Kayo Dot has never made the same record twice. To read various descriptions from magazines and reviews, you might feel like you couldn’t be reading about the same band. From chamber music to black metal to goth to jazz and avant-garde classical — nothing really fits. Is Hubardo the “true” Kayo Dot? Is Coffins on Io? Choirs of the Eye? Does the question need an answer?
Toby Driver, the primary composer and frontman for the band, has been fiercely productive over the years, and while that usually refers to how many songs or albums an artist has made, with Driver the productivity is in the realm of ideas as much as music itself. In the course of a single Kayo Dot song, the amount of risks and liberties taken with form and convention usually outnumbers what other artists cover in a full album. That’s not to say Kayo Dot doesn’t have an impressive catalog. Neither is the band jarring the listener from one absurd extreme to another just to prove a point. For as much ground as they cover, it’s always in the service of a carefully curated mood.
The core of Kayo Dot might be that mood, one that lies at the crossroads of darkness and mystery. In films, the music that accompanies mystery is almost always nocturnal, probably playing on some primal relation in our brains between the unknown and the night time. It’s at this intersection that one is most likely to nail down what Kayo Dot is all about. Driver still collaborates with former maudlin of the Well bandmate Jason Byron, with Jason handling lyrical duties. Byron, who is a lifelong student of the occult, gives the listener a feast of words to unpack that are as elusively satisfying as the labyrinths of sound they travel through. Whether by way of menacing guitars, ethereal woodwinds, or alien electronics, there’s always a sense that a new passage could open, that around the next corner could be anything: a beast or some figure of erotic desire.
Kayo Dot have played the stages of Roadburn and SXSW. In 2015, Driver organized and played a month long, career-spanning residency at The Stone in New York. Kayo Dot records have appeared on labels as diverse and distinguished as Hydra Head, The Flenser, and John Zorn’s Tzadik. With the release of 2016’s Plastic House on Base of Sky, they take a decidedly electronic turn, incorporating a variety of synthesizers (many of them vintage analog) to create another work of ambition and magnitude that fuses the explosive musical imagination of a band like Magma with the forward-thinking experimentalism of Conrad Schnitzler or Morton Subotnick.
Everything is fluid. The only constant is change. You can’t step in the same river twice. Many people hold these truths to be self-evident. As these ideas become even more more commonplace, it only makes sense that musicians should defy the demand to answer the question “Who are you?” The refusal to answer is, in a way, the best answer possible. Kayo Dot is what that refusal sounds like.