Review: Curse

R-3701927-1340939144-2333.jpegEdward 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. Fulfil the prophecy!

Tom: “DIE WITH YOUR EYES… ON… Nomini magnus spiritus sancti filia”. Most LPD albums have a mighty pop chorus and aye, this is Curse’s! ‘Stoned Obituary’ is this album’s ‘Hideous Strength’; a weightless monolith, with additional mysticism.

‘Hiding’ is really rather great in its spoken-word hush. It has some of the dreamlike gravity of Piano Magic’s ‘Wrong French’ – childhood fancies and fears mingled stealthily. Its neat 57 seconds take in a haunted, gaunt flute and toy-box chimes; it cuts perceptibly deeper than many Ghost Box attempts of greater length.

‘Waving at the Aeroplanes’ has a balmy, late summer atmosphere to it. Mildly queasy, like the Television Personalities’ ‘Razorblades and Lemonade’ recorded in a crumbling Victorian music-hall by space-age cosmonauts. It evokes Dali – “it’s raining limbs” – and Ballard: “make them crash crash crash on the runway, crash on the motorway”. It’s a glazed Ballardian lullaby, designed to send a slightly older, pacified version of the baby from Eraserhead to sleep.

‘Arzhklahh Olgevezh’ indicates a desire to get away from the English tongue, with Ka-Spel singing in a pidgin Russian and the following instrumental ‘Pruumptje Kurss’ seemingly points to the Netherlands. The first is a Brecht/Weill-like stomp, not that far away from some of Tom Waits’ early-90s material. The latter is dank, ambient splodge.

Soleilmoon Recordings version from 1996
Soleilmoon Recordings version from 1996

We’ve heard ‘Wall Purges Night’ before, so I won’t deal with that extensively… Along with his over-extended departures from English, Ka-Spel revels in twisting the standard uses of English – and delights in referencing and upending popular sayings and pulp fictions. As well as containing topper synth bass organ, ‘Lisa’s Party’ has the anti-sense to juxtapose ‘cyanide’ with ‘mince pies’ and ‘heinous’ with ‘refined’. EK-S’s timing is often palpably comic, with his drawing out of syllables and judicious pauses – “a nayk-id layyyy… deeeIn a cage.” The subject matter oughtn’t to be comic at all, but somehow is, with Edward as amoral bard. “Isn’t it a whizz!” is an absurdist recycling of Boys’ Own-style adventure idiom, deployed in an unlikely context. ‘Dolls’ House’, likewise, brings in the problematic figure of “Golly”, the Golliwog – a grotesque, exaggeratedly black-faced and goggle-eyed children’s toy doll, originating in the late 19th-century. From 1910-2001, the golliwog was a fixture on Robertson’s jam packaging. The majorly popular children’s author Enid Blyton had a popular character ‘Mr. Golly’, subsequently airbrushed out of many reprints following a tide of criticism since the 1970s from liberal-left critics. Instead of an excision of the dubious signifier, there’s a detonation: “Sparks creep up his trouser leg”. The Wendy doll’s skin melts, but, of course, Ka-Spel tells us: “she manages to laugh”. It’s all rather like the enticing prospect of Jan Svankmajer directing 1960s Batman: “Mummy’s smiling with a match, blows softly thru the doorway and draws patterns in the ash. Fizzle Fizzle Zap Zap!”

“Another place, a different story”? With Curse, that’s No and Yes. The album doesn’t offer any substantive leap, musically – we’ve heard the cantering 1980s slap-bass before, reversed vocal snippets and dazed, lysergic atmospheres. And this isn’t really a problem; the story is still only two years old; developments will come, as my 2014 attendance of an LPD gig in Newcastle upon Tyne attested. But the lyrical vision in the closing sequence is accompanied by increasingly urgent, clamorous rhythms and melodies.

Track 9, ‘The Palace of Love’, is tremendous; it begins as a scurrying martial trot, then, after a few minutes of profane, revolutionary imagery from E-KS, there’s a sudden detour into buzzing, Bastille-storming guitar and leonine, loping bass: “I never thought it would finish quite this way…”

It sounds newly minted and monumental. Ka-Spel is partying, like it’s 1789.

