June of 2021 marked the 20th anniversary of American progressive metal pioneers Maudlin of the Well’s seminal double album release Bath and Leaving Your Body Map as well as the 25h anniversary of the formation of the band. Although a short-lived band in their original existence from 1996 to 2002, the sonic innovation of Maudlin of the Well (stylized as “maudlin of the Well”), particularly on the Bath and Leaving Your Body Map albums, was considerable. Formed in 1996 by nucleolus Toby Driver along with vocalist and lyricist Jason Bryon and guitarist Greg Massi, Maudlin of the Well were based in New England, however the band were an anomaly for American metal, with a temperament more akin to European bands. While having a love for more technical extreme metal bands such as Gorguts and Atheist (1), Driver had a particular affinity for what he’s described throughout the years as “Euro metal”. Like the term “progressive metal” itself, Driver’s use of “Euro metal” is an umbrella term, referencing the wave of European metal bands who’s sounds became more expansive as the 90’s moved forward with the increased presence of keyboards and outside influences of gothic and new age atmospherics. Bands with one foot in the death/doom metal realm were particularly susceptible. The most famous being the trio of death/doom and 90’s gothic metal pioneers known collectively as the “Peaceville Three”; Anathema, My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost, all evolving out death/doom at their own respective paces throughout the 90’s, each becoming more experimental and gothic. Sweden’s Tiamat also took a similar path out of death metal, 1994’s Wildhoney proudly displaying a more atmospheric Pink Floyd influence while follow-up A Deeper Kind of Slumber (1997) dropped metal entirely in favor of new age experimentation.
At the time many bands faced harsh fan backlash for the more adventitious songwriting and as the 90’s began to wane, many reverted back to a more familiar style. Driver however proved to be the target audience for such experimentation, having expressed admiration for albums such as Wildhoney, Anathema’s Alternative 4 (1998)(2), My Dying Bride’s controversial 34.788%…Complete (1998)(3) as well as Omnio (1997) from Norway’s In the Woods…(4), Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1998)(5), the album that took Ulver away from black metal and down paths more electronic and experimental and Transcendence into the Peripheral (1993)(6) from Australia’s diSEMBOWELMENT. Taking equal influence from the more extreme progressive bands with the sonic aesthetics of this “Euro metal”, Maudlin of the Well were an immediate stand-out in late 90’s American metal. While their 1999 debut “album” My Fruit PsychoBells… a Seed Combustible was in truth a collection of the best sounding previously recorded demos, the material making up both Bath and Leaving Your Body Map was worked into a fully realized double album concept and recorded in a proper studio environment. Also more realized by the time of the recording of both albums was the bands unique filtration of European metal influences into their own take on extreme progressive death metal which included elements of jazz, neo-classical chamber music and female vocals, a staple of 90’s gothic Euro metal, courtesy of Maria-Stella Fountoulakis. Dubbing their sound “astral metal”, Maudlin of the Well were also unique in that they came with an almost mythology attached to them with a conceptual thread running through both the Bath and Leaving Your Body Map albums dealing with concepts like astral projection as well as a hidden poem contained within the liner notes of both albums inspired by mysticism and the Kabbalah (i).
Plans for a follow-up to Bath and Leaving Your Body Map fell through when various Maudlin members went their separate ways during the writing sessions. Following the official dissolution of Maudlin of the Well, Driver, along with former Maudlin cohorts Massi, drummer Sam Gutterman, multi-horn specialist and keyboardist Terran Olson and Byron, who continued to contribute lyrics, introduced a host of new musicians, including violinist Mia Matsumiya, to the fold. Continuing to write what was originally intended to be Maudlin of the Well music, Driver christened the new ensemble Kayo Dot. Fearing the new music would be lost among the shuffle of bands playing a style Driver had begun to drift away from, as well as the band’s label at the time, Dark Symphonies, a label that primarily catered to said gothic-tinged metal style, not being enthusiastic or supportive, Driver looked to other avenues to debut Kayo Dot. (7) Released in October of 2003 on John Zorn’s Tzadik Records, Kayo Dot’s debut album Choirs of the Eye, while still a continuation of Maudlin of the Well’s pushing metal into unexplored territory, was also something decidedly different. Something entirely new as well. For as much as Maudlin of the Well may have astrally projected, both musically and in other ways, Kayo Dot seemed an even more esoteric entity. The gothic roots of Maudlin of the Well could still be heard on Choirs of the Eye, there seemed to be a bigger focus on classical with an additional black metal influence, yet even the more “traditional” instrumentation in Kayo Dot sounded recontextualized, the songwriting going far and beyond even the astral metal experiments of Maudlin of the Well.
