Review: Kayo Dot - Gamma Knife

A genre-defying challenge.
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kayo dot - gamma knifeThe incongruous, sometimes wacky metal-jazz fusion of Kayo Dot is back with the Boston band’s latest release. Gamma Knife is available digitally now on Kayo Dot’s Bandcamp page and will see a vinyl release in April of 2012 just ahead of a United States tour set to commence in May.

Toby Driver (guitar, vocals, keys, bass guitar) has perhaps been the only constant in this experimental outfit. He has dutifully buried much of Kayo Dot’s original metal edge, pissing off fans of records like Choirs of the Eye and Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue while heading off in a John Zorn-influenced direction.

So now here’s Gamma Knife, a brief album that some are already proclaiming as a return to metal form because there are “growls” and other steely accoutrements present. Colour me unconvinced.

Rather than embracing a return to anything, Kayo Dot securely progresses through whatever the hell it wants. Driver is playing with a full band, including violinist Mia Matsumiya, drummer Keith Abrams, alto saxophonists Terran Olson and Daniel Means, and percussionist David Bodie. Because the music was recorded live at Littlefield in Brooklyn in October of 2011, Tim Byrnes and Ron Varod are cited as providing “audience direction.”

Coyote, the band’s previous effort, was a suitably mournful recording that spoke of terrible loss. Gamma Knife is its robust, frenetic cousin who just so happens to be really, really into demonic shit.

“Lethe” opens the album with a false sense of security. There mellotron bells, Byrnes’ doing, and Matsumiya’s beautiful violin takes hold. It is a sort of procession, perhaps a way of setting to rest the ghosts of Coyote in a way that embraces the band holistically. Or perhaps it’s just a neat way to open a record that will, within minutes, toss the rules out the fucking window.

From the tranquility comes the sheer wonky force of “Rite of Goetic Evocation.” My curiosity led me to discover that what this track is referring to is the process of summoning a demon. It stands to reason, then, that the saxophones would blast to all bloody hell in an incompatible, difficult, out-there arrangement that pulses and slams around. Driver screams and growls like he’s possessed by Baal.

“Mirror Water, Lightning Night” is free jazz freakout material, doused in a little blackness just for fun. And “Ocellated God” starts off with a chunk of feedback and what appears to be a groove but quickly disintegrates into a infuriating test of endurance.

It’s only when the title track takes hold that Gamma Knife starts to make any sort of musical sense. Driver is slightly muffled, but he’s not buried in the din anymore and his rise seems to indicate that the evocation is over, the demon is loose in the amphitheatre and it’s somebody else’s problem.

Kayo Dot isn’t for everyone and Gamma Knife’s not going to change that. It is not an accessible record; it is not something you just plunk in when you’re heating up ravioli – trust me on that. This is a sit-the-hell-down-and-listen record, one that is perplexing and not instantly charming. But, over time, the entirety of this brief but precise album will start to dig a hole. And who knows? Maybe it’ll find another demon.