“Maybe we’ll meet in heaven, talk about those good old days…” As shrewd analysts of British culture such as Alan Bennett, Patrick Wright and Adam Curtis have identified, the films of Merchant-Ivory and the recovery of the Mary Rose were the potent symbols of an emerging ‘heritage’ culture in the1980s, afflicting or rejuvenating Britain – depending on your political outlook. The Mary Rose, a Tudor vessel which last saw action in 1545, was salvaged in 1982; with a museum opened to the public in 1984, so would surely have been on EK-S’s radar. His view of history often implicates Churchill, mordantly sampled on several of the records we’ve assessed including at the end of ‘Wall Purges Night’ here. Otherwise, EK-S tends to be as unspecific as you might expect of a psychedelic lyricist. He deals more in myths, whether personal, ancient Greek, Biblical or Kafka derived. As Roland Barthes defines them, myths are powerful stories that may be untrue and that do hold great sway in culture. The myth of “the good old days” has had an especially powerful allure in Britain, so much of its culture suspicious of modernism and ideas – and it hasn’t just been card-carrying Countryside Alliance or Tory party members who are deeply influenced by nostalgia… It’s there in the culture from Downton Abbey to Call the Midwife to the excavations of Ghost Box. This track staggers desperately, as if trying to overthrow the staid edifice of British past-obsession and parochialism. There’s always a nagging doubt.

The LPD musical method expands, with the call and response of repeated “I believe”s vying with powerful, droning guitar and organ vamps; all giving way eventually to a distant opera sample.

“I believe (at least I want to believe)”.

The following ‘Stoned Obituary’ has the aforementioned ‘Latin as Pop’ chorus. It interweaves its incantatory English and Latin phrases, alongside several “Ave”s and strange references to a “lust for dust”. It is bleedin’ transcendent, and that’s me as an atheist talking! Now what would a devout Roman Catholic would make of it? That curious question notwithstanding, this is inexorable, unique and astounding music: some of the finest thus far provided in this story; this Book of Dots.

2002 Polish edition on Big Blue Records
2002 Polish edition on Big Blue Records

Adam: Caveat: While this is a faintly negative review, Curse is certainly not a bad album. I’m not yet convinced that LPD are capable of releasing a bad album.

Curse (1983) does not sound like a definitive statement. To these ears it sounds like a band pulling at the seams. The production is reedy where it needs to be muscular. Many of the songs seem directionless or fail to develop upon their original premise. While intended to be the first LPD released on vinyl, Curse was a transitional album. The first iteration of the band (and remember, we’re still only in the third year of the band’s history, despite our having already reviewed half-a-dozen or so releases) was dissolving, soon leaving just the core duo of Edward Ka-Spel, with lyrics and vocals, and Phil Knight AKA The Silverman on keys, supporting by a cast of revolving musicians.

Here on Curse Keith Thompson still provides drums and Roland Callaway, bass. April Iliffe (my personal favourite of the early members) is still turning out icily ambient keyboard sounds and occasional backing vocals. Yet, Thompson must have departed by some point before The Tower of the following year, which would mark Iliffe’s last album with the Dots; the pair leaving behind a leaner, more muscular band, but arguably lacking some of the lulling, hypnotic melodies of their formative years.

But no matter. At this stage of the game, LDP were so relentlessly prolific they’d worked through kaleidoscopic iterations of their signature formula of droning keyboards, growling post-punk bass, sardonic vocals, claustrophobic production (just as much out of economic necessity than aesthetic choice), lyrics that read like absurdist hymns, echoing sound effects, glittering pretty arpeggios and a tone of hushed and hallowed malevolence. The 1984 EP Faces in the Fire would, with The Tower, usher in a new, more song driven and overtly political era for the band, with an increased use of allegorical forms and structures, drum machines and narrative-driven storytelling. Curse was (for the moment at least) the last gasp of looser, instrumental soundscapes that form the intense and gloomy backdrop for Ka-Spel’s poetry (though longer, experimental pieces would still be the mainstay of Ka-Spel’s solo work).

