Toby Driver’s name looms heavily over many of my formative years, or at least those years which I consider eye-opening in terms of musical tastes and possibilities. Kayo Dot has been his main creative vessel for a long time now, and that is how I came to be shaken by his compositions, about ten years ago. It was through this music that I learned to stop expecting to understand everything a certain artist does, while still nurturing respect for their process. The latest Kayo Dot record – Plastic House on Base of Sky – is one such example of work placed on an inner shelf, awaiting more growth from me as a listener. Any time this happens, there’s a pang of fear that overcomes me – what if one of my favorite artists has gone for good, exploring places where I won’t be able to follow for years? I’m thankful that Toby Driver’s latest album – Madonnawhore – is not such a far-removed record, while still projecting a challenging aura.
RELEASE DATE: 21 April 2017 LABEL: The Flenser
As is to be expected from Toby Driver, Madonnawhore is rather hard to classify. In this world of hashtags, I found myself hard-pressed to find three which would contain the unique atmosphere this record emanates. The Flenser were wise to avoid this pitfall on the album’s Bandcamp page. In terms of composition, many of the songs feel like neoclassical works, with remarkable purity and drama. This impression partly stems from the sparse, essential instrumentation. A vast, crystal-clean guitar tone, subdued drumming, generous but restrained bass work, some discrete synths, and Driver’s soaring voice, and suddenly the record springs into existence, fully-formed and with shocking depth.
There’s an overarching style to the album which makes it sound much like a collection of psalms. Driver has explored this tone before with Kayo Dot, on the Stained Glass record, as well as the opening and closing tracks of Gamma Knife, but never to this extent, and never with quite these overtones. The gentle, hypnotic outer layer hides a secret darkness, roiling turmoil, both in the lyrics, and in the unpredictable rhythms pulsing beneath.
Driver is able to think in very long spans of time when he plays with rhythm, allowing himself vast canvases to work with his music’s pace. On some songs (The Deepest Hole, for example), it’s difficult to keep his long phrases in mind from start to finish, but repeated listening slowly reveals these tectonic movements, these ages of disjointed time trapped within. Other times, the music is even more deceptive, laying out a seemingly clear direction, which works just enough to lull the listener into a sense of comfortable understanding, only to subtly accelerate and intensify, until a feeling of unreality manifests.
The interplay of bottled-up intensity and gentle, crystalline musical shapes is fully captured in the album name. It’s rare to be able to say it about music in such scientific terms, but Madonnawhore is a successful experiment. And Toby Driver’s cerebral, uncompromising writing style is certainly compatible with a scientific appreciation. But there’s more there. The mood of the record speaks to emotion as much as it does to the analytical mind, if not more. Madonnawhore is brainy enough to keep the music from being too melodramatic, but mature enough not to sneer at the power of emotional connection. Great for a rainy, introspective day.