When launching into any discussion of Kayo Dot, the first thing that has to be said is they’re not a cool band. No, they’re not cool, not cool at all. Of course, this isn’t meant to denigrate Toby Driver and his revolving lineup of helpers, but it is meant to underline the fact that their seven-album career has so far been conducted in almost complete disregard of prevailing or even emerging fashions. Apart from the odd flirtation with black metal, the New Yorkers haven’t once kowtowed to what’s hip and trendy in “the music scene,” neither blandly reproducing dominant conventions as a sign of servile allegiance to the groups these conventions represent, nor striving to popularize conventions of their own. As such, they’ve been punished in the form of being all-but ignored by the rockerati, treated at best to the occasional derisory review in Pitchfork and the liberty of self-funding double albums about the effects of meteor strikes on lonely poets.
They have, in other words, suffered for their desire to exist in their own strange universe, where they record barely classifiable albums involving prog, chamber music, metal, ambient, and jazz, always in ever-fluid quotas of uncompromising weirdness that stand as veiled if staunch rejections of commercialized pop/rock culture. As of two years ago, this inchoate smorgasbord of genres was expanded to include retro-futuristic darkwave and synth-heavy post-punk, both of which made the superb Coffins on Io a surprising yet surprisingly accessible departure for the band. Well, now they’ve departed yet again with Plastic House on Base of Sky, which essentially takes the instrumental setup of its predecessor yet sculpts and structures it in a wholly dissimilar way, creating a fundamentally disorienting, perplexing, and haunting album that, as can almost be expected by now, will only cement Kayo Dot’s status as the one of the least cool and most fashion-disinterested bands in the world.
That said, the opening strains of “Amalia’s Theme” are perhaps the catchiest thing Driver and co. have ever put to tape. Featuring an elemental synth melody that really does sound like it’s on a base of sky, it instigates an airy, insubstantial atmosphere that’s every part the complement to a world that’s been severed from its own reality via digital technology and consumeristic dreams. Yet as welcoming and intoxicating as it undoubtedly is, it belies the rest of the song and the rest of the album, which ramps up the dense complexity and freeform open-endedness. “Amalia’s Theme” in particular features a later passage full of keyboard runs that, aside from the diffused, wet quality of their sound, could’ve come from Zappa’s Jazz from Hell, while “All the Pain in all the Wide World” features bubbling, cascading synthesizers and twitching drum machines in almost constant movement. With such unanchored tracks, the band instill in the listener an overpowering sense of being decentered, displaced, and detached, much like today’s individual must feel when she allows the latest technology to guide her in everything from cooking to driving.
And yet, as unsettling as the infinite neon churn of “Magnetism” and “Rings of Earth” can be, they both partake of a beguiling, inimitable ambience that’s more affecting as a whole than any one moment on its own. Kayo Dot have always been about texture and atmosphere as much as actual “hooks,” yet on Plastic House on Base of Sky, they seem to forego hooks almost entirely, instead opting to construct a singular aura out of diaphanous synths and subliminal guitars that works insidiously upon the listener, without her realizing she’s being worked upon. Indeed, just as with the social media whose most far-reaching effects reside not in what it allows us to say but in how it changes us as people, the medium is very much the message here, and for Kayo Dot and their new brand of floating synth-prog, the message would appear to be that the world is moving so fast (or at least so deceptively) we can no longer situate ourselves within it with any assurance. For some, this means that their eighth album will only evoke feelings of lostness and bewilderment, yet for the rest of us, its barely effable resonance will linger for the days, weeks, and months to come, like some half-remembered dream we unwittingly act out in our waking lives.