In effect inventing its own form of metallic chamber music, Choirs of the Eye was followed-up with Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue (2006). While the evolution of the avant chamber metal, for lack of a better term, of Choirs of the Eye, Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue also contained a more noticeable focus on dissonance contrasted with more open spaces in the music. Even at its most objectively metallic, Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue was nonetheless an even more intangible album than Choirs of the Eye. The albums resistance to easy pigeonholing was merely an early signpost marking Kayo Dot’s chameleon nature, the Kayo Dot name soon adopting a variety of wholly unique musical guises, each as ephemeral as the band personnel. Following the implosion of the Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue line-up, Driver, along with Matsumiya, the sole remaining member, further solidified Kayo Dot as an entirely singular name in underground music with 2008’s Blue Lambency Downward. Stripping away almost every trace of metal, landing somewhere between jazz and chamber music while still being neither, Blue Lambency Downward saw a much more chilled, subdued Kayo Dot with reeds and woodwinds playing a much bigger role. Released on Hydra Head Records, at the time probably the leading name in a strand of experimental metal that unfortunately caught the brand “post-metal”, the decidedly non-metal nature of Blue Lambency Downward drew a sharp dividing line among Kayo Dot’s already fairly niche audience.
Following Blue Lambency Downward a curious thing happened when eight years after the release of the single linking both Bath and Leaving Your Body Map, “Secret Song”, the final piece of music released by Maudlin of the Well, the Maudlin of the Well name was briefly resurrected. Consisting of older, unrefined Maudlin of the Well material by Driver along with former Maudlin members Massi, Olsen, Gutterman and guitarist Josh Siepp-Williams, Part the Second (2009) was recorded as a result of crowdfunding efforts from fans who were each individually named as producers on the band’s website. Also featuring then Kayo Dot members Matsumiya and percussionist David Bodie, who would handle drums on Coyote (2010), Kayo Dot’s eventual follow-up to Blue Lambency Downward, the line-up on Part the Second was a meeting in the middle between Maudlin of the Well’s past and Kayo Dot circa 2009 present. Musically too, Part the Second playing out like the ideal meeting points between the two projects, though at times the album does tend to feel more like a missing Kayo Dot album. While the album certainly isn’t devoid of the heaviness of the original Maudlin of the Well, Part the Second was in no way a rehash of ideas heard on Bath or Leaving Your Body Map. In fact the older Maudlin of the Well material already fascinatingly looks ahead towards where Kayo Dot was at the time of recording with more than a hint of Blue Lambency Downward heard throughout the album, Matsumiya’s performance on both albums especially strong.
