Groundbreakers: Kayo Dot – Choirs of the Eye

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In 2003, a little-known band from Boston called maudlin of the Well broke up. In itself, this event was nothing remarkable, until members regrouped that same year as Kayo Dot to release their debut album, Choirs of the Eye, on John Zorn’s Tzadik Records. maudlin of the Well’s discography, great as it was, was instantly apparent as little more than training wheels, introducing to the world band leader Toby Driver’s highly idiosyncratic way of doing things in a manner less starkly refined than Choirs of the Eye.

Within its first minute, opening track “Marathon” deftly transitions from clanging dissonance to a somber horn melody over reverberating guitar scrapes. “Wayfarer” starts like one of Comus‘ finer moments, focused and driving but light as a feather, belying the bombastic guitar heroics that pick up later. And certainly, Kayo Dot know how to pick up–the grooving, almost Morbid Angel-esque riff tower that closes “The Manifold Curiosity” is a particular highlight that works especially well as the album’s centerpiece, easily dwarfing maudlin of the Well’s heavier moments.

In its finest moments, Choirs of the Eye manages to strip away all pretenses of riffs and song structures and every other rote musical restriction that could keep this music from being what it is: just heart, and feeling–sometimes warm and open, as in the muted opening to “Wayfarer,” and sometimes dark and foreboding, like the plodding doom of “The Antique.” The mood conjured by Choirs of the Eye is unmatched by any other music because none could match its nudity; Kayo Dot strip away the protective skin of musical convention and leave only the raw musical nerve endings, dropping style for pure affect.

Take “The Antique,” for example. Both in itself and in the sequence of the album as a whole, there is nothing but the song. Ten and a half minutes in, a horn solo cuts through above the icy, windswept landscape (suck it, Immortal) of piano and percussion, but its purpose is not to show off. The horn dances with the rest of the music before becoming subsumed by the vocals, but throughout this section and even through the crashing, pounding riffs earlier in the song and even further still through the entire album, there is only one sound, a heady, Gothic melancholy pervading the entire album before culminating in a warm rush of brass to close out the album. The sound is both minimal and infinite; stripped to its barest essentials, its utilitarian form is still a labyrinth of complexities indecipherable without close, rapt attention paid.

With its extended buildups and wailing climaxes, Choirs of the Eye’s influence on the then-nascent post-metal “scene” (Isis had only just released Oceanic a year prior) is abundantly clear, and yet no group has even come close to matching its dauntingly vast emotional range. Choirs of the Eye is a church where the player and the listener join in communion, a place where no sound is allowed to be taken for granted, where every note counts and no new ideas may be introduced until the spectacular gravity of each one preceding is fully understood and exhausted. The album is a levitation trick, slow and determined in its sheer fearlessness. These concepts may sound trite in writing but in practice their power is undeniable; where maudlin of the Well’s composition may have been based in astral projection, Kayo Dot solidified Driver’s ability to craft truly transcendental art. The intent of this piece is not to give false aggrandizement to this music or its creators, but simply to illustrate as truthfully as possible the way music can, at its best, inspire the listener beyond simply hearing a collection of sounds.

Driver has made plenty of great music since this album, with Kayo Dot, solo or in bands like Vaura and Stern, but Choirs of the Eye speaks most deeply to me, perhaps because of my mental state when I first heard it or perhaps just because of its innate purity and perfection.

On the 26th, Kayo Dot will perform Choirs of the Eye in its entirety as part of Toby Driver’s residency at The Stone in NYC. Any readers in the area are urged to attend, as well as maudlin of the Well’s one-off reunion show.


Groundbreakers is the Toilet ov Hell’s Hall ov Fame where we induct some of the most important and influential metal albums of all time. Catch up on previous entries into this hallowed bowl.

Neurosis – Souls at Zero
Death – Symbolic
Fear Factory Demanufacture
Voivod – Killing Technology
Today is the DayTemple of the Morning Star
Avenged Sevenfold – City of Evil
The Moody Blues – Days of Future Passed
Acid BathWhen the Kite String Pops
Ministry – The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste
Vulcano – Bloody Vengeance
Sleep Holy Mountain
Kreator – Pleasure to Kill

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