Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Toby Driver - In the L... L... Library Loft (2005)

Rating: 9.6

Far too often I hear that nothing new is being done in music, and finally I have found the perfect CD to throw back at the naysayers. While there are plenty of bands who are consistently pushing new ground, few are doing so as blatantly as Toby Driver’s many projects (Maudlin of the Well, Kayo Dot, Tartar Lamb, solo), and In the L… L… Library Loft might just be his most innovative yet.

Instead of pioneering and perfectly a new style of music, In the L… L… Library Loft sees Driver take four unique ideas for how to structure his pieces, then explore what he can do with them. Because of this, he is not likely ever to have much widespread influence on how songs are structured—the ideas are so unique that if anybody else were to use them it would almost certainly be blatant copying—but his ideas ought to provoke a shift (at least in avant-garde circles) in the way people think about composition and structure, inspiring future composers to similarly play with unique composition ideas.

As the title of the CD would suggest, In the L… L… Library Loft is the stuff of nightmares. The whole CD exudes a dreary, haunting atmosphere, scarier than any songs built merely around diminished chords. The best example of this is the opener, “Kandu vs. Corky (Horrorca),” which just might be my favorite Toby Driver composition yet. Compositionally, it is a drone piece, but, as I’ve mentioned, the song structure is atypical. In this case, the song is built to resemble a bell curve. On the small level, each individual drone starts soft, then gets louder, and finally returns to softness before giving way to a new drone. The drums, on the other hand, start slowly, gradually increasing in speed, then slowing down at the same speed they initially sped up. In fact, one of the most powerful moments in the song is when the drums and the violin both follow this pattern on top of each other. On a larger scale, the song itself also follows a bell curve, starting out as a simple, haunting drone, then builds in both complexity and power (though not much in volume or speed), finally returning to a closing drone. The climax of the piece is one of those musical miracles, one of the most powerful sections I’ve heard.

The rest of the CD never gets quite as intense as the opener, but it never gets dull, either. “The Lugubrious Library Loft” is composed for instruments played by two people; that is, for every one instrument, there are two musicians operating it (even vocals). For the piano, there is someone hitting the keys and someone controlling the strings (resulting in odd but pleasing tones). The vocals are the most interesting, however (though they only appear for the first part of the song). Toby Driver forms the notes and sings them as “aaahs,” and Mia Matsumiya then inserts her lips, teeth, and tongue into his mouth to enunciate the syllables. The result is, again, oddly pleasing. Like it’s predecessor, the song builds up to a fantastic climax.

“Brown Light Upon Us” is the closest thing to a misstep on the CD, as the concept behind the song does not play out when listening. Toby Driver recorded this song a room away from the microphones on the theory that it would sound best listened to from a different room. While it is still a nice piece of music, there are no audible benefits I notice from listening while in a different room. There are also times I feel it is a tad too long, but on the whole it is actually a very good (if somewhat standard sounding) drone composition (though it does perhaps go on a bit too long). To close out In the L… L… Library Loft, however, Driver returns to what definitely works. He describes it as one of the most bleak and haunting pieces he has ever written, and I can in no way argue. On this song, he experiments—not with song structure—but with the sounds a trumpet can make. For the first half of the song, the trumpet is played to produce an almost breathy tone, while on the second half the trumpet emits a microtonal wail. However, the song is actually based mostly around strings and piano, and is very much a strength in Toby Driver’s catalogue.

On the whole, In the L… L… Library Loft is a tremendous release that further establishes Toby Driver as one of the composers on the frontier of modern music. He may not ever revolutionize the world of music, but I’ll be damned if I can think of anybody who deserves to do so more. In the L… L… Library Loft is a flat-out masterpiece, one of the greatest CDs to have emerged from the progressive music scene in recent years.

Kayo Dot - Don't Touch Dead Animals (2007)

Rating: 9.0

After wowing progressive rock listeners with both their perfect (literally) debut Choirs of the Eye and their almost as good follow-up, Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue, Kayo Dot have returned with an EP split with doom metal band Bloody Panda. I am not familiar enough with the Bloody Panda material to review it (though I would recommend checking out their debut full length, Pheromone, as it’s quite good). Thus, I will restrict this review just to the Kayo Dot half, the song “Don’t Touch Dead Animals.”

