Botanist / Kayo Dot Concert Review: There’s More To Hearing Than Meets The Ear

Kayo Dot @ Photo by Ladanyi Karoly /

The 29th of April 2015 has suddenly become a day worthy of anniversaries for me. It is the day a decade long dream came true, as I got to experience one of my favorite bands – Kayo Dot – live. Not only that, I got the chance to truly hear Botanist for the first time, as their studio albums had not revealed to me the textured brilliance that this band deploys live. I’m here to tell you about it.

First, a little history; Kayo Dot crept into my life in early 2006, as I had moved to a new city and started going to university. It was a time of great experimentation and accumulation of new things for me, normally, and most of those things had to do with music and art. I wasn’t supposed to be ready for Kayo Dot. I don’t think anything in my personal history or in the stash of musical knowledge I had gathered until then could have prepared me for their musical complexity and sheer bravery, for the breathtaking synesthesia somehow inherent in their music, and yet they struck a chord that’s been reverberating within me ever since. I hope you, dear reader, will understand if my review of their live performance will be significantly biased, given what I’ve just described and the fact that the concert was part of an entire chain of events that go well beyond the music.

It all started when I heard Kayo Dot and Botanist would be performing in Budapest at the end of April, on a Wednesday. I work in a theatre, in Romania, quite a long way from Budapest, but that was as close as I’d ever get to seeing them, so I’d be damned if I didn’t try my hardest to go. I called some contacts in Budapest to ensure I had some legitimate theatre business there, along with the exquisite pleasure that the concert was going to be, and a few days later I was driving across the country, racing for The Groove hostel, a mere 20 minutes walking distance from the venue. Lodged, locked and loaded, I headed for Gozsdu Manó, one of the most well-known clubs in Budapest as far as live music goes, to take in the air and maybe meet the group before the show.

I was lucky – there they were, having dinner, perched on the tall barstools and looking very serious. I later came to realize their apparent gloom was due to the hellish scheduling of their European tour, which had taken them on a zig-zag trail across the continent for the past month. This was to be their final show, which was another stroke of luck for me, as I would come to see in a couple of hours, because they gave it their all to end the tour with a splash.

Botanist @ by Ladanyi Karoly /
Botanist @ Photo by Ladanyi Karoly /

The concert was started by Botanist however – not as an opening band, but as a co-headliner, which was entirely appropriate. Botanist have a very compelling sound, something between black-metal and Appalachian folk music, a very fragile and well-managed blend of extremes which doesn’t necessarily come across very well on the studio recordings I’ve heard so far, but which is impossible to ignore live. On a superficial level, it stems from their chosen instrumentation, as they renounce guitars in favor of the ethereal and formidable hammer dulcimers. Not knowing this before-hand, one listens to their albums thinking there are lovely guitar textures and effects being employed, but nothing truly unheard of. Live, however, the sound is revealed to be far more organic and immediate, far more hypnotic. The atmosphere becomes deeper and more nuanced, and the theatrical intensity of the band increases dramatically. Post-black-metal it may be, but the theatrical nature of the parent genre is preserved, and the spectator sees more than a band performing – Botanist are almost a cult, an alternate history glimpse into the single-minded focus and tremendous sensitivity of a medieval covenant of alchemist monks delving into forbidden natural lore.

A short breather and a beer later came the time for Kayo Dot to take to the stage. Silent, focused, in stark contrast to Botanist and their visually impactful costumes and instruments, Kayo Dot acted more like members of an orchestra than a metal band. This wouldn’t necessarily have come as a surprise to me during their Blue Lambency Downward days, as that album was closer to contemporary classical than anything they had done before, but Kayo Dot have recently released Coffins on Io, an album reminiscent of the ‘80s, with a certain goth vibe, blended with sci-fi soundtrack cinematic elements. Live, it is crystal clear how intellectually and analytically Toby Driver and his band mates approach music composition and influence. Their tributes, their nods and acknowledgements are all structured, they are all deeply personal, there’s no post-modern frivolity involved, no ridiculous showmanship – only exquisite craftsmanship.

Toby Driver @ by Ladanyi Karoly /
Toby Driver @ by Ladanyi Karoly /

Kayo Dot have always demanded attention to detail from their listeners, patience, intellectual investment. If a recorded album allows one ample time to absorb and to analyze, the live setting forces a tremendous urgency, emboldens one to follow their musical phrases faster, to apply more effort, especially as there is more communication – the music becomes a tactile thing, textures addressing the entirety of the body’s tissues along with the ears. The movement of the band on stage is a minimalist choreography of pragmatism, a clockwork of steps and positions, as the members switch instruments or operate effects; overall, watching Kayo Dot is like watching a Rubik’s Cube solve itself one step at a time, and they know it. The only time Toby Driver addressed the audience, he made a subtle joke, alluding to this Spartan choreography – “You know something’s about to go down when the keyboard stand goes away.” And something did indeed `go down` – their final track, an older song fragment (I couldn’t quite place it, but I think it was off of one of their first two albums) which they used to completely pummel the audience into a state of utter trance. It was the slowest build-up I have ever seen live, both in terms of musical tempo, and in terms of narrative rhythm, a genuine time-stretching experiment that went on for what felt like hours. The apotheosis it brought at the very end, the wall of sound unleashed was staggering, and it took me days to slowly climb out of the haze. And then it was over.

The next morning, check-out time. Hauling my luggage to the reception to turn in the keys, I stumble upon the bands. They had been lodged at The Groove too. I make a cringe-worthy joke about how “we’re all just lookin’ for the groove in this life”, feeling sure they’d think I had been stalking them. Sometimes being star struck makes one paranoid. We have breakfast at the same bistro, I help Botanist’s Otrebor figure out the exchange rates between Euros and Forints and then we each leave Budapest. As my car plows through crazed insects blanketing the highway cutting through the Hungarian plains, I listen to The Mortality of Doves, the opening track from Kayo Dot’s latest album, and feel transfixed. The 29th of April becomes an anniversary of a deep change. The specifics remain to be named.

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