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!
Adam: This is a strange and engaging album. It was finished just as the Dots’ original line-up disintegrated and this is reflected in the music, which sometimes sounds as though it’s barely holding itself together. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, since some of the Dots’ early albums have been marred by lack of tonal variation, whereas Apparition is all over the musical junkyard. It starts with what sounds like marbles and coins being dropped down a drain, intercepted by the echoing of conversation, perhaps from an abandoned arcade or bingo hall (there is the garish bleeping of what I imagine to be a slot machine, but has the potential to be a ZX Spectrum, with the console released in 1982, the year of the album’s production). Then a drum machine kicks in alongside the squelch of a synthesizer. The music bristles like an ant colony. It sounds weirdly modern too, almost like an album track by Lady Gaga or Ke$ha, if you ignore Ka-Spel’s cryptic lyrics, that are obscured in the mix here. The whole thing feels busy and jittery and a little frightening. The Dots’ Bandcamp page testifies that during the recordings, the band’s headquarters were haunted – an experience that involved “a ouija session, a black dog and out of body experiences”. As ever, the Dots tend to undercut the sinister atmospherics with droll humour. That’s not to say that some of the material isn’t genuinely upsetting, though. ‘The Blessing’ is one of the most troubling songs of the Dots early 80s output, with lyrics from the point-of-view of some sinister presence, lulling an anonymous victim into submitting to an act of sexual predator wrapped up in the guise of spiritual healing. It may simply be that the song feels uncomfortable close to the reality of the Catholic Church sex abuse cases covered in the news in recent years, but it’s not an easy listen, nor is it meant to be. ‘I’m in the Drill’ is ace and rocks a mean bassline. Patrick Wright’s violin does a lot of the work here and lends proceedings a distinctly Eastern European ambience. It’s a song you can immediately imagine dancing to, which is unusual for the Dots. It will be interest moving onto to an album like Asylum (1985) which features tracks which are almost sing-alongs, such is the strength of their melodies.
On the Dots’ official Bandcamp page, the 2013 remaster of Apparition is divided into two parts. The second part of the album starts with what sounds like nothing less than a cheesy 80s gameshow hosted by Dracula, or some other coiffured ghoul. The song is ‘Powder Crowd’ and it’s an absolute blast! It’s also the first point on the album in which it sounds like the band are having fun playing together as a band. The seriousness of the album doesn’t necessarily mitigate its quality – it’s certainly a decent album! – but the detour into silliness provides a nice breathing space before we are subjected to what is surely the sound of the mice from Bagpuss being massacred whilst still alive! The shrill vocals of ‘Alive!’ are entertaining and even disturbing, but they do make Ka-Spel’s consistently interesting lyrics almost completely incomprehensible. Without the Internet on hand, I don’t think I would have been able to work out even a third of the lyrics on Apparition and that does feel like a loss. At one point I couldn’t tell if Ka-Spel was singing about a “clockwork tangerine” or instructing the listener to “light your popcorn carefully”. Things get funkier for ‘Believe!” with Ka-Spel imploring some unseen other to “believe my promises”. He goes into properly manic massiah mode for ‘The Plague’, cackling and preaching and having all sorts of fun. It’s the kind of vocal performance you sometimes get out of the Singing Resident / Randy of The Residents and is it an electrifying, albeit somewhat campy, presence here. Proceedings finish in a low-key vein with ‘Premonition 3’, drifting off like the end of an incantation.
Generally, Apparition is an album that befits its title, there-and-gone in a moment, but leaving a definite impression. I can’t say that it’s an essential album composed of classic tracks, but there’s something intriguing to it, as though there were some hidden mystery beneath all its murk and strangeness. I believe the stories of a haunting during production are true and that if you play the album 8 times in a row then you will be cursed with the high pitched mouse voice from ‘Alive!’ for all eternity.
Tom: It is remarkable to consider just how much music we have assessed and absorbed so far and yet we still remain just a year into the LPD oeuvre! 111 songs under the LPD moniker on my iTunes and we’re still only up to 1982. The year of my birth saw yet another release: the refreshingly retread-and-old-track-free Apparition.
