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I saw Kayo Dot when they toured on the back of their second album, Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue, at a now defunct dive-bar in Eugene, Oregon, with about a dozen other people in 2006. They ended up staying at my house that evening, and later told me they were unmoved with their performance because they’d got really high before their set, which was apparently not a normal tour ritual for them. Living in Eugene, where everyone is constantly stoned, this struck me as a funny admission. Despite the band’s unenthusiastic assessment of their own performance, it remains one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Their ability to perform such complex and expansive music with swagger and power left a lasting impression.
As the post-show festivities at my house continued, I commented to one of my roommates (and metal BFF) that there seemed to be a strange tension within the band, particularly between the pairing of leader Toby Driver and violinist Mia Matsumiya with everyone else. My friend replied that it seemed like normal behavior for a group of people who’d been on tour for the past several months. We continued to party.
A few weeks later, four of the seven members quit, with a fifth not far behind them. Driver and Matsumiya decided to continue as Kayo Dot, and recruited an entirely new band for their next recording, Blue Lambency Downward, subsequently ditching their metal tendencies in favor of a more experimental sound. This trend continued on their follow-up album, the fusion-laced Coyote, and last-year’s Stained Glass EP. This led me to believe that Kayo Dot had retired from metal, opting instead for a sound rooted entirely in tonal exploration and music theory. While interesting and unique experiments, I missed their heavier edge.
Unexpectedly, Gamma Knife reunites Kayo Dot with their metal roots, but not in a way that simply apes their first two albums. Instead, it sounds like a group returning to the concept of heavy music with a fresh perspective, fusing their more-recent free-jazz and neo-classical leanings with an almost improvised style of metal, fusion, and prog. As contrived as that may sound, it succeeds in its ambitions.
“Lethe” kicks off Gamma Knife with the sound of church bells setting an immediate religious tone, soon followed by strings and Gregorian chant-like vocals. One of the five rivers of Hades, it was at Lethe where the Greeks believed that the dead drank its waters in the afterlife in order to forget their past lives and experience reincarnation. Using this metaphor, perhaps the song asks the listener to forgo any preconceived notion of the music to follow before it barrels into “Rite of Goetic Evocation”, a bastard child wailing somewhere inbetween the trenches of Deathspell Omega and Ephel Duath.
The horns and strings on Gamma Knife seem to drive the overall harmonies while the rest of the band goes apeshit in the background, giving the music the feel of a demented King Crimson or a sinister Trout Mask Replica era-Captain Beefheart. And while certainly dark and distorted, the music isn’t necessarily heavy as much as intriguing and foreign. I can’t imagine anyone headbanging or moshing to Kayo Dot without it being seen as social commentary or part of an art installation.
The music feels completely improvised at many points, almost too chaotic to be composed, until the band unexpectedly locks in, and reminds the listener that the sounds are heavily orchestrated. Were it not for the fact that much of the album was recorded live, one could almost believe that two separate groups had recorded on top of each other without knowing the final product. “Mirror Water, Lightning Night” and “Ocellated God” propel these musical themes before “Gamma Knife” eases the album’s descent, capping 30 minutes of rewarding listening.
Now that Gamma Knife exists, it feels like a natural continuation of where Kayo Dot has been heading for the past several albums. It bridges the gap between their earlier and later recordings, and shows a band still exploring their unique sound within a variety of genres. While not for everyone, it’s exciting to witness such an ambitious group returning to the realm of heavy music with the intention of creating such unorthodox sounds.
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Gamma Knife is streaming on Kayo Dot’s Bandcamp
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