By Andrew Boskov
Kayo Dot have always been a band touted as ‘never making the same album twice.’ Ever since Toby Driver’s brief stint on John Zorn’s Tzadik label with Choirs of the Eye and his solo album, Kayo Dot and Driver himself have constantly pushed for different sounds on each album, drawing from a pool of Post Rock, Black Metal, Free Jazz, Chamber Music, Post Punk, Minimalism, all while remaining distinctly Kayo Dot, and of course remaining a listenable project. With each release the band changed and mutated the sound and inspiration and yet still maintained an identity that was unmistakable.
2014’s Coffins on Io saw the bands most drastic departure in sound; citing the seminal 80s synthesizer sound, as well as Goth Rock and Blade Runner as direct inspirations, the album was a vast change from the blistering, monolithic double album Hubardo. Full of 80s Goth Rock and Post Punk pastiches, fully adorned in synthesizers and Driver’s quivering vocals, the album sounded almost exactly what you’d expect it to sound like, and while a great album in its own right, felt almost too conventional, and the praise leveled at it, largely for its accessibility and 80s retro-futurism, felt like it might a tempting offer for the band. So, to my minor chagrin, Plastic House on Base of Sky was said to have continued on the trend of haunting, classic synthesizers, and by a lot of accounts was beginning to sound like Coffins on Io 2: Electric Boogaloo. So I kept off, and remained oblivious to the album and simply waited for release day.
And I’m glad for that.
Shortly, Plastic House on Base of Sky is what Coffins on Io should have been. The album takes expectation and convention and pulls it inside out, sounding unique while borrowing from traditional sounds and aesthetics. The album starts very stark on Amalia’s Theme, bubbling and almost nostalgic with its synthesizer lines gliding around the electronic percussion and bass, a little hazy and a little whimsical as the instruments begin to layer and fold in on themselves, adding more elements as the song progresses. Driver’s staple vocal delivery fits well among the swirling synthetics, the light and staccato percussion pulsing underneath the warbling synth lines and bubbling bass, only to be following with shimmering guitars riding in the background, minor but important to the song, and slowly become more prominent as the song comes to a close with a wave of guitar distortion and a harmonizing of the other elements.
All the Pain in the All the Wide World starts off with some more driving drumbeats, guitars and keyboards taking a more even role. A minor swell of strings make their mark here, but only briefly (which also begs the question as to why these session musicians are displayed so prominently on the packaging, but I digress) as it hovers over the rhythm section and waves of keyboard notes. Soon the song begins a slow descent, the sounds becoming darker and more subdued as Driver begins to layer his vocals over themselves in mock chaos, the vocals themselves becoming distorted as the music slowly fades to make way for the back and forth of his warped vocals. The song briefly rights itself to end itself with minor swell of distorted guitars.
Further on, the track Magnetism drives the organic rock component into prominence, stutter-stop electric guitar leads driving the song beneath acoustic percussion. A more forward rhythm and structure are present before being overtaken by more keyboard and electronic swirling haziness; a slow middle section where a reprieve is taken before the unmistakably Toby Driver guitar tone takes a strong hold of the song, the kind of ethereal and foreboding distortion and melody that eventually fades into a simple outro of solo keyboard that fades into silence.
Rings of Earth begins much more brightly, a focus again brought to the many keyboard lines and electronic percussion and almost happy swells of synthesizers, borrowing from light and catchy melodies and Driver’s echo-y, Gothic tempered vocals driving everything. The battle between organic and synthetic begins as hazy, distorted guitar strumming seemingly overtakes the happy and melodic synthesizers, the song taking a sudden melancholy turn downwards, drawing almost slyly on the post rock stylings of Choirs of the Eye briefly, the guitar tone remarkably similar as Driver echoes out his laborious vocals and nonsensical vocals. The instruments begin a descending chord as the percussion skitters and thumps irregularly underneath, the guitars unmistakable distorted tremolo bringing a chilling ambiance to the already atmospheric track.
The final track, the starkly different Brittle Urchin seems almost out of place on the complex, synthetic and neon identity of the rest of the album, ballad-like and featuring driver at his most brittle, vocally, the song beginning with soft guitar picking and minor keyboard washes, recalling early albums much more prominently, slow and dripping with melancholy. The song is briefly kickstarted by some drum pummeling and guitar distortion, Driver continuing his balladry almost unaltered as drum kicks, distortion and fluttering ethereal keyboards dance around him, but the song is short and ends continuing the uttering drumbeat before falling off into silence, barely staying long enough to develop an identity but doing so admirably with its briefness.
I really hesitated to dwell on the lyrics, because as with all Driver projects, care is put into them but there is mostly imagery and metaphor to be had, another aspect of the music to be taken as a whole rather than a distinct part of it. Whether you consider them nonsense or musical additives, the lyrics themselves are there to serve the atmosphere of the album and give a vehicle for Driver’s voice.
Plastic House on Base of Sky really takes the concept they’d attempted on their prior album and does wonders with it, building an expansive, alien sounding soundscape with a much, much smaller grouping of instruments than on any other album. Complex, unusual and unique while retaining a distinct identity and a remarkable accessibility, for those unsure of whether or not you’re diving into a self-indulgent hell of Komische wankery—there’s something on this album for a great deal of people, whether they are Kayo Dot fans, curious listeners or people who just have a fetish of the 80s. It’s entirely worth your time, and I urge you to give it a listen.