The lyrics are as sharp and acerbic as ever, with only a handful of duff lines (ending an enjoyably macabre tale of arsenic poisoning with ‘And they all died’ as per ‘Lisa’s Party’ strikes me as somewhat pat, albeit also pretty funny) but this means that by contrast the music can feel predictable, even dull. And I think this is only partly a response to over-exposure. The very minimal use of drums or bass on tracks like ‘Love Puppets’ or ‘Hiding’ result in the music lacking forward momentum and don’t scintillate in the way in which the lyrics are reaching for. Musically, this is not dissimilar to much of Bauhaus’ output of the same period, but while their lyrics never approached the searing grottiness of the Dots’ best, they had the production values to add the kind of depth and reverb to their music that the Dots could only dream of in their early years. Ka-Spel is no fool. ‘Love Puppets’’ lyrics conjure a picture of paralysis and ennui, with Edward lamenting: “It’s really such a bore for me. The story stays the same – it goes on and on…” As such, the monotonous repetition of the keyboard refrain that loops on and on and on is perfectly appropriate… but it’s hard not to wonder whether Edward and the band weren’t also feeling rather tired and fed up too. Perhaps the most interesting part of the song comes at the 4:22 bridge, a kind of backwards-sound looping bridge between two sections of the song that sounds remarkably similar to a nasty little synthesised loop that plays insinuatingly at the end of each chorus of ‘Hunter’ and the end of ‘Plastic’ on Portishead’s Third (which strikes a similarly weary and haunted tone to Curse, but with a cacophonous prickliness and depth of despair that this album doesn’t reach).

Elsewhere, ‘Lisa’s Party’ has a bossanova beat and anaesthetising keyboard rhythm that heightens the empty-eyed yuppie debauchery of the song’s lyrics… though, again, not with the sneering brilliance and absolute flatness of Spark’s In Outer Space, released the same year in 1983 (arguably you need an American outsider like Ron Mael or Frank Zappa to really pull this kind of thing off). Nowadays of course if one wants to listen to kitchily dystopian 1980s consumerism techno-beats taken to their deadening yet weirdly lulling extreme one just needs to turn to the nearly vaporwave compilation on Youtube. In fact, Curse is (subjectively at least!) the disappointing anomaly of an LPD album that recalls other, stronger albums, albeit often ones released in better musical years than 1983. ‘Aarzhklahh Olgevezh’ is anchored by a wonderfully taut almost Joy Division-style funk bass, but Ka-Spel’s (purposefully?) dismal Dutch-Russian-German pigeon ranting just makes me wish I was listening to Tom Waits spitting German gobbledegook on Alice‘s ‘Kommienezuspadt’ (admittedly released almost two decades later). It sounds like a demonic East-European Punch & Judy show performed by funk-guitar wielding, glass-gargling goblins.

‘Wall Purges Night’ doesn’t outstay its welcome and is tricksily foot-tapping, considering its grim lyrics that hint towards both the Night of the Long Knives and Kristallnacht. It’s got impeccable timing, but it doesn’t advance the early Dots template. Ka-Spel would also write far more eviscerating lyrics on fascism and nationalism in The Tower, taking the theme to its nauseous peak with the harrowing Island of Jewels of 1986. That said, I remain a sucker for Ka-Spel’s cute-cute nursery rhyme phrasing (“Blast. A bang. A bangabangabang”) and his arch delivery of certain lines (“You’re civilized – it could happen anywhere. In choking cities, steaming jungles… maybe even here.”) Ho.

Along these lines, ‘Dolls’ House’ goes for a winningly eepie-creepie approach and appeals to my inner teen goth who loves Jack Off Jill, Edward Gorey and the early films of Tim Burton. It’s the ghoulishly unsettling tale of a mother burning her house down, along with its occupants of anthropomorphised toys and teddies. I first heard it on the brilliant Dots compilation Ancient Daze (1997), which collects tracks recorded across their first year (it speaks to how ludicrously prolific the band are that it was possible for them to compile an essentials-only release that covered just 1981). It’s probably my favourite track on Curse, though mileage may vary depending on one’s tolerance for music box-sounds, creepy children’s stories and overly previous sound effects (my own mileage in this department being very high). It is the musical equivalent of Oliver Postgate’s all but forgotten 1984 children’s television adaptation Tottie: The Story of a Doll’s House (in which a befrocked Victorian doll burns another doll to death in a fit of jealousy) and Jan Švankmajer’s psychosexual stop-motion menagerie Jabberwocky: Or Straw Hubert’s Clothes (1974). In Tom’s review he mentioned that ‘Doll’s House’ makes reference to Enid Blyton’s now-notorious character, the Golly. Although I suspect he is just one of many dolls amongst the house (that Edward might have been familiar with during his 1950s and 60s childhood) and that the potentially racist signifiers connotated by the Golly are not in play, there is a potential reading to be made here. Tom also drew parallels with bands from the Ghost Box label, who combine ambient drones with samples from 1970s educational programming and old phonograph records. Linked to Ghost Box by a shared enthusiasm for hauntological eeriness is Richard Littler’s on-going ‘Scarfolk‘ project that includes mock-ups of 1970s education posters, children’s toys, pamphlets and packaging with decidedly macabre insinuations of mind-control, fascism and general witchery. ‘Doll’s House’ strikes a similar tone and might be illustrated with the following Scarfolk poster:

