Roger Ebert once wrote of the wonderful director Werner Herzog that he had never created a single uninteresting film: “Even his failures are spectacular.” There are a few select bands that bring that quote to mind for me. Kayo Dot has always been one of them. I have less fingers on my left hand than bands I’d say I admire as much; even if every album hasn’t hit me with the same awe, it’s never been because Toby Driver and company have ever lacked for talent or inspiration. Is there another band that’s been so dedicated on reinvention? Ulver comes to mind, but even then, I don’t think their leaps were always so consistently wide. Kayo Dot has fashioned immortal music from metal to drone, darkwave and beyond, but knowing that they’ll always move forward makes a new Kayo Dot album more promising than most.
Coffins on Io from 2014 was a predictably unpredictable turn into eighties goth and darkwave from a band that had created an avant-metal masterpiece with Hubardo the year prior. The eighties-synth fetishism didn’t start on Coffins on Io, but it was the first place where the move characterized the atmosphere. In that sense, Plastic House on Base of Sky takes less of a risk than some of Kayo Dot’s past transitions. The atmosphere is unmistakably based in the retrofuturist nostalgia of the eighties; the dark brooding synths draw from the same well as the Stranger Things soundtrack from last year, and the lo-fi yet busy drum programming sounds equally as nostalgic.
Vague threads of Coffins on Io‘s aesthetic have carried over to Plastic House…; the new album sets itself apart in other ways instead. While Coffins on Io was thick and bassy, here, Kayo Dot have gone relatively light and airy with the style and production. I don’t really agree with the notion that these changes have necessarily made the music more accessible. ‘All the Pain in All the Wide World’ is as cacophonous as anything on the earlier album, and it’s arguable that they’ve gone even deeper into atmosphere than before. For all their nostalgic charm, the synth arrangements are cumbersome, usually busy enough to flush out most melodic hooks on the first couple spins. The most immediate track isn’t ‘Amalia’s Theme’ but ‘Brittle Urchin’, surprisingly. With fewer synth textures to wash out the mix, Driver’s vocals finally get a better chance to shine through.
Even if Plastic House on Base of Sky is actually one of the less immediate albums Kayo Dot have put out, I think there is something to the way some listeners have been interpreting this new evolution as a lighter, poppy alternative to Coffins on Io. There probably is a pop musical skeleton laying here, but the atmospheric arrangement drowns it out. I don’t think that’s a bad or a good thing, really; ‘Amalia’s Theme’ and ‘Brittle Urchin’ are brilliantly written enough to have succeeded as standalone unplugged pieces, while ‘All the Pain in All the Wide World’ would probably feel just as overloaded with any approach. The hazy, ethereal vibe is what ultimately gives Plastic House… its character; for better or worse, Kayo Dot committed themselves to a specific artistic niche and fleshed an album out of it.
01) Amalia’s Theme
02) All the Pain in All the Wide World
04) Rings of Earth
05) Brittle Urchin