Toby Driver is an integral cog in one of the few truly progressive rock bands on the planet, the ever-morphing Kayo Dot. More than a decade on from his first, here Toby makes his second solo album, as he ironically states on his Bandcamp page “consisting entirely of dreary ballads”. Madonnawhore is a suite of low-key songs doused in eeriness, using metaphor to skirt around the edges of the Madonna Whore Complex, “a psychological neurosis first identified by Sigmund Freud whereby a man feels he can only love a woman who maintains a saint-like purity, but desires to be intimate with someone he considers to be debased.” Needless to say, this isn’t pop music, and you can’t dance to it.
What it is, is a stately procession of fragile songs that barely agitate the swirling mists that surrounds it as it slow-marches and disappears into the shrouded distance. This music is dense, yet also gossamer light, and also nowhere as inaccessible as it could be given the subject matter and the home base of its creator. Continuing Toby’s love of dark electronica from Kayo Dot’s Plastic House on Base of Sky, the songs sometimes appear formless, yet you can imagine their bare bones being strummed on an acoustic guitar.
The elegiac opener, The Scarlet Whore – Her Dealings with the Initiate, sets the scene with its simple melody strummed on an electric guitar, to a background of barely but ever-changing keyboard chords. While Toby composed most of Madonnawhore, some of the lyrics on the album were contributed by longtime Kayo Dot compadre Jason Byron. At this juncture I will point out here that all the lyrics I have quoted come from an unofficial source and may not be entirely accurate, given the deliberately vague manner of their delivery, which, I should add, suits the production perfectly. The tricky subject matter of the titular neurosis is approached mostly from a metaphorical standpoint, marrying itself perfectly to the highly impressionistic music. This album is not a concept album as such, but it is metaphorically conceptual, although the matter in hand is laid bare in this first song:
Amen and amen and amen
It is finished
I am fallen.”
A subtle pulsebeat pushes Avignon along with an undercurrent of urgency, as Toby shines a black light on the weight of history bearing down on love:
As we stroll through holy Avignon.”
The most spectral song here is the funereal paced The Deepest Hole, which creeps along to a barely alive rhythm, strummed chords last for an age as Toby’s barely decipherable lyric arrives, slowly surfacing for air. It puts me in mind of Scott Walker’s less visceral modern work. The lyric touches on the subject of self-loathing:
into the heart of the deepest well.
You hate me”
Parsifal is a tad more agitated and Toby’s fine voice is more to the front of the mix. A weary bass line leads the processional Craven’s Dawn into vision as a song of inexorable waiting, somehow still hopeful, but retreating into self. Anyone who is or was a regular church goer will recognise the psalm-like quality of some of the song structures, especially the closing Boys On The Hill.
This is an album that was obviously a labour of love, and having got it out of his system I am looking forward to Toby Driver’s next wilfully strange offering from the Kayo Dot mothership with no little anticipation. As for Madonnawhore, Catholic guilt never sounded quite like this!
01. The Scarlet Whore – Her Dealings with the Initiate (7:17)
02. Avignon (7:07)
03. The Deepest Hole (7:27)
04. Parfisal (4:57)
05. Craven’s Dawn (9:21)
06. Boys on the Hill (7:39)
Total Time – 43:51
Toby Driver – Guitar, Organ, Bass, Synths, Voice
Ron Varod – Guitar (track 5)
Daniel Means – Saxophone (track 5)
Record Label: The Flenser
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 21st April 2017