Plastic House on Base of Sky is the latest release from Kayo Dot, which is the primary musical vehicle of one Toby Driver, a multi-instrumentalist composer of non-idiomatic rock music. The band formed in the early 21st century from the ashes of equally ambitious progressive metal band maudlin of the Well. They have since pirouetted deftly along an unpredictable path of inspiration, with an ever-shifting lineup of players and instruments in tow.
Kayo Dot is one of those bands that never releases the same album twice. That being said, 2014’s Coffins on Io was as defiant a departure from their earlier work as the band has ever produced. It’s also arguably the most accessible and immediately enjoyable of Kayo Dot’s panoramic output – its dark Gothic sci-fi moods being tempered by glassy synths, infectious heavy grooves, and theatrically inflected vocals.
Plastic House on Base of Sky represents a logical step forward, and a sudden sharp plunge into stranger, illuminated waters. It ploughs a narrower, deeper furrow.
While Plastic House on Base of Sky carries many sonic influences over from Coffins and beyond, it also finds the band confidently charging into new territory. The record still has key elements of the darkwave sounds Driver has been dabbling with since 2010’s Coyote, and if anything it leans even more heavily on the slightly cheesy 80s synth tones and tropes of Coffins on Io. The key change here is that the structures of these songs are dense in a way that’s almost overbearing.
Where before Driver had focused his writing on horizontal through-composition, the record shows an increasing emphasis on the vertical axis; layer upon layer of overlapping synths, arpeggiated leads, buzzing basslines, and lush celestial pads. Add to the mix some gloriously chiming 80s chorused guitars, and at the core, the tight, taut, stuttering machine-like drumming of Keith Abrams. In fact, the album is threaded with inhuman rhythmic patterns, leaning and lurching in a hypnagogic swagger, often adrift from any natural internal pulse.
With its unrelenting presence, Plastic House on Base of Sky is not a simple puzzle to unravel. Overall, the vocals are lower in the mix here than they were on Coffins on Io – almost buried at times in an omnipresent fog of glimmering sounds and effects. The drums are maddeningly robotic, with blasts of kick and snare alternately sputtering into indecipherable and incessant fractals of rhythm. Driver is painting from a brighter palette this time, filling every last part of the frequency spectrum with sound. There is very little air to breathe.
Opener, “Amalia’s Theme” does a reasonable job easing you into the swing of things, introducing its various components one at time, building into a jerking push-pull of tension, tension and more tension. Vibrato synths warble their fragments of melody around a twitchy, writhing core. When the song finally does settle into a real groove in the tail end, it’s a joy and a relief.
The album wilfully meanders into stretches of abstraction, particularly on “All the Pain in All the Wide World”. In the midst of its ten minute run time, this unforgiving track seems to become stuck on a bizarrely accusatory lyric about talking but not listening, and missing the point. This song makes me incredibly queasy, like a fever dream of meaningless obsession. I still haven’t been able to fully parse it.
Out of that headache comes “Magnetism”, a very strong centrepiece serving as a kind of decoder ring for the album’s mysterious musical language. Its first half is the most convincingly song-like stretch of the album, before unravelling into its alien weirdness. Parts of this recall mid-80s Rush, of all things.
As on the best of Coffins, it’s a joy to hear Jason Byron’s evocative Gothic lyrical style merging with science fiction imagery. A natural fit somehow, particularly on “Rings of Earth”. This song has a glossy, almost stately glow about it. Little synth licks take off like seabirds from a cliff, as the song encircles its own gravity well.
Given the remarkable cohesiveness of these first four tracks, it’s strange how much the album’s closer “Brittle Urchin” feels like an afterthought – or a bonus track cut from a different project altogether. Toby has since released a remix that seems to more closely match the album’s overall tone.
In the end Plastic House on Base of Sky is as demanding and rewarding a record as I’ve come to expect from Toby Driver. Even after unravelling its considerable mysteries though, I don’t think it’s the most enjoyable of their considerable catalogue.