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. Fulfil the prophecy!
Tom: Traumstadt 2 is generally a tale of two halves: the first half sees some amazingly refreshed sounding new versions of tracks we’ve previously covered. The second allows for the odd wondrous new encounter, but contains rather more humdrum variants on known tunes.
‘Vigil-Anti’ in its ‘first version’, pre-The Tower (1984), has a fine, circling paranoia but is not as fully realised as on that album. The guitar and violin, which added gravitas to the album version, are less prominent and EK-S’s vocal is not as gloriously out-there. The second half’s versions of ‘No Bell, No Prize’, ‘A Lust for Powder’, ‘Violence’, ‘A Message from Our Sponsor’ are nowt amazing and only mildly different.
However, the early section of the album enlivens most old tracks considerably; ‘Apocalypse Soon’ gains on its Chemical Playschool 3 & 4 (1983) version. Its fresher, less murky mix here gives it a more immediate impact. We didn’t comment on it back in that original piece, but it is improved here, with its Biblical recitation and scenario of a screaming TV. Better still is the first version of ‘Love in a Plain Brown Envelope’. Here it is far more expansive and dynamic sounding, via a new, crisper hi-fi mix compared with the Faces in the Fire (1984) EP’s lo-fi approach. It keeps faith with the first half of Traumstadt 2’s omnipotent Moroder-esque sequenced synth arpeggios, which carry forth the song’s crude sensuality more potently. Its increased power allows a key moment to resound more strikingly: the Boards of Canada-esque evocative sound that intervenes at 4:40, then hauntingly fades and fizzles.
Even better is the opening ‘first version’ of ‘Jungle’, a song we previously encountered in The Lovers (1984). This cantering song was good there, but is ace here when allowed to unfold at greater – just over 10 minutes – length. It’s especially wonderful once a sublime, freed guitar enters – unleashed, lurching against the rhythm as fierily as key British Post Punk operatives like The Pop Group or This Heat.
The lyrical content is much as incendiary. “Parcel bombs are left in bins” evokes Eric Marquis’s 1975 documentary sponsored by London’s Metropolitan Police, Time of Terror as well as more recent acts of terror. Marquis’s film presents a disturbing view of bombs placed in bags left in public places, as well as suspicious letters delivered through letterboxes. While the film was largely only seen via internal screenings within the Met, it was part of a documentary movement that did produce the widely-seen Lonely Water (1973) and Apaches (1977), which entered British folklore as famously child-scaring films.
The following ‘Plague 2’ is even greater, from its Goodies-citing opening (“Everybody do the plague, the funky plague”) on. We previously encountered ‘The Plague’ on Apparition (1982), but this is much elongated, allowing free rein to a greater, more absurd, romanticism. From 2:30 onwards, it’s all new… There are richly buzzing guitars and the gadding, questing violin taking centre stage, creating a sort of Tigon and Amicus film lyricism. There’s a thudding, juddering rhythm and a funk-inducing 1980s slap bass. Violin, guitar and synths interlock in a tender duel. EK-S’s vocal is more subtle than on ‘The Plague’ – which was more continually pitched at the level of hysteria, for example, “Rivers RUNNING WITH PUS!!” ‘Premonition 4’ on Brighter Now (1982) had included a snatch of the folk nursery rhyme ‘Ring-a-Ring a-Roses’. In its latter stages, ‘Plague 2’ has more than a snatch; it has repeated renditions of that 17th-century classic’s chorus, to a thoroughly danceable 4/4 rhythm: top that! Few could, or would even try. This is frankly wonderful insanity, powered by a deadpan EK-S vocal and a jigging, jocular violin:
A pocketful of posies,
A tissue, a tissue,|
We all fall down’
Speaking of hysteria and filmic references, there’s actually a 1973 West German film called Traumstadt (which translates as ‘Dream City’), directed by the now 84 year-old Johannes Schaaf. This film is a surreal take on the powerful 1960s-70s myth of dropping out from society; the main protagonist receives an invitation to Traumstadt from a mysterious Klaus Patera. The titular city is presented as a panacea – billed by KP as “a free place for all who are dissatisfied with modern society”. Inevitably, it turns out to be far from it: while there is a carnivalesque surface to life there, it is only mildly deep. Promises of a moneyless society are shown to be false, as guilders are exchanged: “we’ve been taken in by an idiot”. The shadowy Patera exerts an influence and there is a vacuum of representation and democracy. The arbitrary nature of the society is Kafkaesque, but with incompetence and bacchanalian excess the signifiers instead of labyrinthine legal and social systems. The film’s preferred reading seems to be that total freedom leads to lawless chaos. Finally, there is violence on the streets, hinting at the context of Baader Meinhof as well as the turbulent events in Europe and the USA in 1968. Some of the film’s music near the end is unsettlingly akin to Penderecki and lends more weight to the film’s dystopian climax, following its generally glib approach. It is easy to imagine Ka-Spel catching it in some late-night Dutch TV screening in the late 1980s, and thinking: not all bad, but I could do better utopian dreams, or depictions of them going awry.
