‘MADONNAWHORE’ Album Review
Around this time last year I wrote a review of the album Plastic House On Base Of Sky by Kayo Dot. The principal songwriter of Kayo Dot is one Toby Driver and Madonnawhore is technically his debut solo album, having previously only released two soundtracks* under his name. I’ve met Toby once, before a Kayo Dot show. An acquaintance of mine was also there, a fellow devotee of Toby’s work, which did not work out in anyone’s favor. Despite my better instinct to retreat and let Toby deal with one slobbering fanboy at a time, I couldn’t suppress my feverish devotion and consequently, the beleaguered musician had to suffer through twice the inconvenience that evening. I’m sure he’d say differently but I know for a fact I uttered some choice nonsense that I will not deny responsibility for. The only distinct impression I got of Toby in that moment was someone with way, way more on his mind than anyone else I’d met and I wish I’d been wise enough to close my trap long enough to coax a measure of insight out of him on, well, anything.
Thankfully, there’s more than enough intimate interiority to Madonnawhore. It’s not just that the minimalist arrangements of the album let Toby’s vocal performance dominate; there are plenty of those moments on Coffins on Io and Coyote. There is a very personal desperation to these songs that are absent from Kayo Dot’s music. This is, by my reckoning, the first truly gloomy release to come out of Toby Driver. And what a glorious gloom it is.
The most remarkable element of Madonnawhore, in contrast to Toby’s other works, is its slowcore rhythms. In particular, the drums sound similar to how drummer Aesop Dekker of Worm Ouroboros manages a restrained, textured presence, except without the signature doom crashes of that band’s sound. There’s a lot of intentional emptiness in the percussion, with delicate brushes dressing the edges. It allows the vast bed of glacial synths upon which these songs rest to draw in all the light of the melodic flourishes Toby generates with his guitar.
Opener “The Scarlet Whore – Her Dealings With The Initiate” is, unfortunately, as unwieldy as the title implies. It’s not a good introduction to the album, honestly, with Toby’s delivery too numb to connect to and the guitar melodies simply too repetitive. The following track, Avignon, recovers gracefully by introducing far more intricate, weaving guitar work. By track three, there’s a far wider range introduced, with deeper, darker notes introduced and breathier vocals, eventually ramping up into forlorn, mournful wails and brooding melodies. “Parsifal”, track four adds percussive color and more rhythmic singing; this is probably the most upbeat song of the album, a welcome, jazzy meditation breaking up the six-track album. Tracks five and six are both but where “Craven’s Dawn” adheres to a post-rock structure of adding layer upon layer of volume and reverb, closer “Boys on the Hill” sees Toby’s most impassioned vocal delivery on the album; as he delivers “I can see the fire from my window, I can see it with my eyes closed,” it’s positively haunting how much regret he seems to ball up into those words.
More so than any other work Toby Driver has done, Madonnawhore is deeply inaccessible to the unacquainted listener. Had I not already immersed myself in the likes of gloom merchants and fellow labelmates Planning For Burial or Have A Nice Life, this album would be frustratingly tedious to sit through. Appreciating space and absence in rock music is not for the impatient. But, by the same token, true sadness exists in those spaces and Toby has summoned from within them a heart-breaking album like few others and for those with the patience to pull together its nuances there is huge reward.
Vast Open Spaces