I played this album for the first time two weeks ago on Tuesday, as I gearing up for a long day ahead in London – attending a standardisation meeting regarding coursework for one of the A Level courses I teach. The meeting started at 10am in Portland Place, near the BBC’s Broadcasting House so this required me to somehow haul myself aboard a train from Newcastle Central Station that departed at a horrendous 5:56am. For the majority of the journey I tried to catch up on sleep; in the usual half-waking state, I played Mike Westbrook’s Metropolis, Andy MacKay’s Rock Follies soundtrack and Eno & Fripp’s hypnotic No Pussyfooting on the iPod. While I probably only got a fraction of actual sleep, this was a restful way of spending time in a gentle doze. With thirty minutes or so to go until King’s Cross I put this album on…
Emerging from its opening games arcade sounds, ‘God Speed’ is a direct, beguiling piece of synth psychedelia: an accessible pop tune, all syncopation and references to Hellzapoppin’ and US idiom like “Give ‘em Hell!” It’s perhaps an indirect Harry Truman allusion, but who can say for sure? ‘Pay to be Alone’ evokes February 2014 Blighty with its words about retreat and staying in from the cold. ‘Spontaneous Combustion’ sounds like gliding over the Lake District in a battered space ship. ‘The Blessing’ is cavernous and restrained. ‘I’m in the Drill’ has tremendously spry use of stringed instruments and subtle use of effects on EKS’ vocals. While there follows a lull – ‘Alive’ has an archetypal wistful LPD tune but somewhat grating chipmunk vocals – the album has a strong sense of dynamics. ‘The Plague’ could be described as pointillist skiffle – all this skittering, chaotic song needs is that excellent instrument, the washboard!
Apparition’s brisk freshness was the ideal accompaniment as I became to near London and the day ahead. There isn’t much of the LPD trope of backwards-played samples. None of these songs appear on earlier releases, so this was an intriguing yet oddly comforting listen. The song craft is similar – ‘Powder Crowd’ sounds familiar – but we get thirty minutes of music that engaged me, and didn’t seem as wilfully awkward as a few previous releases.
Is there any other band who would make mention of a ‘clockwork tangerine’? What insect references are to Robyn Hitchcock, punning music and film citations are to Edward Ka-Spel.
There is also a momentous occasion on the horizon! The Legendary Pink Dots are playing in Newcastle upon Tyne at the Cluny on Friday 11th April; a mere fifteen minutes’ walk from my flat. Unsurprisingly enough, I have bought tickets – and a friend very much into German electronic music is coming to see them too. Get in!
Matt: One thing I do find odd about some of the early Dots stuff, is how some of them have been reissued in side-suites — where each side of the original cassette is treated as one long medley of songs — rather than as individual songs. I tend to wish that wasn’t the case, but I think that’s just my desire to mentally file things more easily. Even if the songs flow into each other (as these all do), I still like to know, I guess, the “official” time something becomes something else. Does this matter even remotely in the long run? No, of course not. But I do like to vent sometimes.
I have to admit, the murky vocals is a little bit of a turn-off for me. I tend to prefer the vocals a bit more front and center. I do wonder if some of the murkiness of these early cassette-only releases is a play on the medium, though — considering that normal cassettes can get kind of that way through overplay, age and if you’re naughty, generation loss. That said, the remaster cuts through the murk somewhat — when I initially put this record on for the first time, I went with the version of the two side-suites on Traumstadt 1 — but then upon finding out that it had been remastered from the official Bandcamp site, I bought it there, and, well, it cleans up real nice. This is definitely the version to check out. It’s still interesting to hear the murk is crystal clear digital definition, though — it takes me back to my youth when I was mainly listening to tapes.
This album seems to me like it’d be a bit of a grower, too. Upon my early listens, only a few tracks really stick out, “Powder Crowd” especially, but also “God Speed” and “I’m In The Drill”. I love the violin on “I’m In The Drill”, and the organ on “Powder Crowd” hits the sweet spot in my brain for this sort of thing. I also quite like the pop-sounding guitar riff on “Believe!”, combined with the strange, rubbery percussion sounds. That said, though, the more I listen, the more I seem to enjoy this one. I might have to check in with this review later, and see how future me feels about what present me has written here.