There are albums out there that make you doubt the veracity of your sonic equipment. You always feel as if you’re missing something, as if there’s something more on the edge of the music you’re hearing. Is it your ears or your earphones that are robbing you of that edge? Or is it simply that the album in question seems to endlessly unfold, holding more and more as you listen? Whichever the case, Kayo Dot have always been able to produce albums that invoke this sensation. From their immense, early works, through all the countless changes they have undertaken, one constant has remained true: an inescapable sense of impossible lushness. Their music encompasses all but leaves plenty for the imagination, a pocked soundscape for your mind to fill in.
Plastic House on Base of Sky is no different. Fueled by Toby Driver’s penchant for the sounds of Susumu Hirasawa, one of the most important alternative rock figures of the late 80’s and 90’s, the album is a lush, thousand-times folded sojourn in a neo-futuristic hive city. Whether from the aesthetics of Paprika (to which Hirasawa lent his sounds) or the decisively forward-thinking science fiction of Frank Herbert (think of Jodorowsky’s foiled renditions rather than Lynch’s), Kayo Dot have drawn forward a convulsing, neon tinged maze of experimental rock/pop. Unpacking this maze and traversing it requires of the listener (and our beleaguered critic) to tread lightly. Looking at the different instruments and their roles is probably the best way to do that, garnering us a tiered and controlled approach.
The first layer is comprised of the synths; their echoing extolling is the first sound we hear as “Amalia’s Theme” ushers us into the plexiglass embrace of the album. From there, the synths duck and weave around the composition. Their texture is never lost, always full and rich like no other synthwave project would dare. You’d think that the rest of the instruments would be drowned in this but, by some magic of production or composition, that is far from the case. Instaed, the synths color the rest of the instruments, working together with them to affect the environment the album relies on. “Magnetism” for example, further along the album, perfectly explains the prominent role of the drums on the album. They’re the treble filled punch to the synth’s dreamy, silk base, the punctuation marks to their long, flowing speech. Throughout the album, as with previous Kayo Dot works, the drums resist their casting into a support role.
Drawing heavily on the 80’s influence once again, they channel the thick, electronic sound set to them for maximum effect and verve. When it comes time for transition, for forward momentum and the stitching of parts, they’re often the part to handle that. Their increase in intensity on “Magnetism” for example, ushers in the darker, more ambient parts of the track. “Rings of Earth”, the grooviest track on the album, shows that well. They’re the fuel behind this lurching, charming track, ushering it along in its thoughtful ponderings. These musings are mostly fueled by Driver’s distinct vocals: they don’t exactly sound lost but in their timbre is hidden the longing and ache of the album.
If the drums are momentum then the vocals are a lingering touch, an eye turned to forgotten corners, a gaze lingering on dark corners. On “All the Pain in All the Wide World”, the vocals are utilized, in repetitive, echoing parts, as the gloss that solidifies the ambiance. Their loop pulls us back but not to ground us. It pulls us back into the night’s air as it descends on our sprawling, urban landscape. It would be false, however, to say that they’re the most evocative instrument on the album. In fact, it’s impossible to reach such a conclusion about any of the parts; Plastic House on Base of Sky works together, each part capitalizing on the other to shape its impact.
Which, finally, brings us to the guitars. These are perhaps the most elusive instrument on the album, filling gaps and providing meat and bones to this ethereal creation. Transformed by an expertise to fit themselves exactly where it’s needed most, the guitar is able to excel at such capitalization. It’s simple in comparison to the other instruments but it benefits from that; it’s essential like skin, an organ which you often forget you even have. It’s there to coat, to reverberate in the spaces between the other parts. Like the hallmark creations of the 80’s and 90’s which fueled this album, they’re there to support, reinforce and embellish.
The result of all of this, of instruments regulated to clever roles and then expertly fulfilling those roles, is an album which is intensely confusing and bereft but also strangely welcoming and straight-forward. Yes, your ears will ache. Yes, your mind will rage in frustration at some of the rhythms and beat its fists upon the impenetrable humming of the synths. But when “Brittle Urchin”, the closing track, plays, you will also understand. You will also bow before the darkness, wonder, and musicianship contained in this album and you will be drawn back for more. Like a vagabond lost in their own hometown, you will feel both loss and acceptance, both derision and acceptance. In short, you will feel Kayo Dot, the best experimental rock band around.