Review: Atomic Roses

Cover of Atomic Roses
Cover of Atomic Roses

Edward Ka-Spel‘s brilliance with The Legendary Pink Dots is to introduce us to isolated characters and then immerse us in their world-view through expansive and mysterious soundscapes. He begins with the most restricted, infinitesimal point of consciousness and then slowly expands it outward towards a state of ‘cosmic consciousness’ (to use the phrase of 1960s psychonauts). Musically, he often follows this template of expansion, with simple melody lines repeating and layering in increased complexity of texture. Much of the LPD’s music is an undertaking to help the listener (and perhaps composer) escape his/her own head. Lyrical phrases, musical motifs, album titles and themes recur across decades, but tonal shifts between albums are slow and subtle.  Hopefully, The Legendary Dots Project, like the Residents and Sparks projects before, will provide the keen reader and listener with a giddy entry-point into the Legendary Pink Dots’ musical world. Fulfill the prophecy!Adam: Unusually, Atomic Roses is an album that, upon first listening, was actively improved by the harsh metallic squealing of trains passing by on the tracks outside the student accommodation where I live. I imagine this could also be true of Tom WaitsBone Machine, but I am yet to check. I am reminded of listening to Radiohead’s Kid A during an MRI scan and finding that the rumbling clunks emitted by the machinery sat quite nicely alongside the general cacophony of ‘The National Anthem’. Atomic Roses holds a junk-heap quality. The songs, merging into one another, are often prickly and unresolved, like an unmade bed or a rash. The album provides disconsolate mood music, suiting its themes of bad sex, nuclear apocalypse and emotional discomfort. And while I certainly didn’t find Atomic Roses to be as troubling as 1991’s remarkable (yet distinctly unpleasant) The Maria Dimension, it emitted a fair amount of bad vibes into my room. Like The Maria Dimension, Atomic Roses sometimes approaches space-rock, though the limited mixing and post-production equipment available to the Dots in the early 80s means that the album never sounds convincingly cosmic or otherworldly (the fact that I’ve recently been enjoying the remarkable production on the Flaming Lips‘ very cosmic-sounding Embryonic has perhaps made me feel retrospectively underwhelmed by this aspect of the album, which isn’t totally fair). The music is both crystalline and sludgy; tripping across blips and glitches – it’s elusive, tetchy landscape music that is not always wholly gratifying. Delayed pleasures.

Cover to the included art booklet on the original cassette release
Cover to the included art booklet on the original cassette release

You also get the sense that at this point in their early career, Ka-Spel had more lyrical ideas than the Dots had musical ones. Several past tracks are recycled, but now overlaid with new vocals. ‘The Wrong Impedance’ takes music from ‘Louder After Six’, while ‘Sex’ is a revisiting of ‘Another Kind of Violence’. Ka-Spel, as ever, displays some formidable poetic chops. ‘Closet Kings’ is a brilliant evisceration of masculinity and what would now be called ‘rape culture’. ‘What’s Next?’ tells the story of an inexplicable suicide epidemic, anticipating both Junji Ito‘s gruesome one-shot manga ‘Falling‘ and M. Night Shyamalan‘s 2008 exploitation thriller The Happening. The Dots’ effort is on a par with the former and considerable better than the latter.

One thing I enjoyed about the generally murky and indiscernible sound of the album is that it achieves an enveloping soundscape effect in which new songs emerge from the darkness like phantasms in the fog – briefly there and gone. This is perhaps what led my partner Rachael to feel that the album sounded like the music you get at the beginning of a ride at a theme park. However a ghost train based around Atomic Roses would be dismal and under-lit – the plastic skeletons broken by the tracks and oil on the seat of the cart.

Perhaps Atomic Roses is a touch too sombre, tending towards dirge and lament. Perhaps this is due to the nuclear anxiety hinted at by the title. Atomic Roses was released just two years before the BBC’s grim-faced and upsetting nuclear apocalypse drama Threads and the same year as Raymond Briggs’ heart-rending graphic novel When the Wind Blows, which imagines the artist’s elderly parents trying to survive nuclear fall-out, maintaining a tragically naïve optimism while slowly dying of radiation sickness. Both are serious, sobering works, which use only the very blackest of humour to make their political arguments against Britain’s stockpiling of nuclear weapons. Likewise with Ka-Spel’s lyrics. Atomic Roses sounds like a field recording from a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It is music with a long half-life. Decayed music.

However, as with navigating a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it isn’t much fun.

Cover of the "Traumstadt 1" CD, which contains Atomic Roses in its entirety
Cover of the “Traumstadt 1” CD, which contains Atomic Roses in its entirety

Tom:  This is a muted record, enveloped in a familiar LPD murk – only more so. This is epitomised by the slow, rudimentary drift of ‘Of all the girls…’ and the subdued 4/4 crawl of ‘Wrong Impedance’. Then there’s the somewhat fatigued canter of ‘What’s Next’ and it is highly symbolic that we have moved from ‘Red Castles’ with its king in his castle to a ‘Closet King’. It all seems a tad negligible and muffled.

While, surprisingly, we aren’t treated to another outing for ‘Soma Bath’, we get ‘Ideal Home’ – virtually identical in its form to CP1&2. It’s an incisive, psychedelic blast against suburban conventions, but we have, literally, heard it before.

I do rather like the lambent Eno-style glide of ‘Playschool’, which evokes pre-school memories of that BBC programme and is embossed with a vocoderised voice musing on World War II, Montgomery, Eisenhower, Churchill and the Normandy campaign. Also appealing is the nineteen-second splinter ‘Passing Thought’, with its fragmentary, boyish monologue about “numbness, oblivion, dispassionate… void”. Distant, dank woodwind evokes the sound world of the Ghost Box label, twenty-five years early. ‘Atomic Roses Part I’ is doleful and hazy, with a resolutely oxymoronic central image. The vocals are barely decipherable but there is an affecting wooziness to this weird embrace of late-Cold War menace. ‘Part 2’ is given over to insectoid murk.

Best here is ‘Hauptbahnhof’ – German for ‘Central Station’. This is closest to the reflective model of ‘Legacy’, with archetypally startling imagery coiling alluringly around simple, sustained synth chords: “Copulating to the muzak […] He’s inhaling to the muzak.”

From the 1920s, Muzak was developed for use in maintaining workers’ productivity; it consisted of customised, fifteen minute blocks of gradually increasing pace to abet faster work. From the 1950s, it was accused of being a ‘brainwashing’ technique, but it was appreciated by the likes of Eisenhower, the first President to play it in the West Wing, and LBJ who operated the Muzak franchise in Austin, Texas. By the 1980s, it was being assailed by forces as disparate as Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor in anti-Thatcher Doctor Who serialThe Happiness Patrol’ (1988) and the virulently right-wing musician Ted Nugent, who attempted to buy the Muzak company in order to shut it down. A 1984 film Decoder depicted a hamburger chain subduing its clientele using mind-controlling muzak, while a ‘noise-freak’ researcher into sound leads a gang of urban pirates on a mission to deprogram the restaurants. Over the years, The Wire magazine has often described its ‘banal’ and ‘deadening’ nature, yet its critics have also perceived that a cluster of underground musical artists have appropriated ‘Muzak’ for their distinct purposes. Mark Fisher has described the ambient dubstep figure Burial creating an “unheimlich Muzak, an elevator music from a ghost hotel”.

“Cops are dating to the muzak”.

As with ‘Stars on 45’, Ka-Spel seems drawn to mainstream cultural preoccupations but views them from his own unique vantage point. You wouldn’t expect it to be associated with passion, dating or sex, yet he does just this – perhaps indicating the subliminal, insidious impact of this maligned phenomenon. The gently dispirited mood of the track’s lyric certainly fits the interpretations that Muzak saps the life force or that it has become strangely associated with desire. The song also conveys a drizzly Britishness with its ‘apathetic epitaph’ section evoking the dour gloom of ‘The Wedding’.

While Atomic Roses generally doesn’t enthral me, it seems impossible for EKS and co. to produce a release without any interest. While it is excessively low-key, it does contain fewer re-hashes than some other early releases, some fascinating fragments and one song to enter the LPD pantheon of honeyed queasiness: ‘Hauptbahnhof’.

The Cassette version of Traumstadt 1
The Cassette version of Traumstadt 1

Matt: The hold-up on this one is my fault — I’ve been a bucket of migraines lately (Fun Fact: That’s the little known b-side to Laura Cantrell’s “Pile of Woe”!), so I haven’t been able to listen to a whole lot of music lately.  But I’m doing it now!  Which is good!

Anyway, I find myself agreeing with Adam and Tom about the murk of Atomic Roses; unlike on other LPD albums, it just seems that everything gets lost.  It feels more like a bootleg, several  generations lost, but with hiss-reduction to hide its high-gen source.  Or perhaps a lousy pressing of the vinyl.  Perhaps, like the RAW One-Shot of Jimbo made to look like a post-apocalyptic book, Atomic Roses is supposed to sound like a post-apocalyptic record, found beat up in the rubble… or maybe it just wasn’t recorded and mixed well.  I don’t know, but it makes for a bit more difficult listening — I just want to scrape off some of the sludge so I can hear things better.

There are some high marks — “Closet Kings” and “Hauptbahnhof” especially, and I don’t think it’s coincidence that those are some of the clearest recordings.  But it’s frustrating on a record from a band with such great lyrics to have them mostly muffled and hard to make out.  I’m thinking there’s a reason I found it difficult to find any online lyrics from this album.  It’s like hearing little snatches of phrases drifting through the ether.  Almost like listening to the radio where it’s so low that you can hear that there’s audio, but you can’t hear what it actually is that’s playing.

While Atomic Roses would clearly benefit from a remix, to be honest, I don’t think it’s a lost classic either.  In this case, the Dots’ penchant for recycling is a bonus, where hopefully the standout tracks can be redone in clearer, better versions, and the rest left aside.  Atomic Roses isn’t bad, but it definitely feels like filler.

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  1. Pingback: Music, Reviews, The Legendary Pink Dots Project, Uncategorized - Traumstadt 1 - Kittysneezes

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