London’s Dawnwalker. Bandcamp calls them “an experimental metal band based in London, England, blending modern heavy music with melodic, folk and progressive influences.” It’s a pretty fair description of a band whose new album, Ages, crosses boundaries and shows a clear ambition and drive to reach into the areas of extended arrangements and challenge their fanbase. Mark Norgate (who sings and plays guitar and synths) from Dawnwalker tells us about American avant-garde outfit and a new name to us, Kayo Dot.
I remember exactly where I was when I heard Kayo Dot for the first time.
I was sitting on the floor of my attic bedroom in an otherwise empty house. It was in the middle of a long, hot summer and my fellow student housemates had fled back to their home counties to be fed and bathed back to health. I stayed despite there being little or nothing to do outside of term time and must’ve watched nearly every film in my school’s library. At some point I came up with an idea to try and listen to a new album each day. It only lasted a couple of weeks, but in that time I did discover one record that started a love affair that’s still going some fourteen years later. It was Kayo Dot’s Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue.
By that time, I fancied myself well-acquainted with prog, metal, noise and modern classical, but I still wasn’t prepared for what I heard. Dowsing sounded like nothing else I’d known, and it completely upended my notions of what heavy music was or could be. The album is composed of five suites of expansive chamber metal that move deftly from quiet, reflective passages into world-ending doom riffs, with the shortest track being 8+ minutes. Probably my favourite on the album is ‘___On Limpid Form’ which begins as a ballad and ends in an anxiety-inducing hellscape some 18 minutes later. It was a real galaxy brain moment for me. How are they able to do all of this?! All notions of conventional song structures are abandoned, and what remains are miniature symphonies of tension and release. This was surrealist nightmare fuel filtered through a modern compositional perspective. I loved it and it opened a lot of doors in my mind that I didn’t yet know existed.
Kayo Dot – ____ On Limpid Form (Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue)
From Dowsing, I worked backwards to their previous record Choirs Of The Eye – which is like its grandiose, fantastical cousin – and then further back into their previous incarnation maudlin of the Well which mixed 90s euro metal influences with themes of astral projection and esoterica. Maudlin’s LP Leaving Your Body Map contains a song that was not ‘written’ exactly but ‘brought back from the astral plane’ or, found in a dream. I once ‘wrote’ a piece of music in a dream. (It sucked.)
The lead-up to Kayo Dot’s next LP Blue Lambency Downward was the first I’d been actively involved in and I got completely swept up in the internet hype around it. I ordered the super deluxe just-give-me-everything LP and limited artwork edition and impatiently awaited release day. Blue Lambency didn’t disappoint, even being a complete left turn from what I’d expected, confounding fans and critics alike. Most of the metal was gone, and what was left were these dream-like, largely acoustic-led pieces that reminded me of a Murakami novel more than anything I could compare it to musically. It seems to be considered a bit of a black sheep in their discography – not helped by a hatchet job of a review from Pitchfork, I’m sure – but it remains one of my absolute favourites in their discography.
Kayo Dot – Clelia Walking (Blue Lambency Downward)
Since those heady days, Kayo Dot has evolved with every album and despite the fact that they constantly change the players, the instrumentation, the production and their stage attire – everything they do sounds like them. 2008’s Coyote took 80s goth bass and made it avant-weird and 2010’s Gamma Knife blended ghostly piano ballads with esoteric black metal. 2012’s Hubardo was a feature-length concept album that attempted to bring all of their different moods together under one roof. 2014’s Coffins on Io took a turn towards synthy retrofuturism and then 2016’s Plastic House on Base of Sky went full on sweeping Anime soundtrack. Despite being one of my favourite albums of that year, 2019’s Blasphemy with it’s dual-drummer assault somewhat confounded me and I’m still getting to grips with it today – and I’m perfectly happy about that.
The fact that a consistency remains through all their work despite all of the moving pieces is inevitably down to the fact that the music is composed by one person: bandleader Toby Driver. I certainly don’t consider myself an avant-garde composer – far from it – but this singularity of approach is something that hugely influenced the kind of project I wanted to make with Dawnwalker. Something more akin to a film director, allowing for a cohesiveness of concept that presents a fully-formed world or narrative that invites the listener to come inside and visit for a while. I think it’s a common trait between a lot of the music I love, which I guess you could call the Scott Walker effect.
I’ve always been something of an anorak, and to date I’ve collected over sixty Kayo-Dot-and-related-project releases and each one is rich and interesting in its own way. Toby and his many collaborators are a prolific bunch to say the least and their output covers metal, noise, goth, classical, improv, experimental and… unclassifiable. I have no idea where they will lead us next, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.
Many many thanks to Mark for taking the time to share his detailed thoughts and his Kayo Dot journey with us. Don’t forget to check our the Ages album by Dawnwalker in our review here.
Listen to Dawnwalker on the isolation version of the title track from the Crestfallen EP: