A Rare Marriage of Sounds
Experimental multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Toby Driver has always had a slew of active projects upon which he could to bestow his artistic vision — most notably, maudlin of the Well and Kayo Dot. However, his solo output is somewhat less prolific, with this year’s Madonnawhore marking his second, full-length, individual venture (excluding his film scores). Unsurprisingly, one can still easily discern the remnants of Driver’s previous, collaborative work; however, here, Driver pursues a much more accessible sound. His effects-laden guitars craft lush soundscapes that are highly evocative of the listener-friendly genre of post-rock. Yet, Driver’s enigmatic vocal work and harmonic twists and turns prevent the album from ever becoming something overly mainstream.
Madonnawhore opens on the provocatively titled “The Scarlet Whore – Her Dealings with the Initiate,” establishing the mesmerizingly spacious sonic landscape that typifies the entire album. The reverb-colored guitars — in true post-rock fashion — are placed towards the forefront, as they employ rich, complex, open chord voicings. Meanwhile, muted drums and airy drones help to fill out the mix. Finally, Driver’s vocals enter… And they are rather jarring, disrupting the largely atmospheric aesthetic that had been established by the instrumental section. Of course, one should never expect Toby Driver to conform to expectations; but the vocal line here still feels as if it distracts from a gorgeous post-rock atmosphere that could easily stand by itself. In fact, the vocals featured on the album’s first three tracks (the aforementioned, “Avignon” and “The Deepest Hole”) merely mimic the melodic figures provided by the guitar line. This can, at times, make them feel rather superfluous, merely an additional texture that undercuts the beauty of the similarly melodized guitars. Fortunately, “Avignon” adds another layer of vocals that presents a unique melody. As the track slowly crescendos, this second part is raised in the mix to provide the compelling vocal line for which ears had long been pining. Meanwhile, Driver’s lyrics are impressively arcane and abstract: “We set across the flagstones / across the fragments / we wandered through the kingdoms / achieving balance.” This ensures that the album maintains the mystique allure established by its instrumentals.
“The Deepest Hole” sees Madonnawhore at its most avant-garde. Synth drones build the sonic framework, while guitars provide the occasional dissonant note, capturing a sense of looming despair. Keith Abrams’s drum line is incredibly subdued, merely a flicker of a heartbeat, while the vocals, again, follow the guitar line closely. The song maintains an amorphous form: certain motifs are repeated to hypnotic effect, but Driver avoids the highly repetitive dynamic build-ups of a post-rock track — despite the clear sonic similarities. And, finally, as the track reaches a frenetic, highly dissonant climax, Driver’s avant tendencies fully procure the spotlight.
Yet this brief moment of tonal experimentation is followed by the surprisingly accessible “Parsifal” and “Craven’s Dawn.” Both tracks see Driver embrace a song structure that loosely adheres to the popular verse-chorus format. Meanwhile, on “Parsifal,” he finally allows his vocals to operate independently of the guitar line, resulting in some stunning guitar-vocal interplay. The lyrics, while at times ring as merely pseudo-profound, do maintain a philosophical quality that will surely provoke a certain degree of thought in the listener: “Time heals all, but what is time?” Of course, Driver’s words should not be overanalyzed. In fact, they are often obscured by a thick coating of reverb, allowing them to function as merely another texture, much similar to how Jónsi’s vocals nicely fit within Sigur Rós’s sound. Furthermore, the strength of Driver’s music still remains embedded in his instrumental performance. The latter half of the album, especially, showcases some gorgeous musical atmospheres, achieving an ambient sound that is incredibly reminiscent of Mogwai, characterized by its plodding percussion and twinkling guitars drenched in thick layers of delay and reverb. And Madonnawhore demonstrates the full extent of its instrumental proficiency towards the end of “Craven’s Dawn,” as listeners are treated to a slow-building, jazz-inflected guitar solo, courtesy of Ron Varod.
The album closer, “Boys on the Hill,” offers a sparse soundscape, featuring understated guitar arpeggios and a straightforward bass-snare pattern. Eventually, Driver’s vocals enter the fray, using a spoken word-esque technique to paint a vivid picture, rife with natural imagery, with lyrics like, “There is a hill with a fire / where the tall grasses grow in a line / the fire whispers, and coyotes whine.” Later on, the song introduces another vocal texture, which creates a sense of monophonic harmony that evokes a Gregorian chant. Indeed, Madonnawhore’s final track breeds the same sense of intimacy as a choral performance, which helps to end the album on a warm, satisfying note.
Overall, Driver’s newest work occupies precarious ground that lies somewhere between the accessible and the avant-garde. However, in the end, it strikes a chord that should appeal to listeners of both aesthetics — at least to a certain degree. Driver’s tonal experimentation on “The Deepest Hole” will surely appeal to fans of his more adventurous side, while the album’s backend features a surprisingly digestible sound that should appease the casual listener. And for the post-rock aficionado, Madonnawhore’s tonal aesthetic emulates that of some of genre’s pioneers — although the vocals do deviate from this, occasionally disturbing the spellbinding tranquility achieved by Driver’s instrumental soundscapes. In the end, Madonnawhore careens through musical structures in a way that may prevent it from achieving any real mainstream success. However, it is highly successful in its ability to infuse an often derivative-sounding genre (i.e. post-rock) with delicious bits of avant flare. And, for an artist like Toby Driver, that is probably exactly what he was hoping to achieve with this project.