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Kayo Dot "Hubardo"

Published September 12 2013.

  by Jonathan

There are few things more intriguing than the words “new Kayo Dot album”, and in an age of serious, mind-numbing experimentation in the underground, both of metal and the avant-garde, that is saying something.

Based out of New York and helmed by Toby Driver, also of maudlin of the Well and several other musical entities, Kayo Dot have spent the best part of the last decade or so raising eyebrows and crushing expectations, but “Hubardo” marks another important chapter for Kayo Dot, and not just musically. The album has been crowd funded.

The band eschewed the now-established mediums of Kickstarter, Pledge Music etc in favour of releasing the album online through Bandcamp and physically through their own imprint Ice Level Music, with all the recording funding coming from self-managed pre-orders beforehand, something that obviously relied very much so on the loyalty and dedication of their fan base and like any crowd funding initiative, it’s a veritable minefield of financial risks.

One can never expect anything orthodox or ‘easy’ from Kayo Dot though, as has been evidenced by each beard stroking and evocative record. 2003’s “Choirs of the Eye” was a dense prog metal behemoth and last year’s “Gamma Knife” was a terse delving into the frenetic art-rock abyss. There’s always something new, and strange, around the corner.

“Hubardo” is rather opposite to “Gamma Knife”. Where the latter was a succinct half hour with everything shoehorned into a brain-melting record, “Hubardo” is an expansive 100 minute double album that sees Kayo Dot explore all their different layers in detail with some older metal elements rearing their heads again; not to mention that it is an abstract concept album, a tale devised by lyricist Jason Byron, formerly of maudlin of the Well.

First track, “The Black Stone” is a bizarre number, pulling cues from sludgy doom metal with a trudging riff and wretched guttural vocals that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Mourning Beloveth record. All the while “Crown-In-The-Muck” follows things up with spectral melodic guitars and eerie whispered vocals that give way to screaming, dare we say almost screamo-like, vocals that are soon met by blasting drums all washed over by the band’s haughty but still tasteful use of a brass section.

The brass is a hefty part of this album and in many ways, Kayo Dot feel like a modern day reincarnation of Centipede’s “Septober Energy”, a notable but often times forgotten prog rock gem of the 1970s. However, the band is anything but solely derivative of ‘70s prog with plenty of the album’s heavier tracks sounding like Arcturus and Canvas Solaris played in synch. Honestly, it’s all bonkers.

“Zlida Caosgi (To Water the Earth)” is a pivotal moment in the album where its stride gathers intense momentum. It’s the fifth track and sees Driver and band rip through the album’s most devastatingly discordant riff as the harsh wall of guitars weave around the dizzying brass instrumentation with the vocals hopping from manic wails to death metal-like barks, creating an overwhelming sensation on the first few listens.

However, it’s emblematic of one of the album’s most intriguing components – the variety of vocal styles. “The First Matter (Saturn in the Guise of Sadness)” is where we hear Driver at his most sombre and downtrodden with an eerie almost-bluesy croon that’s completely at odds with the off-kilter hardcore-inflections of the earlier tracks and the black and death hybrid of screams and barks that are dotted throughout the album also.

“The Second Operation (Lunar Water)” is “Hubardo” at its most stripped back, starting with serene passages that recall Ulver’s “Shadows of the Sun” that flourishes into verses reminiscent of maudlin of the Well’s last record.

With a wide array of vocals, instruments and madcap ideas, Kayo Dot have always run the risk of spoiling the broth with too many cooks. This has never been the case and “Hubardo” is a shining example of this at its most ambitious.

The hypnotic and tranquil atmosphere previously set is once again disturbed, this time by the monolithic “Floodgate” that digs out more vibes from the band’s black metal tastes only to meander to an ear scraping barrage of dissonant electronics that are simply jarring.

By the time we get to the album’s final two tracks, one is left with the question of what ground is left to cover. How can Kayo Dot wrap this one up? The answer is that they can and they can’t, but they haven’t run out of ideas. “Passing the River” sees Kayo Dot leave much of their lunacy to the side in favour of shimmering, but no less melancholic, movements that gives way to a (whisper it) conventional riff and vocal pattern but soon the crushing blastbeats, glittery chiming guitars and discordant brass returns. However it’s the song’s closing minutes that truly grip you with a gorgeous mellowed-out and spectral vocal line that demands repeat listens.

But one can’t, as the final song “The Wait of the World” enters, the last 13-minute foray that coalesces all of “Hubardo”’s elements into one tremendously awe-inspiring closer that comes to an abrupt and unexpected end in its final seconds. No fade out, no indication of the end, just a terse and rapid goodbye that’s all the more impressive, once again showing Kayo Dot’s aversion to tradition.

“Hubardo” is exhaustive and challenging. Often the listener can feel like they’re being relentlessly tested and even jeered at if it isn’t quite clicking. What’s most interesting about “Hubardo” though, beside the dozens and dozens of layers heaped on top of each other, is its running order. Clearly, the album was crafted in such a way to be taken in as one whole piece, demanding the listener to commit to the excursion. However, in a strange turn of events, each song can still be plucked out and listened to solitarily, telling its own tale and providing its own experience.

It’s a testament to the depth and scope of “Hubardo” and Kayo Dot as a whole. Toby Driver has always been ambitious and eerily quirky with his work but “Hubardo” is an entirely new level of inventiveness and creativity for him. It will take years of digesting this work before we can tell if it’s a classic and if it’s the best record to ever bear the name Kayo Dot but from this early vantage point, it’s certainly looking that way.