“Don’t Touch Dead Animals” is split into two parts, each introduced with a short spoken poem by violinist Mia Matsumiya (who is featured on vocals because Bloody Panda also have a female Japanese vocalist). The track marks somewhat of a shift in sound for Toby Driver and co, but it is still recognizable as distinctly Kayo Dot, holding true to Driver’s compositional style and disdain for traditional song structures.

In some sense, this song is a mixture of Choirs and Dowsing; the first part is jazzy in a similar manner to “Aura on an Asylum Wall” from the latter, and the second utilizes heaviness similar to “Marathon” from the former. In the first part, a powerful trumpet duals with dissonant, swirling violin, building up to a semi-climax, then fading away in a seeming anti-climax. Then, however, Mia begins her monologue that opens part two, and the song fairly immediately climaxes with some awesome crazed vocals from Mia and more fantastic trumpet work, as well as some heavy guitar riffing. This relieves the tension of the anti-climax wonderfully, bringing the track to a powerful resolution.

But how does it mark a compositional change for Kayo Dot? Well, the song is far less minimalist than either of their other CDs. For the first time (in a Kayo Dot song), there is a lot happening that all exists in or near the song’s foreground. Sure, on their two full lengths there was generally a lot happening, but it was done in a subtler manner. Here, on the other hand, it is more obvious (though still fairly subtle). While both good on the whole, both the semi-climax and the full climax are simply too full at times, and it’s impossible to comprehend everything at once. That is the one major flaw with this song. However, if Driver can take this style of composing and perfect his technique, he should be able to deliver a third masterpiece.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas '07: Maudlin of the Well - Bath/Leaving Your Body Map (2001)

So what's Follycle going to do with his blog for Christmas, you ask? Well, seeing as I'm a Jew, I really don't *have* to do anything. But I'm a nice guy, so I will. And today's gift is the upload and review of two tremendous CDs, Bath and Leaving Your Body Map by Maudlin of the Well.

I hope you enjoy them as much or more as I do.

Rating: 9.4/9.1

Toby Driver is famous in progressive rock circles these days largely because of his current main band, Kayo Dot, whose two albums have made waves. However, before Toby Driver was well known, he was in this obscure, out-of-print metal band named Maudlin of the Well, and what a band it was. They managed only three CDs, the latter two of which were released as companion pieces.

Maudlin of the Well is, in essence, about what you might expect if Kayo Dot were to write actual songs instead of the flowing pieces that mark their sound. Whereas Kayo Dot is using radical new song structures, Maudlin of the Well innovated slightly more quietly, twisting existing song structures in new ways. The result is what one might call astral metal. It mixes the ambience of post-rock and the aggression of metal, but not at all like post-metal bands such as Isis. Instead, Maudlin of the Well’s sound is built around its hypnotic qualities.

Bath is the more melodically inclined of the companion CDs, even in its most metal moments. One listen to the first song, “The Blue Ghost/Shedding Qliphoth,” with its two short musical phrases that intertwine with a beautiful melody, displays this fully. When it hits you the right way (which takes a few listens), it becomes absolutely transfixing. Following this is “They Aren’t All Beautiful,” which seems at first to be the polar opposite. It is based around a mish-mash of three or four brutally heavy riffs. However, repeated listens (which are needed to grasp all the complexities and subtleties) show that this death metal cocktail is just as hypnotic as the atmospheric textures of “The Blue Ghost/Shedding Quliphoth.”

Throughout the rest of the CD, the music hovers within the range established by the first two songs, often mixing the two. This is best seen in “The Ferryman,” which starts with beautiful organ followed by even more beautiful guitar strumming, then grows into a tremendously heavy monster, then mixes the organ with the riffing. Also notable is “Heaven and Weak,” which starts out very beautifully (in the traditional sense), then grows into a massive bone-crushing riff. In between these, however, is a section that has a textural riff, vocals, and a guitar solo all going at once. However, it is structured in such a way that it doesn’t sound cluttered. That is truly the genius of this CD. It takes convention and turns it on its head, mixing that that seemingly shouldn’t be mixed and making it sound good, and, most importantly, keeping an entirely uncluttered sound where other bands would be unable to do so.