Entirely new tracks, or tracks new to our chronological LPD story, include ‘Find the Lady’, a sprinting slice of grotesquery recalling a Judgement Day where “Anne Boleyn is shouting Boo! / She throws confetti from the stalls, from the stalls. / Reaches for the bell, helps you slide into hell.“ It’s good, unheathy nourishment, if not the peak of what’s on offer here. ‘The War of Silence’ is a brief fragment ruminating on human-fostered ideas such as ‘condemnation’, ‘problems’, ‘accusations’, ‘paranoia’ and ‘condemnation’. It doesn’t go especially far out into new terrain. Similarly, ‘World War Six’ is an uneventful 242 seconds of ambient stillness.
‘Suicide Pact’ claims to be a ‘first version’, but I think it is new to our tale. We have a slow, clomping rhythm and an early-80s vocoder par excellence. It is infused with a very Second Cold War paranoid gloom: “as cities burn away”, “children turn to ash in charcoal gardens”. The ultimately march-like rhythm accompanies a lyric that takes in references to freak shows (“bearded ladies”) and the LPD canon itself: “We’re only faces in the fire”. While a bit over-extended at 362 seconds, it is good weird stuff. ‘The Whore of Bablyon’ – what an archetypal LPD title! You can just imagine how K-S will sing it from the title alone – has Wright’s violin, suggesting it is at least 1984 or later. A dinky, plangent keyboard harpsichord outlines how “She turns nobody away”, and knows how to “make a man feel like a man”. The violin colours in the song’s world evocatively.
‘Garlands’ is a low-key, stately instrumental. It feels like the soundtrack to an obscure, curate’s egg British horror film of the early 1980s – rather like I imagine the soundtrack to unseen curios such as The Godsend, The Orchard End Murder or Xtro. ‘Visitor to the Machine’ conveys a dynamic stasis, its swarming synth squiggles coalescing into a busy drone. This paradox evokes a teeming insectoid life, heading beyond the Saul Bass-directed Phase IV into Phase V!
‘The Punishment’, previously released on the Italian compilation cassette Signal 1 (1984), features the arresting opening lines: “Shakespeare’s in his cot. He’s rather old, but he sucks his thumb”. Hamlet enters the scenario and “force feeds him tins and tins of gold rice pudding”, leading to Shakespeare “feeling sick”. It is a properly improper absurdist song – if rather slight, musically.
‘Prav Naaizh’ is something else entirely. With its luminous, epochal synth chords creating a vast, enveloping atmosphere, it’s an LPD equivalent to Popol Vuh’s magnificent music for the opening to Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972). As the music conjures images in the noggin of citadels amid awesome nature, Ka-Spel cries out. He babbles phonemes, with consonant-vowel clusters: “Na-pa-da-da-de-dah-dah-h-eye!” This use of pre-adult language or even glossolalia – speaking in an unknown language – is more like Robert Wyatt on Rock Bottom (1974) than Freddie Mercury or Scatman John’s more rhythmic use of nonsense syllables. It is the only logical way to convey the illogic of Utopian thought. ‘Prav Naaizh’ is truly sublime, even more so than ‘Film of the Book’ from Chemical Playschool 3 & 4, itself an especially verdant soundscape.
