Contrary to popular belief, talent, creativity and inspiration don’t all run from some finite source, just begging to be tapped until the last drop has been spread thin over the artist’s dying breath and failed swan song. No artist is doomed to the perdition of running dry, forced to spend the rest of their life desperately sucking whatever leftover nutrients they can from the metaphorical soil, producing bland, lifeless work because their talent has been completely spent. This fallacy is the only reason I can imagine for why some people still act shocked when the ever-eclectic Toby Driver puts his name to an album completely disparate from his last. Over twenty years, from Spoonion to maudlin of the Well to Tartar Lamb and all the rest, Toby Driver has always put out work that stood as a monument to his refusal to pander to trends, requests and expectations. To those who say, “Wow, I can’t believe that Driver consistently puts out great music” and “I can’t believe this is so different from the last album”, I ask: Well, why not? Given his musical portfolio, how does this still come as such a hard pill to swallow? Driver and co. aren’t suddenly going to run on empty because they used up their big ol’ Bucket O’ Talent; they’re going to continue pursuing the sound and artistic endeavour that is relevant to them, whether or not you think they can pull it off. Enter Coffins on Io.
Lo and behold, Coffins on Io is another album fronted by Driver’s desire to step into new and exciting territory, once again expanding the Kayo Dot fold. That’s not to say the album sounds completely unlike anything Kayo Dot has done before, because that’s not true. While Coffins on Io definitely is a drastic change of pace for a band that’s always drastically changing its pace, it still has plenty of moments of familiarity, and it of course has that Kayo Dot feel. Whether you’re listening to Coyote or Hubardo, Kayo Dot’s biggest constant is being able to capture a stylistic familiarity that holds strong throughout their discography, even with frequent line-up changes and genre hopping. When you listen to Coffins on Io, you know right away that this is still the Kayo Dot you’ve always known and loved. The track ‘The Assassination of Adam’ seems to be the one that’s most reminiscent of past work. There’s a segment that sounds like a jazzier, moodier version of the track ‘Floodgate’ from Hubardo, as well as a section immediately after that hearkens back to Blue Lambency Downward’s ‘Symmetrical Arizona’ with its atmospheric noodling and the saxophone crawling. In certain parts it even mildly sounds like it shares similarities with non-album track ‘Twins Eating Fer De Lance’, albeit radically less vicious in execution.
Though each Kayo Dot record sounds vastly different from the last, there’s a new quality at play here that sets this album apart from the rest of band’s discography as a whole, and that’s how deeply it resonates with so many different styles and sounds, yet in a comparable way. Much of the band’s back-catalogue fluctuates from one genre extreme to the next, but with Coffins on Io, the music feels like much less of a loner, so to speak, and more like it wears its influences brazenly upon its sleeve. The haunting ‘Spirit Photography’ recalls sounds not unlike those of Bohren & der Club of Gore and Shadows of the Sun-era Ulver with its slow, atmospheric keys, soft, enchanting drumming and the smooth saxophone gliding over the music like a post-apocalyptic dream. Opening track ‘The Mortality of Doves’ begins with an electronic loop that I wish would go on forever, with its lo-fi hum quickly breaking out into bass-heavy synths and Driver’s almost-sexualised vocals slipping around the listener like silk. The darkwave, synth pop and electronic qualities of this track resonate as if they’re channelling the best parts of the gothic Clan of Xymox and the jazzy, ethereal Perdition City-era Ulver. Indeed, there are moments throughout this album, especially with ‘Offramp Cycle, Pattern 22’, where the music wouldn’t sound completely out of place on a Sisters of Mercy record, though there’s no shaking Kayo Dot’s unique spin on every style they end up handling.
With Coffins on Io being his third album with Kayo Dot, drummer Keith Abrams continues to be one of the most impressive aspects of the band. His drumming on both Gamma Knife and Hubardo was so fantastic that it stole away with some of the best moments on the albums, most notably on tracks like ‘Ocellated God’ and ‘Zlida Caosgi (To Water the Earth)’. True to form, Abrams’ percussive genius on Coffins on Io has yet again struck a chord with me, especially on ‘Offramp Cycle, Pattern 22’, where his opening beat sounds remarkably similar to something you’d hear from drumming legend Benny Greb. His performance on ‘Library Subterranean’ is particularly admirable; the way each stroke and percussive nuance complements the music is a quality most drummers can’t even begin to approach with the same dexterity and complexity, especially his improvisational-sounding approach in the track’s second half where the band goes off the deep end into a polyrhythmic synth breakdown and full-blown fusion jam session that highlights the varying strengths of all the musicians at play.
Driver’s vocal performance is perhaps his most diverse and fleshed-out effort he’s ever put to recording. On this record, we see a significant focus placed on vocal harmonies, and Driver doesn’t hold back. Acting as conduit, conducting the essence of a classic vocalist like Peter Gabriel one minute and tying a melody off with a flourish of his falsetto the next, Driver is a progressive beast of ever-changing vocal lines all throughout Coffins on Io. The way he creates perfect vocal hooks in tandem with the fantastic lyrics all throughout the album create instantly memorable moments that are, without a doubt, classics of the near future.
This is Kayo Dot’s most “accessible” record in the sense that the genres played out are rather recognisable and easily-digested forms of synth pop, progressive rock, post-punk, darkwave, jazz, etc., but the band still does a remarkable job of keeping the avant-garde experimentalism in place. Working with genres that are naturally unremarkable in this day and age with the record’s 80s retro-future noir theme, the band manages to combine all this into an exciting formula. Coffins on Io is a melting pot of retro icons reborn into unique and intoxicating fumes of dark, brooding thematic theatrics.
A lurching sense of familiarity suffuses Coffins on Io, and I’m not talking about the musical familiarity that solidifies this as a Kayo Dot album. I’m talking about something that feels otherworldly, nostalgic, distant, familiar, and yet utterly alien at the same time. The album slips away in no time at all, and the listener can easily get lost in its moody, doom-laden atmospheres. Coffins on Io is a far cry from anything else Toby Driver has done, but in an even more monumental and towering way than most. This isn’t just big in the sense that Hubardo was a massive accomplishment, in both length and scope. This is big in that it evokes feelings and ideas that are almost indescribable—on the tip of my tongue, but still fading as I try to put the thought into words. Coffins on Io is the Kayo Dot record I never knew that I needed them to make.