Moving even further into jazz, Coyote, a masterful conceptual piece with lyrics contributed by visual artist Yuko Seuta (ii), a terminally ill friend of the band, was brilliantly dubbed “goth fusion” by the band. The result of the combined influences of psychedelic jazz, more specifically Herbie Hancock’s 1973 fusion album Sextant, with the likes of Faith and the Muse and Siouxsie and the Banshees (8), Coyote might also be referred to as funeral jazz, at times recalling Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis yet written with the downbeat mood of a noir film score. Recorded mostly live for budgetary reasons as well as an experiment in production aesthetics, Gamma Knife (2012) saw metal return to the Kayo Dot palate with Driver’s saxophone-laced, modern interpretation on a raw black metal-based sound bookended by two more neoclassical/chamber and gothic sounding pieces. Despite the return of the heaviness, many bemoaned the lack of on Blue Lambency Downward and Coyote, Gamma Knife nevertheless slipped under the radar, its raw, dense sound proving too big a hurdle for many a critic. One of Kayo Dot’s more difficult listens, though it remains the bands shortest album effort, clocking in at only a half-hour, Gamma Knife was soon to be dwarfed by the massive double concept album Hubardo (2013). Released as the band was entering its tenth decade, Hubardo found Kayo Dot looking back on not only itself but also back to Maudlin of the Well for inspiration. Featuring some of Kayo Dot’s most chaotic and intimidating takes on metal, Hubardo also broke new ground, Driver and co. delving into jazz fusion territory while still forging ahead with a neoclassical influence and the continued infiltration of goth characteristics. Featuring a lyrical story from Byron, who returned for guest death growls on the opening track “The Black Stone” and penned a 40 page book entitled “The Sword of Satan” under the pseudonym “ The Good Alulim” packaged with a limited vinyl release of the album, Hubardo certainly felt like a culmination of sorts. Following the release of the album Matsumiya, who had been with Kayo Dot since its inception and already retired from the band’s touring line-up, also stepped aside as a recording member of the band. Most certainly a mammoth undertaking in writing, recording and touring, following Hubardo Driver would once again completely overhual Kayo Dot’s musical identity, the synthesizer soon taking center stage.
Driver has stated that while his music is “not necessarily reactionary to trends”, he does “respond” to trends emotionally (9). Gamma Knife for instance being Driver’s response to “lazily written” and “bland” black metal receiving praise at the time.(10) Coffins on Io (2014) could then be heard as Driver’s response to the 80’s synth fetishism becoming quite ubiquitous around the time. Flourishes of 80’s goth darkwave were heard on Hubardo, however only a year removed from said record and Kayo Dot once again sounded like a completely transformed band, Coffins on Io being the bands most explicitly darkwave influenced recording at the time. Fashioned with a “1980’s retrofuture noir”(11) atmosphere in mind, the album cover was even designed to resemble classic science fiction paperbacks (12), Coffins on Io was also a noticeably slightly more accessible Kayo Dot, Driver even introduced a Bowie-esque croon on a few tracks. Even with the newfound hints of accessibility, the bands experimentation with 80’s synth stylings rendered the whole of Coffins on Io another alien, unnameable sound. The science fiction influence also makes the album a rather cinematic listen like Coyote, at times evoking an unmade Carpenter sci-fi film. In some ways, a sequel to Coffins on Io, Plastic House on Base of Sky (2016) was bathed in even more synthesizers. Kayo Dot’s most ethereal and lightest listen yet, perhaps the closest Kayo Dot has gotten to writing a “synthpop” album, Plastic House on Base of Sky was also similar to Coffins on Io in its deceptiveness with some of the band’s most head-spinning writing creeping underneath the inviting bed of sound created by the production.
2019’s Blasphemy, while in some ways a continuation of the directions taken on Coffins on Io and Plastic House on Base of Sky, was also the beginning of a new chapter in itself featuring yet another new line-up which included two drummers and a new home with label Prophecy Productions. Blasphemy was also in the tradition of Hubardo, a concept album based on Byron-penned story, advertised by the band as being “much more energetic than the ebb and flow of 2003’s Choirs Of The Eyes, a more straight-ahead rock album than Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue that channels the playfulness of 2010’s Coyote”.(13) The comparison to Coyote might be a head-scratcher at first given the two albums sound worlds removed from one other, yet it’s also apt, with Blasphemy offering a different version of “goth fusion” in a sense. Whereas Coffins on Io was influenced by 80’s darkwave, the distinct soundscapes of Blasphemy, with the keyboard foundations of the previous albums now working in tandem with much more prominent waves of guitar, resulting in at times in a “straight-ahead rock”, to use the bands own words, but just as ethereal, a variation on 90’s gothic dark and ethereal wave. Driver being a big fan of Lycia in particular, a favorite of Type O Negative’s Peter Steele, Type O Negative being an influence over this period of Kayo Dot’s music.(14) In spite of all the strengths of Blasphemy, the band felt the full effect of Murphy’s Law when hitting the road in early 2020, the tour in support of Blasphemy encountering every imaginable hurdle a tour could before officially being canceled like every other tour.