Along with the vibrant new versions and elongations of the first half, ‘Prav Naaizh’ makes Traumstadt 2 more than worthwhile…
Adam: Truth be told, I have been delaying writing this review. Traumstadt 2 was one archaic Dots release too far for me. Having reached the deeper waters and smoother sailing of the post-Asylum (1985) albums I was not entirely thrilled to be trawling through a release of early deep cuts, many of which I had already heard. Still, it must be rare for a miscellanies album to be this strong, even if Traumstadt 2 doesn’t reveal any previously obscured dimensions to the band’s sound – unlike, say, Cardiacs’ 1991 release Songs for Ships and Irons, which gave fuller expression to the band’s more magisterial, less manic impulses – or eclipse the achievements of their other studio releases (which I’d argue for Oasis’ 1998 compilation The Masterplan, though perhaps because B-sides allowed the Gallagher brothers to stretch their limited wing-spans). Traumstadt 2 is thus a minor feather in the Dots’ cap.
The clod-hopping synth that carries the lead melody of the first version of ‘The Jungle’, featured here as the compilation’s first track, squares awkwardly against the stabs of post-punk guitar and the genuine menace of the lyrics. It brings a very different shade of grey to an otherwise oppressive slab of electro-pop. By contrast, the revised version we’ve already encountered on The Lovers is a livelier beast, not least due to Wright’s violin and Barry Gray’s electric guitar bringing colour to the edges of the song. Here, the guitar is more placid, less marauding and Wright’s violin is not present. It does have an enjoyable daft break-down in the middle however, which sounds adorably like the music of Renaldo and the Loaf performed by the animatronic characters of the Five Nights at Feddy’s games. After that interlude the track rather starts to drag however.
As with the second version of ‘The Jungle’ being an improvement upon the first, ‘Plague 2’ is a worthy advancement upon the murky and archaic ‘The Plague’ from Apparition (from all the way back in 1982). If you’ve started drifting off listening to ‘The Jungle’ the drums of ‘Plague 2’ are likely to jolt you back awake, as is Ka-Spel’s gleefully unhinged vocal delivery. As an account of the plague, it’s about as irreverent and ghoulish as a sketch from Horrible Histories (2009-present). The Dots are not providing the kind of existentialist meditation upon morality given by Camus in his 1947 parable of that name, even while I suspect that Edward would expect the association to be made. As Tom, in his sagacity, recognises, the best part of the song is clearly the barmy rendition of ‘Ring-A-Roses’ that ends the track – perhaps ranking only second in a list of ‘Most Enjoyable Nursery Rhyme Covers by Avant-Garde Musicians’ after The Residents’ glorious 1980 Goosebump EP, performed solely upon instruments bought from “Toys ‘R’ Us”. The jazzy lounge bar interlude in the middle of the track is also pretty ace.
The Residents association continues with track three – where, in response to the Singing Resident asking ‘Where is She?’, Ka-Spel replies, ‘ Find the Lady’ (of course, trusty Tim Smith of the Cardiacs can, as ever, be relied upon to provide the answer to the question, with ‘She is Hiding Behind the Shed’). ‘Find the Lady’ is a swampy incantation, with Edward’s vocals swerving between the shrilly nasal and the archly sonorous. The version of ‘Vigil-anti’ that follows has none of the sharp clarity of the incarnation that appears on The Tower and, as Tom notes, it sounds as those it is still in its embryonic state, not fully realised. It is interesting to hear how sometimes the Dots actually de-clutter songs, removing certain sounds or counter-melodies, in order to achieve a sharper, more considered piece of music. That said, the removal of the high-pitched chittering in the background of this version is a small loss, since it gave an alien insectoid feel to proceedings.
‘Apocalypse Soon’ is cool and nasty here, well-placed after the most obscure atmospherics and ancient ditties of the album’s first four tracks. I’ve never been a particular fan of ‘Love in a Plain Brown Envelope’, which follows. Ka-Spel’s vocals are more muted in the mix, but otherwise it sounds much the same to the version on Faces in the Fire to my ears. Tom has remarked that it’s crisper, which is true, but since the song is meant to be a grubby back-alley sort of affair, that seems like a negligible improvement (if at all) to my ears. Maybe the song just tends to leave a sour taste in my mouth.
‘Suicide Pact’ has the uncanny quality of a track I’ve heard before, even though I think its appearance here may be entirely fresh. Apparently it crops up on the 1997 compilation Stained Glass Soma Fountain. It’s a surprisingly conventional track for the Dots, with an easy to follow time-signature, no fancy arpeggios, dissonance only sneaking in around the 3:30 mark. It has (for lack of a better term) a melancholy dignity to it, which is quietly affecting. Not the most memorable, but worthy and graceful. The song’s title is a little confusing however since it would seem to fit better ‘What’s Next?’ from Atomic Roses (1982), which was about a suicide epidemic; whereas ‘Suicide Pact’ is seemingly another reflection by the Dots upon nuclear war, presumably referring to the notion of Mutually Assured Destruction.
