Let’s admit it: experimental music really isn’t a genre—at least, not in the traditional sense of the word’s definition. One of the pillars of avant-garde thought requires an abandonment of genres and labels, because, while there are elements that will always sound like x, y or z, that’s not really the goal in mind with this type of music; it’s asking listeners to think above and beyond any previously-held notions, if only for a short time, and to experience something that simply is.
At least, this is my view on the subject. The experimental and the avant-garde have always held an interest to me, even before I started listening to that type of music. At the most shallow level of perception, it was weird, strange, and off-putting, but even when I was younger it was obvious that these were people who didn’t so much as not play by the rules, but just didn’t give much of a shit in the way of said rules. It wasn’t so much a source of egoism for artists as it was a simple, but purposeful, ignorance of the established norm.
Like I said, I wasn’t against the avant-garde when I first listened to Kayo Dot. I was always looking for something new musically. I liked it when musicians pushed the envelope; one of my earliest memories of listening to music that was “different” was The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Option Paralysis and the first few Mars Volta albums. Perhaps these bands weren’t as “out there” as others, but they were a good starter kit for me, and opened my eyes to things that I never knew could be done musically.
I was in, I believe, my sophomore year of college, and it seemed like every week (at least) fellow Heavy Blog contributor Scott Murphy and I would drive a couple miles off campus to the CD store and buy (or, in most cases, drool in jealousy) over all the awesome music we found there. Among what Scott found, either at the store or online, was this album, Blue Lambency Downward. He told me (if I remember it right) that it was heavily influenced by jazz, which I had just started really listening to for the first time.
So, naturally, I had to listen to it. Experimental/avant-garde rock heavily influenced by jazz? What could go wrong?
It was more like what could go right. I cannot describe to you the disappointment I had while listening to Blue Lambency Downward. I was expecting something completely off-the-wall in terms of composition, but, paradoxically also something palatable. My de-facto rule with most music had been (and still is, depending on the genre) the groove; I wanted a song to have a tempo and to be able to nod my head in time to it. Blue Lambency, if I can remember correctly when I first listened to it, didn’t at all. It was messy and all over the place and generally not fun to experience.
So, immediately, like the plebeian I am, I ruled off all Kayo Dot. It was, to my mind, pretentious garbage that thought it was music. Sometimes I’d try to come back to the band (and was relatively surprised that Choirs of the Eye was better than Blue Lambency, but not by much), but I’d always come out frustrated and wondering why people thought this band was so great.
I can’t even remember the last time I’ve listened to this album, but my musical interests have changed and crystallized since that time in ways that I never expected. If you had visited me in the past and told me that a musician like John Zorn (who is famous for, among other things, playing duck calls submerged in water) would be one of my favorite artists ever, I would’ve just laughed in your face. So, listening to this album again, with tough albums like The Classic Guide to Strategy under my belt, I can actually say that I enjoyed Blue Lambency Downward.
This album, in short, was absolutely worth the time I put into listening to it. I’ve never really heard a lot of Kayo Dot, which, after this, is something I plan to change very drastically. I loved how damn quiet the album was. I know this might be a strange element out of all this album has to offer, but consider the fact that a good amount of free jazz has a sort of in-your-face attitude, what with artists like John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders honking and overblowing and attempting to create multiphonic notes. Toby Driver and company keep the improvisational part of free jazz alive—at least in spirit—but instead of the often wild abandonment of established structure, things are kept at a minimal structure. Improvisation happens—or, at least, it sounds like it does—but it isn’t so overdone that the milieu of what Kayo Dot is attempting at—namely, a sort of chamber music feel—is lost. The prevalent use of woodwinds and minimal percussion keeps things moody and suspenseful.
With all that said, though, this album isn’t perfect upon reflection. I enjoyed it, sure, but there were times that it felt like it was meandering nowhere. The percussion, while minimal, was still a bit of a let-down; there would be instances of ear-catching beats for me—in particular, the beginning of “The Sow Submits”—that I hoped would be expanded upon, but instead disappeared into nothing.
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I think that when I originally listened to Blue Lambency, I wasn’t ready. While that sounds incredibly pretentious, there’s something to be said there. We know that music—and all art, really—exists as a subjective phenomenon, but we hardly think about personal growth in those some terms. There are some people that could listen to this album without a lot of experience listening to similar music. I know that that was frequently the case for Scott Murphy all those years ago. But some people really need time to grow. I’ve learned to put my expectations aside when listening to any music (but especially when something is considered “avant-garde” and/or “experimental”), and it’s a lesson I’m still in the process of learning. But that’s the beauty of music, and the beauty of having albums that are “stepping stones.” Like Lao-Tzu says in the Tao Te Ching: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” You can only begin to develop your own taste by listening to music. You don’t necessarily have to like it, but at least try it.