Coffins on Io review at echoesanddust.com by Josh Cuevas
The avant-metal band Kayo Dot has probably never been accused of accessibility. Led by longtime multi-instrumentalist and writer Toby Driver, Kayo Dot has been putting out genre-defying albums since 2003 to varying degrees of acclaim. So it was something of a triumph when the Brooklyn-based band self-released its sixth album, Hubardo, last year to very positive reception. Resembling the work of an auteur, Hubardo was both a return to form for Driver, who before Kayo Dot fronted the weird and (very) heavy act maudlin of the Well (motW), and an assured step in a new direction. Clocking in at 98 minutes and boasting all the instruments and players of a chamber act, the album remains worth every bit of the attention it demands. But accessible it is not. None of which is to say that accessibility is necessarily a good thing. Truth be told, the world could use more bands like Kayo Dot that sulk and swagger to the beat of their own weird drums. The point is, there was nothing in its catalogue to indicate that Kayo Dot’s seventh album, Coffins On Io, was going to be what it’s turned out to be: a refined, and sensual, post-new wave tour de force.
The band’s change-up in approach is nowhere more apparent than on album opener ‘The Mortality of Doves’. For eight glorious seconds a faint looped chord rides in on a howling cosmic wheeze, and then the groove drops in, ushering the listener into a world that is total cyberpunk space lounge. Driver issues a stagy, guilty vocal performance from behind a thickening smokescreen of synthetic notes, almost like he’s confessing to murder over drinks with an android.
Gradually, the track’s instrumentation changes. The drums become steadily heavier; a saxophone fishtails with the synthesizer; and an utterly sinister bass line steps forth. At the end, an inconsolable Driver sings about “an angel bleeding out” and “a long-lost suicide”, until finally he is eclipsed by a tremolo-picked guitar. Over the top? Maybe. But Kayo Dot has never shied away from theatrics; what’s striking on Coffins is how genuinely affecting the final product is.
It’s worth considering Coffins as a whole package. From the sleeve art, to the lyrics, to the latest promotional pictures of the band standing beneath a yellowed sky, it’s clear there’s a concept at work. Toby Driver has said the album’s vibe was inspired by “80’s retro-future”, and it’s all here. Many have already noted the similarities between Coffins and 80s acts like Sisters of Mercy and, though more of a stretch, Scritti Politti. But Coffins is more in line with Peter Gabriel-era Genesis than anything else, ready at any point to forgo its competent pop skills in the name of intricate progressive rock. One element that has not received much attention yet is the album’s title. Combining the word for corpse boxes with the name of Jupiter’s densest moon, Coffins On Io evokes a sleek future of space exploration and, inevitably, space death. This chilly outlook carries over to the album cover, credited to Driver, which flashes the title and the surnames of the bands’ members in trim font. Out of the darkness beneath the words looms an image of the moon Io itself, sulfuric and dead.
Io, riddled with volcanic scars and frozen magma, works well on an album cover. It works even better as the anchoring point of a futuristic album with a dystopian outlook. For one, the moon is the most volcanic body in the solar system. Jupiter’s profound gravitational pull on Io causes the moon’s molten insides to swell and tide to heights of 100m (328 ft). What’s more, Io’s orbital path sits right on one of Jupiter’s magnetic lines, meaning Io itself is essentially a giant electric generator, flying through space charged with 400,000 volts of electricity. So at it’s prog rock geekiest, Coffins On Io is a concept album about the coolest moon in space. (This might very well be the case. When the blistering second half of “Subterranean Librarian” kicks in, it sounds like the band has managed to harness Io’s own electric surges.)
But Coffins is more than a great concept work by a great band. Nuanced performances and unusual timbres have always given Kayo Dot’s music an organic edge, despite its meticulous composition. Nevertheless, some of Kayo Dot’s past works—2010’s Coyote, to name one—have suffered from emotional inscrutability. That’s rarely the case here, largely due to the increased focus on melody and vocals.
Driver’s performance as a singer on Coffins is nothing shy of a revelation. On ‘Longtime Disturbance on the Miracle Mile’, a balladic romp through abandoned streets, his haunted turn serves as an anchor to meandering guitars and synthesized winds. The crux of album closer ‘Spirit Photography’ is Driver’s delicate and stirring falsetto. (Listen closely—it’s a brief, subtle thing.) And on the even better ‘Offramp Cycle, Pattern 22′, an almost unrecognizable Driver channels a gothic David Bowie, singing, “Blood on my hands and the thing in the backseat that used to be human.” It’s a repulsively catchy moment in a song that is tailor-made chase music.
Really, all of Coffins On Io could be chase music. The sweeping sense of movement and scope is due to the band’s knack for sequencing. Transitions from song to song are cinematic, and the whole work calls to be played as one careens through a forgotten desert, maybe beneath one of William Gibson’s detuned skies. At the least, the album deserves to soundtrack a drive insofar as it deserves to be listened to from start to finish. Which is to say, it does. All told, Kayo Dot’s Coffins On Io—out October 16th on Flenser Records—is a deep, living work with an emotional resonance that belies its sleek sonic design and retro-futuristic aesthetic.
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