Originally written by Ian Dreilinger.
Whatever expectations you may have for Kayo Dot’s Choirs of the Eye, throw them away. This is not going to be anything like you’ve imagined. Past releases by maudlin of the Well are not much of an indication of what’s to be found here, though there are a good number of similarities. The samples that were posted on the official site are a very inaccurate representation of the album as a whole, though they both fit into their respective songs perfectly. What struck me most is that although the album sounded nothing like I anticipated it would, when I finished listening I found myself wondering why I didn’t expect it to sound just like this. Of the many places they could’ve gone musically after Bath and Leaving Your Body Map, Choirs of the Eye is very likely the best.
Within the five songs that span nearly an hour, there are many comparisons that can be made, but besides the similarities to maudlin of the Well, none of them were expected. There are moments reminiscent of No-Man, with extremely subtle arrangements utilizing distorted sounds that in context, add a unique sort of beauty to the music. There are actually some very sparsely used monster riffs that remind me of Morbid Angel, particularly around the fourteen-minute mark in The Manifold Curiosity. The chaotic heaviness in opener Marathon brings to mind Esoteric if they were feeling far more aggressive than usual. The least expected sound on the whole album is in the song Wayfarer. It features string orchestration not far off from something Björk might use, though at other times has a classical feel to it.
My favorite song on the album is the closer, The Antique. It begins slowly and very unstructured, but through the first five minutes it makes its way from quiet and seemingly random notes to a controlled, crushing, dirge-like beast; from calm chaos to structured destruction. The second obvious phase of the song achieves an effect similar to what Opeth strives for, but to a much greater degree. The contrast between the abrasive and furiously heavy parts and the quieter yet equally unsettling acoustic moments in between is breathtaking. And that’s not even the best part of the song. It flows seamlessly into the third and final phase of the song, a gorgeous ending for both the song and album. Led by a structured and constant piano part, the listener is treated to a moody, ambient, and subtly varying end, topped by bizarre distorted vocals.
From the two most recent maudlin of the Well albums to Choirs of the Eye, the biggest improvement is undoubtedly the vocals. Though the often falsetto singing brings to mind both Vincent Gallo and Jeff Buckley, it has a tenderness and earnest quality that I’ve never before heard. Most vocalists are neither skilled enough nor brave enough to attempt to pull off such sensitive singing as is successfully showcased here. Another vast improvement that I’d call somewhat of a mindfuck is that the songs are generally much more and much less song oriented, simultaneously. While there are far more lengthy meandering instrumental passages and while this is generally a far less accessible album than motW’s releases, the songs are better crafted in terms of sticking to a certain theme and tone throughout. Although they are a bit harder to get into, it’s apparent that cohesion played a much more important role in songwriting this time around.
Choirs of the Eye is an album that moves all over the musical spectrum. There are times listening to it that I feel like I’m in the middle of a soundtrack to an indie film from the 70’s with mournful woodwinds and epic orchestration. Other times the album gives off a horrific and volatile vibe. Then there are serene moments of unusual splendor and even hope. This is an album full of exploration in the best possible way.
The production on the album is very clear with meticulous attention to detail. There are more things to discover with every listen. With the exception of low-end bass sounds being slightly high in the mix, everything is as it should be and easy to pick out, especially on headphones.
I shouldn’t jump to hasty conclusions, but I do believe that this will be at the top of my list of best albums for 2003. This isn’t something for everyone, and chances are some people who were willing to embrace maudlin of the Well’s strangeness might be put off by how much further into the realm of weird this album delves. But at the same time, many will love it and through Tzadik Records a lot of new fans will probably be introduced not only to the band but to the fact that heavy music can have just as much validity as any other genre.