While never officially parting ways, following the cancellation of the tour, the Blasphemy line-up, which included guitarist Ron Varod who had been in the Kayo Dot ranks since Gamma Knife, each essentially went their own separate ways. Driver then spent a good chunk of 2020 focusing on Bloodmist, the electroacoustic improvisational trio featuring himself along with clarinetist Jeremiah Cymerman and synth wizard Mario Diaz de Leon, the trio releasing their second studio album Phos in August of 2020. Driver also began a solo new age project under the guise of “Alora Crucible” as he started to rethink his relationship with new age music, the album Thymiamatascension released on Ulver’s House of Mythology label in August of 2021. Something else Driver began to rethink and reevaluate was his love and relationship with the 90’s gothic Euro metal sound that inspired Maudlin of the Well in the first place, especially as the 25 anniversary of the formation of the band emerged. Initially, Driver had hoped for a full-fledged band reunion with shows, the first Maudlin of the Well activity since performing at John Zorn’s New York City venue The Stone during a 2015 residency by Driver. Numerous logistical issues prevented this from happening. The original foundation of Maudlin of the Well that recorded the band’s very first demo, Driver, Byron and Massi, did reunite however, in the exact same location in Connecticut that birthed Maudlin of the Well, the reconvergance spawning a new Kayo Dot.
Released by Prophecy on October 29, 2021, Kayo Dot’s tenth album Moss Grew on the Swords and Plowshares Alike, its title, named by Bryon who once again contributed the album’s lyrics, derived from biblical passage Isaiah 2:4 (iii), was created with the same ethos that informed the first Maudlin of the Well demo. The recording of the album was similar to the original Maudlin of the Well demo as well, Driver tracking his bass, drums and vocals on the album in the same location as the demo with Massi supplying lead guitar tracks. The one recording caveat being Byron preferring to focus solely on writing, Driver handling all vocal duties. Reconnecting with the 90’s Euro metal sound that inspired Maudlin of the Well, Driver was also listening back with older, wiser ears as a more experienced songwriter. Picking up on what Driver perceived as some of the more “adolescent” trappings of certain 90’s Euro gothic metal as well as, by his own admission, certain Maudlin of the Well material (15), ideas began to form for a more adult take on the 90’s Euro metal sound. The adage of if you want something done right do it yourself also applied to the writing of Moss Grew on the Swords and Plowshares Alike. With some of the bands that pioneered the 90’s Euro goth metal sound either moving back to older styles or simply becoming stagnant, Kayo Dot’s formation again partly a result of Driver’s desire to explore other musical pastures away from what had become a far less interesting genre, the potential of the adventurous “Euro metal” sound remained largely untapped since the early 2000’s.
Not exactly a band known for lateral steps or identically mirroring their influences, the Kayo Dot heard on Moss Grew on the Swords and Plowshares Alike is far from a rehashing of the glory days of 90’s My Dying Bride or Tiamat. Nor is it Driver, Massi and Byron attempting to recreate Bath and Leaving Your Body Map. Driver has stated that that album isn’t really “avant-garde”, at least in the sense of how that term is typically applied to Kayo Dot. The album is however, like every Kayo Dot release before it, progressively-minded in the truest sense of the term in that its collective influences form a sound that is entirely new and can’t be pinned down to one genre or subgenre despite it being rooted in established subgenres like “death/doom” or “gothic metal”. Festooned with a sticker from the record label proclaiming the album’s “cinematic modernism”, said sticker also christens the album “monumental celestial doom”. Certainly both descriptors spring to mind while listening to the album, particularly the lead-off track “The Knight Errant”. Also, the first single from the album, when “The Night Errant” was released in conjunction with the Roadburn festival many were quick to note the track was obviously the heaviest and most metallic Kayo Dot had sounded since Hubardo. However, many were also quick in noticing the traces of the Blasphemy sound in the production, something which was entirely intentional as Driver has stated the production of the album was designed with Blasphemy in mind, just produced in a much more metal fashion. Also a much more, as the aforementioned sticker adorning physical releases of the album attests, cinematic fashion. Even more so than Blasphemy, with keyboards playing an even more prominent role. Foundational even, the “monumental celestial doom” of “The Knight Errant,” a product of spiraling, soundtrack-esque synths which reach various crescendos throughout the track, but also Driver’s cratering bass which also acts as a co-lead instrument with the keys on most of the album’s seven tracks.