With the exception of the slight and fleeting one-minute track ‘Hiding’, with spoken word vocals courtesy of Sally Graves, I find Curse to be an unusually bottom-heavy album (another one in my collection that jumps to mind is R.E.M.’s platinum-selling 1991 album ‘Out of Time’, which begins with the eye-rolling ‘Radio Song’ and concludes with the three-punch of ‘Texarkana’, ‘Country Feedback’ and ‘Me in Honey’). ‘Dolls’ House’ segues into ‘The Palace of Love’ via a sample from the lovely ‘Film of the Book’ (examined in the Chemical Playschool 3 & 4 review). The song is a gratifyingly messy ballad (lots of snatches of sound) from the point of view of a woman in love with a revolutionary, anticipating the incredible ‘Shock of Contact’ from Island of Jewels by a few years – indeed, ‘Palace of Love’ could almost be a prototype for that song, but twisted from the woman’s perspective. The music is urgent but subdued, with an organ playing a music hall ditty in minor key beneath a miniature cacophony of near glitch-hop bursts of instrumentation. It’s all rather pretty and features the juxtaposition of urban violence against English parochialism (or are they two sides of the same coin?) with lyrics like: “Go ahead and do just what you want to do. Go rob a bank or go smash a window. I’ll be waiting here with your slippers and your tea”, that recall the thematic concerns and imagery of very early Dots tracks such as ‘Violence’, ‘Thursday Night Fever’ or ‘Phallus Dei’.

‘Waving at the Aeroplanes’ is early Cure channelling J. G. Ballard with a touch of Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd. The images are starkly hallucinogenic and it all comes together into a pleasing whole. Not a song to make your ears prick up in astonishment perhaps, but a pleasing troubling ditty. The descending bass line seems to parallel the descent of the aeroplane before its crash, which is neat! Finally, ‘Stoned Obituary’ is the kind of gloom-laden fable that the Dots excel at. The church organ-like keyboards anticipate later prophetic tracks such as ‘I Am the Way, The Truth, The Light’ from 1985’s Asylum. The lyrics play out a grotesque parody of the crucifixion of Jesus, in which a litany of tortures is heaped upon the martyred man (“The breeze grew ice threw knives blew halos hallowed cinders flew together made a cushion for his feet. There were spikes in his sandals, spikes in his ankles… A spike split the wood, syringed his vertebrae. Spikes in his shins, in his chin, in his fingers.”) Suffering is performative. When Ka-Spel repeats: ‘I want to believe’, it seems as though he’s desperately trying to wrench religion away from ritual… trying to press through the charade to something authentic. Yet despite the bombastic violence of the song’s lyrics, the dying man’s last words are down-to-earth, even awkward: ‘I made mistakes. I’ve been a fool. I tried hard but never thought that what started so well could end in misery. But my motives were good. I thought you all understood… Just don’t be hard when this day is cloaked in history.’ A hymn of earnestness in an album filled with bitter theatricality, parody, and sneering yet defeated sarcasm. It’s a surprisingly moving end to an album that otherwise doesn’t get its claws into me in the way in which so much of the Dots’ other material does. ‘Die with your eyes on’ indeed.

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  1. Pingback: The Legendary Pink Dots Project - REVIEW: FACES IN THE FIRE - Kittysneezes

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