Almost immediately, Leaving Your Body Map establishes itself as different beast than Bath. Whereas “The Blue Ghost/Shedding Qliphoph” barely got loud at all, and even then only at the end, “Stones of October’s Sobbing” lets only a minute and a half go by before entering an interesting with an only mildly heavy backing and “cookie monster” (though still decipherable) vocals in the forefront. Once the ultra-fast riff enters, there’s no doubt, and for the rest of the CD, Leaving Your Body Map continues this trend of being more immediate and heavier. That said, the album still has the same effect as Bath, inducing a trance-like state on the listener. It manages it in different, faster, louder, and more initially exciting manners, but it is ultimately the flip side of the same coin as Bath.

Leaving Your Body Map retains the complexities and subtleties of its predecessor. Just listen to the section that I mentioned in “Stones of October’s Sobbing.” In that section, a mildly distorted, non-aggressive guitar line is mixed with highly aggressive growled vocals and a beautiful woodwind phrase that pops up again and again. Even when the CD seems obvious, such as on “Gleam in the Ranks” and “Riseth He, The Numberless (Part 1),” there is more going on than meets the eye. On “Gleam in the Ranks,” a guitar line races through a set of tight-knit riffs, backed by a pounding rhythm and dynamic vocals. Little things pop up at each turn, however, such as the keyboards that show themselves near the beginning. “Riseth He, The Numberless (Part 1)” achieves the same effect in a different manner. After a one minute introduction on the trumpet, it shifts to what seems to be a straightforward death metal song. However, there is not one riff but three or four, each similar in feel but at different speeds and with slightly different notes.

It is these types of subtleties that make Bath and Leaving Your Body Map such interesting albums. However, they are more than just complex “astral metal” CDs. There is also the purely beautiful on each. The four “Interlude” tracks are all fairly simple, beautiful instrumentals, and songs such as “Sleep is a Curse” from Leaving Your Body Map and “Geography” from Bath are similarly gorgeous. The subtleties may make the CDs interesting, but it is the diversity that makes them so ultimately captivating. As Bath and Leaving Your Body Map both show, Maudlin of the Well are one of the greatest bands the world of metal has seen. Extremely recommended.

Here you go.

Maudlin of the Well

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Kayo Dot - Choirs of the Eye (2003)

Rating: 10.0

Music is very much a subjective term, as I have learned "the hard way." Because of my liking of bands who live on the often-tedious fringe between music and noise, I have often been confronted by those to object to my "non-music." Even for a band as inherently musical (not to mention supremely important) as This Heat, I have been requested (ordered, more like) to "turn off this, this... NOISE," the last word spat out with a venom more suited for a murderer or a terrorist. I can only imagine the reaction I would get if I were to play music more along the lines of Merzbow or, as is pertinent to this review, Kayo Dot.

Kayo Dot, spearheaded by Toby Driver, is one of those bands on the fringe I mentioned above, but not of the same sort as most. Rather than an uncompromising, noisy, perhaps even ugly sound, Kayo Dot's music is, quite distinctly, beautiful. Sometimes, this beauty is obvious, such as at the start of "The Manifold Curiosity," where a delicate melody (played on some woodwind) is backed by a hesitant drumbeat and slightly distorted guitar. Similarly, "A Pitcher of Summer" starts with clearly beautiful, acoustic guitar based music. Other times, however, the beauty is not so obvious. The beginning of the opening "Marathon" is noisy and chaotic, holding a disguised beauty that only becomes apparent after repeated listens, when the album finally starts to make sense.