The album continues in a similar fashion with “Brethren of the Cross”, the gothic, psychedelic even, keys adding ambience and color to the sheer weight of the song’s more mid-paced, absolutely monumental, crashes of death/doom. “Brethren of the Cross” also displays more of the influence of the Blasphemy sound. Particularly at the song’s midpoint, the track becomes awash with shimmering textures recalling the ethereal and darkwave influences of the unique variant of “goth fusion” heard on Blasphemy. The similarly crafted walls of sound from 90’s shoegaze acts such as Lush and Slowdive also spring to mind, the song seamlessly transitioning into a slamming concluding groove dominated by Driver’s one-man rhythm section. Considerably calmer, “Void in Virgo (The Nature of Sacrifice)”, the third track and second single accompanied by a multi-sensory workout music video courtesy of The Academy of Sun’s Nick Hudson, is perhaps the most direct continuation of the Blasphemy sound. A Floydian type of ballad with a goth sheen, the song is both pastoral with its forest-set lyrics and also cosmic. Like a spacier Eternity (1996) from Anathema, the song feels almost like an extension of a track like “Turbine, Hook and Haul” off Blasphemy while certain bursts of synth heard throughout the track are more reminiscent of the lighter tones of Plastic House on Base of Sky. Sounding like a bit of a detour at first, “Spectrum of One Colour”, the album’s shortest track, showcases some of Kayo Dot’s technicality with some fairly busy bass work from Driver. Driver also surprises vocally on “Spectrum of One Colour” channeling King Diamond during the first half before a drastic musical mood shift to death growls bathed in filmic synthesizers.
Described as a sequel or “recapitulation” of “The Night Errant” by Driver, “Get Out of the Tower” is similar in structure, with keyboards and bass being bedrocks of the song. “Get Out of the Tower” is also Massi’s finest showing on the album, textures not only giving the song a pinch of hypnotic black metal but building to one his most triumphant sounding leads. Perhaps the most vivid track on the album, “Get Out of the Tower” follows “The Knight Errant” lyrically as well, continuing the tale of the failed would-be “hero to make sense of the suffering”(16), as Ana Cristina Pérez Ochoa (iv) alludes to in the album’s liner notes. The scenery of the lyrics to “Get Out of the Tower” is even depicted on the album’s oil cover painting by Driver. While not a concept album in the classic sense like Hubardo or Blasphemy, there are several connective themes running throughout Byron’s lyrics on Moss Grew on the Swords and Plowshares Alike. Chiefly the “stark frailty of the human condition”(17), as stated by the press release in announcement of the album. Although Byron’s extraordinary death growls are sorely missed, Driver more than makes up for their absence, outdoing even his own past harsh vocal performances on albums like Hubardo. Driver reaches new, at times what sounds to be on the verge of injury-inducing heights in his delivery of Byron’s lyrics on Moss Grew on the Swords and Plowshares Alike, some of the darkest, by his own admission (18), ever penned by Byron. The most successful and in turn worryingly effective both lyrically and vocally being the album’s penultimate track “The Necklace”, painting one of the starkest lyrical portraits of suicide, even down to the minute detail of a spider being the lone witness through a crack in the wall. Channeling Angelo Badalamenti,“The Necklace” is held up equally by utterly suffocating synths and frantic, manic drums. The pace of the song is reflected in the lyric “Respiration in bursts and sobs”, the synths and drums letting up mid-way through, Massi’s light, melancholic touches giving the track a bit of air. The respite offered by the second half of “The Necklace” is brief, the album’s seventh and final track, “Epipsychidion” an exhaustive assault recalling the progressive death metal of “Floodgate” heard on Hubardo. However, similar to “Spectrum of One Colour”, “Epipsychidion” also experiences a drastic yet flawlessly segued mood swing at the midway point, the song concluding with waves of guitar noise, the keys subtly melding with the guitar it seems.
