fade out again. This whole theme of unresolved tension seems to be a statement of Toby Driver's, an act of rebellion against all the yawn-worthy "progressive" and "post-rock" groups in the scene who rely far too often on the crutch of "epic" build-and-release music which has now been done to death. While this may annoy some listeners, I find it to be an interesting change in the musical landscape that is far more satisfying than another album following the same formula.
I need to stress that Blue Lambency Downward is not a good place to get into Kayo Dot due to its awkward nature. Readers that have never listened to Kayo Dot, I implore you to get either Choirs of the Eye (probably the best place to start) or Dowsing Anenome With Copper Tongue (my personal favourite) and give them several listens to sink in. Like any other Kayo Dot record, the biggest virtue of Blue Lambency Downward for me is that even after tens upon tens of listens, I am still noticing details that I hadn't picked up on before, and it's this amount of buried detail and complexity that really makes Kayo Dot so rewarding and fascinating for me. If you're feeling brave, put some time into getting to know its nuances and see what the fuss is about for yourself, because nothing can describe Kayo Dot's music as well as the music itself.
Kayo Dot - Blue Lambency Downward