Sometimes it feels as though words like “experimental” were invented solely for critics to hide behind and explain away any bouts of unconventional creativity they may come across. “What do you mean this doesn’t have a chorus???” etc. Then sometimes you run into a collective like New York’s Kayo Dot, whose leader Toby Driver seems to have, by means of his output with the band, inserted himself into a lineage of avant-garde musicians that can be traced back over the last half-century to artists like John Coltrane and Peter Brötzmann all the way down to John Zorn and King Crimson’s proggy ramblings.
The latter is brought specifically to mind with Driver’s Adrian Belew-style vocal on “Calonyction Girl,” the opening track of Kayo Dot’s fourth studio album, Coyote (Hydra Head). Driver also handles bass duties throughout, but he’s by no means the whole show on the album. With both alto and tenor sax – courtesy of Daniel Means and Terran Olson, respectively – Tim Byrnes’ trumpet, David Bodie’s sundry percussives and the contributions of longtime member Mia Matsumiya on violin and guitar, Kayo Dot is as much a band on Coyote as it ever was. Each member has a specific role to play in the ultimately surprising and oddly engaging outcome.
Disjointed instrumentation is toyed with toward the latter moments of “Whisper Ineffable,” particularly between Byrnes on trumpet and Driver on bass, but there are also subtle injections of noise and drums throughout that confirm once again that nothing is ever simple with Kayo Dot. I’m not at all convinced Coyote has a straightforward moment, “Abyss Hinge 1: Sleeping Birds Sighing in Roscolux” being not much more than a 3:46 lead in for the 13:40 of “Abyss Hinge 2: The Shrinking Armature,” although the latter does see the horn section meet up, however briefly, for some memorable note runs, and that’s at very least planned out beforehand, Matsumiya’s violin and the drums playing out a patterned rhythm behind while the rumble of Driver’s bass provides a foundation.
There are vocals on “Abyss Hinge 2: The Shrinking Armature,” but not the track that precedes it, and when they do come in, it’s only after the instrumentation has cleared the way and a late-night atmosphere has been set for the far-off ringing moan of Driver’s voice. Spooky is a word that would work. The horns soon pick up again and lead to a build that lasts the song’s final six minutes or so. It’s a gradual development leading to a gradual deconstruction, but not out of place in the Kayo Dot canon, in which anything seems possible at any given time and you never know quite what you’re going to hear next.
Nonetheless, as short-cropped 3:11 vocal-led closer “Cartogram Out of Phase” plays out with a smoky lounge vibe, there’s no doubt that, improvised as much of this music had to have been in the first place, there’s not a string wrongly plucked on Coyote, that everything throughout these five tracks is on purpose and presented precisely as it was meant to be. The album has a pervading sense of poise that lasts longer than the music, and the fluid nature of the performances that comprise these songs manages to maintain a sense of the spontaneity that must have birthed them. “Cartogram Out of Phase” feels incomplete at the end, and so do we, as though those who composed it knew there would be more to say later and wanted to leave room.
It won’t be for everyone — Kayo Dot never has been — but those who appreciated the return of sonic weight that was 2008’s Blue Lambency Downward will find themselves yet again caught unawares by the band’s growth. It’s not that they have no direction, but rather that they seem to head in all of them at once. Coyote reads like epic avant poetry (“Howl,” maybe?), and when it’s over, you can feel a difference for having heard it.Hydra Head, Kayo Dot, New York