Experimental outfit Kayo Dot—led by former Maudlin Of The Well visionary Toby Driver—have always done a phenomenal job of infusing hellish and heavenly attributes into their hodgepodge of avant-garde metal, classical, pop, jazz, goth, and other styles. While 2019's wonderful Blasphemy was certainly full of aggressive arrangements and vocals, it was mostly fixated on serenely peculiar post-rock soundscapes and highly emotive and delicate lamentations.
With follow-up Moss Grew On The Swords And Plowshares Alike, Driver and company have essentially taken the opposite approach by prioritizing demonic singing and caustic instrumentation over their softer tendencies. Thus, it's a significantly different (but not definitively superior) journey whose appeal will obviously vary depending on what fans want and expect. Of course, that steadfast commitment to unpredictability and experimentation is precisely what makes Kayo Dot stand out, so in that respect, Moss Grew On The Swords And Plowshares Alike is another characteristic yet startling accomplishment.
According to the band, this 10th studio album centers on the "stark frailty of the human condition," and it was recorded with Maudlin Of The Well's original line-up (Driver, lyricist Jason Byron, and guitarist Greg Massi). Along the way, they delve into Norse mythology (such as Ragnarök), monotheist religion, and the like, all the while ensuring that it feels like a much heavier but totally fitting successor to Blasphemy in terms of its timbres and templates. In that sense, few of their contemporaries could explore the end of the world with such imaginative and intriguing dichotomies.
Moss Grew On The Swords And Plowshares Alike's cleverly fiercer focus is clear from the jump thanks to "The Knight Errant." It begins thunderously, with sporadic rhythms decorating ethereal keyboard patterns, hyperactive guitar notes, and guttural proclamations. In a sense, it fuses black metal hostility and shoegaze spaciness into a lovably characteristic combination that's too expansive and trippy to label as blackgaze. Really, it combines touches of influences like The Cure, Emperor, and Ulver into a vibrantly coarse and enigmatic concoction as only Kayo Dot could devise.
A few subsequent tracks—such as "Brethren of the Cross," "Get Out of the Tower," and closer "Epipsychidion"—walk a similar path amidst incorporating some novel touches (synthy textures, grungy instrumental tangents, and ominously moody noise, respectively) to differentiate themselves. That said, they also run together a bit too much, and that prevailing sameness is one of the major setbacks of the LP when compared Blasphemy and other prior works. It's never outright tedious or disappointing, but it is noticeable.
Thankfully, the rest of the record adds some much-needed diversity. In particular, "Void in Virgo (The Nature of Sacrifice)" is a lighter and considerably melodic dirge (especially vocally) that recalls classic metal collections like Opeth's My Arms, Your Hearse and Agalloch's Marrow of the Spirit. In contrast, "Spectrum of One Colour" is significantly corrosive but also highly flamboyant and all-encompassing, as if it's meant to represent everything that constitutes modern Kayo Dot. "Necklace" is even more surreally gothic, with an utterly mesmerizing blend of syncopation and electric guitar arpeggios in the middle. It's one of the band's greatest musical moments of the past decade.
Moss Grew On The Swords And Plowshares Alike epitomizes why Kayo Dot remains a laudable one-of-a-kind project. It emphasizes their savage persona yet still maintains enough of their extravagant and elegant penchants to fit within their larger canon. Fans who prefer the group's angrier angle will no doubt find it to be their best outing in quite some time, while those who favor their more tuneful and nonabrasive formula—such as myself—will probably go back to Blasphemy more often. Even so, it's a compelling and resourceful venture no matter which camp you fall into, and it's easily one of 2021's most distinctive metal releases thus far.