That, in a nutshell, encapsulates the utter brilliance of Kayo Dot's debut, Choirs of the Eye. It is beautiful from start to finish, and it takes time to appreciate. Make no mistake about the latter, especially. I had Choirs of the Eye for at least six months before I finally "got" it. I could put this down to its outright inaccessibility, but I think there's more to it than that. After all, I am no stranger to music that is "out there," and even the most difficult CDs rarely take more than a month to grow on me. No, what took me so long to appreciate Choirs of the Eye is its subtlety. At every moment there are little things that add the perfect touch to the music, making the atmosphere at that moment just right. The way that these elements affect the music are not readily apparent, and thus the CD is not immediately striking. Take, for example, the hesitant drums on "The Manifold Curiosity," the monologue that begins "Marathon," and the entire section of "Wayfarer" that begins around 6:30. The first two seem almost like afterthoughts at first, only starting to make sense after multiple listens. While both of those augment more obvious aspects of the music around them, however, the section in "Wayfarer" is notable in that it is composed almost entirely of subtleties. The quiet strumming, the slow, steady drums, the barely audible sound effects - all are insignificant taken alone, and indeed the entire section seems insignificant at first, but once you realize how each element fits with the others, it becomes one of the most powerful parts of the album.

So it is with the rest of the CD. Even when the music is beating you senselessly over the head (such as on the end of "The Manifold Curiosity"), there is more happening than first meets the ear. Even now, after countless listens, I find new subtleties each listen. You want to know the only other CD I can really say that about? CAN's Tago Mago, which just happens to be my favorite CD. Kayo Dot's Choirs of the Eye reaches a similarly high level because of it's command of subtlety. That is the triumph of Choirs of the Eye and the key reason I regard Toby Driver as a modern musical genius (in the company of John Zorn, among others). So, in case any of you haven't realized this yet, Choirs of the Eye is most definitely music. Some of the greatest music ever made, as it happens.

An undeniable masterpiece.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Skinny Puppy - Too Dark Park (1990)

Rating: 9.5

The soundtrack to a nightmare.

One of the bigger names in the world of industrial music, Skinny Puppy created an industrial masterpiece in Too Dark Park. It truly is the soundtrack to a nightmare. With the "lyrics" consisting largely of spoken lines such as "he's losing his mind; he feels it going," "downward, downward, downward, downward," and "are you afraid," this is an album that will sen shivers down your spine from start to finish. Of course, the music behind these ominous lyrics is just as much responsible.

The songs are built around electronic beats backed by samples of horror films, along with driving bass lines and a few other elements, managing to create sparse soundscapes that sound deeper than they actually are. And, of course, it's all done in a way to maximize the horror factor. Take, for example, "Tormentor." While it starts innocently enough with a beat that is actually quite catchy, as soon as the first sample comes in, it starts descending into the netherworlds, never rising again. And then, of course, there's "Grave Wisdom," which has to rank as one of the ten scariest songs I've ever heard.

Don't be fooled into thinking that this album is accessible because most songs have at least semi-recognizable beats. While it certainly isn't as abrasive as, say, Throbbing Gristle's music, it is far from what you would play at parties. Instead, it's more along the lines of the background music to a virgin sacrifice of old. "Spasmolytic" highlights this aspect with its almost tribal beat, ritualistic chanting, and trance-inducing bass-line. All of this, of course, pounds along with an intensity rarely seen in music.

Despite it's inaccessibility, there is an underlying catchiness to the music. The repetitive nature of the songs can easily lure the listener into a trance, only to be thrown off-guard by the positively evil vocals. As such, it's one of those rare CDs where two opposing elements (in this case the abrasive and the meditative) are perfectly balanced to create a unique effect where the music simultaneously falls at both ends of the spectrum. That's a special feeling, and this album explores it perfectly.

The real clincher for Too Dark Park, however, is its astounding consistency. From the first second to the last, there is not so much as a weak moment. Every song is roughly on the same level (though "Grave Wisdom" and "Spasmolytic" stand out to a degree), and that level is tremendously high. There are no songs that come out of nowhere to ruin the mood (think "Not Now John" on Pink Floyd's The Final Cut); in fact, each song seems to build on the last, increasing the intensity until it finally ends with "Reclamation," which may well be the most intense of the lot.

This determination to go out with a bang, coupled with the juxtaposition of opposing elements and stunning consistency makes Too Dark Park one of the best CDs I've discovered recently. You are missing out if you haven't heard this masterpiece. I give it my highest recommendation.