Things get stranger with ‘The Whore of Babylon’ because it sounds like a reimagining of music from The Godfather (1972) performed by a retro-futurist 17th century chamber trio (including electric harpsichord). It is unusual for Patrick Wright’s guitar to be the normalising element of a song. The track can be filed away alongside Asylum’s ‘Fifteen Flies in the Marmalade’ from 1985, taken down from its dusty, sticky shelf if you need an alternative soundtrack for Peter Greenaway’s The Baby of Mâcon (1993) (or something equally mannered and squicky), but otherwise best left as a curio.
‘The War of Silence’ doesn’t make much of an impression. It just sort of lurks around for a minute, kicking an empty tin can down the street, hands in pockets. ‘World War Six’ skulks along after it – a slight trace of imbalance in its eyes, but nothing to get too worked up about. It is definitely a track more effective turned out loud so that it sounds like a field recording from a haunted wind tunnel.
Tom wasn’t especially provoked by ‘Violence’, which is another iteration of ‘Another Kind of Violence’ from Atomic Roses (1982) which itself was a reworking of the earlier song ‘Sex’ and I would agree that apart from a but more burbling it sounds like much-of-a-muchness. However, my ears pricked up at ‘Praum Naizh’, which is one of the Dots’ droning soundscapes, but with a lighter, fuzzier ambience than their usual fare which reminded me of ‘Absolutely Curtains’, the last track from Pink Floyd’s underrated 1972 release Obscured by Clouds. It might be the first Dots track which I would recommend as group meditation listening (rather than group séance listening).
The version of ‘A Message From Our Sponsor’ included next doesn’t have quite the level of mordant menace of the later version from Asylum, but does have the advantage that, without pitch modification, Edward’s unsettling first-person monologue from God Himself is easily comprehensible – great, because it’s ace! ‘No Bell No Prize’ is really well placed as the following track, with its talk of the Eternal Damnation rendered all-the-more palatable with the image of an unloving God still lingering in the brain. In fact, even though I only discovered the track on the previous album we reviewed (the first Traumstadt compilation) it worked for me far better here, perhaps because it feels integral to the compilation here, rather than a bonus track added on. In direct contrast to the wordiness of ‘AMFOS’ and ‘No Bell’, ‘Garlands’ is an achingly sad instrumental. I love Tom’s description of it as “like the soundtrack to an obscure, curate’s egg British horror film of the early 1980s”.
On the band’s official bandcamp page Traumstadt 2 finishes with a trio of songs – ‘A Lust for Powder (Version Apocalypse)’, ‘The Punishment’ and ‘Visitor to the Machine’. I almost resent writing about the former because at this point it feels like it’s cropped up on every album, even though this can’t have been the case! It is, of course, a classic Dots track, but Heaven knows what releasing this version adds to proceedings… It layers on a couple more samples and adds some echo to Ka-Spel’s vocals in a couple of places! While we are blessed by the abundance of musical gifts from the Dots, you do sometimes have to wonder if they really need to release so many different iterations of the same song – though I sincerely believe it does not come from a cynical place or a lack of original material, but rather a tendency towards perfectionist fiddling with material, sometimes feeling unable to choose a definitive version of a given track. ‘The Punishment’ is an entertainingly unpleasant ditty about Shakespeare being mis-treated by his own creations. Very slight, but definitely worth listening to at least once. Lyrically it recalls both the queasy 1973 horror flick The Baby, about a man kept like a baby by his over-protective/ abusive family, and the line from Blackadder Back and Forth (1999) in which the time-travelling anti-hero punches the Bard in the face, proclaiming: “That is for every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next 400 years! Have you any idea how much suffering you’re going to cause?!” Edward himself seems to realise what a silly song he has composed since he laughs to himself at the end of it before things grind to a halt before morphing into ‘Visitor to the Machine’, which burbles and chitters away like a couple of chatterbots about to be shut down by Facebook researchers.
In truth, returning to the sound of the very early Dots was a bit of an exhausting prospect, but Traumstadt 2 is not a difficult listen. Indeed, a trimmed version of the compilation, composed mostly of the album’s first half, would be as good an introduction to the work of this staggeringly prolific band as any.