The death metal turned soundtrack sound of “Epipsychidion” of course also brings everything full-circle in a way, with Maudlin of the Well’s initial, seemingly disparate amalgamation of death metal brutality and technicality along with atmospheric keyboards. “Epipsychidion” also makes for a great encapsulation of just how impressive a production Moss Grew on the Swords and Plowshares Alike is as a whole, the album is a two-man operation instrumentality with Bryon’s opting to bow out of the vocal arena and Driver also mixing the album himself. Driver’s going all-in on having the fullest, most expansive, again cinematic, sound, zero compromises, was partly brought on by the one unfortunate drawback surrounding the album which was it was recorded with no intention of it being played live in the near future. As Driver has been quite blunt about in promotion of the album, the sour experience of the Blasphemy tour even per-cancellation forced Driver to re-consider priorities. While small solo tours are more feasible, for a full band like Kayo Dot, extended touring on a DIY budget poses serious difficulties. Driver’s frustrations are more than warranted, it being more than a bit bizarre that a band with a pedigree such as Kayo Dot are lacking in professional booking, tour support and the necessities needed for the road. While Kayo Dot as a live band may be temporally retired, as Pérez Ochoa states, Kayo Dot is an “ecosystem”(19)… “a serpent that eats its own tail. This is over so that the story begins again.”(20) The story, of course, being the nativity of Maudlin of the Wellbeing the genesis of the new Kayo Dot, one of the most consistently progressive, again in the classic sense of the term, serpentine ecosystems in modern music, and a new sound on Moss Grew on the Swords and Plowshares Alike, a top musical highlight of 2021.
1-6. Progtalks Episode 30. November 3, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8RORlCzU5A&t=1225s
7, 15. I Hate Music. Episode Episode 56. September 17, 2021. https://hatepod.podbean.com/e/episode-56-toby-driver-kayo-dot-alora-crucible-vaura/
8. Hydra Head Records. 2010.
9. Quarantine Sessions Podcast #32 – Toby Driver – Divining Music Through the Dreamtime. November 30, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBoEcvNZjPc&t=588s
10. Heavy New York// Kayo Dot// Interview. October 20, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=po7KsK65kd4&t=527s
11-12. “Interview With Toby Driver of Kayo Dot”. Bearded Gentlemen Music. October 29, 2014. https://beardedgentlemenmusic.com/2014/10/29/interview-toby-driver-kayo-dot/
13. Driver, Toby. Prophecy Productions. 2019.
14. The Flenser. 2014.
16, 19, 20. Ana Cristina Pérez Ochoa. Prophecy Productions. 2021.
17. Prophecy Productions. 2021.
18. The Color of Air Podcast. Episode 51. “Toby Driver and Jason Byron”. October 28, 2021. https://retconindustries.com/colorofair/
i. In December of 2020, bassist/keyboardist for UK-based band Dawnwalker as well as YouTuber Mark Norgate uploaded a video detailing a dissection of the puzzle poem contained within the Bath and Leaving Your Body Map liner notes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEg6SX4sDuE&t=1156s
ii. Yuko Sueta (1974-2010) was a visual artist who worked in photography, experimental film and video and a variety of mixed media. A close friend of the band, Sueta created visual backdrops for Kayo Dot when the band premiered Blue Lambency Downward at New York City’s Monkeytown venue. Sueta’s lyrics on Coyote convey her experience during the final stages of metastasized breast cancer. Two of Sueta’s silent experimental short films, A Pianist, Just Born (2006) and Baby’s Nightmare/Deadverse Remix (2007-08) are available to watch on Kayo Dot’s official YouTube channel. One of the more interesting visual artists of the modern era is worthy of a retrospective.
iii. The full passage reads: “God shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.” The interpretation of the title “Moss Grew on the Swords and Plowshares Alike” is rather fatalistic, nihilistic even, based on the “stark frailty of the human condition” theme that runs throughout the album. That essentially being nature overtakes all, be it warlike swords or ploughshares which produced.
iv. Pérez Ochoa is an ambient/experimental musician who performs under the name Crisantemos.