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: Good for late night listening, this one. The tracks roll into one another, reprising medleys from previous albums. It is a slight, but pleasing experience, that retains the listener’s attention, albeit in spite of the somewhat aimless structure of some of the music. In some ways Premonition anticipates 1984’s The Tower in as much as there is a sense of narrative progression across some of the tracks. So, the album’s second song ‘Splash’, which evokes suburban ennui from the vantage point of an outdoors swimming pool a la Mike Nichols‘ The Graduate (1967) or John Cheever‘s short story ‘The Swimmer‘, segues into the underwater ‘Submerged’. As ever with Ka-Spel’s lyrics, there is a strong impression of place communicated through the most minimal of brush strokes. ‘Amphitheatre’ and ‘Amphitheatre Shuffle’ follow – again, two successive tracks closely linked by name. ‘Amphitheatre’ is less listless than the songs preceding it and, indeed, sounds oddly bouncy, despite our vocalist’s talk of million dying, both rich and poor. Ka-Spel sounds really alone out there, singing in the proverbial amphitheatre, hemmed in by oppressive cheers from an eerily robotic audience. Despite its being but a brief experimental track, I really enjoy ‘Amphitheatre Shuffle’, which includes a gratifying synthesized sound that perfectly hits the sweet spot in my brain. This may be an obscure reference… but it recalled for me the soundtrack of the classic British adventure game Simon the Sorcerer (1993). I can imagine a cave of pixelated dwarfs mining away contentedly to this song.
‘Before the End’ provides the listener with an interrogation of normality. One might think of Philip Larkin‘s wedge-shadowed gardens under a cavernous, wind-picked sky, or the banal nursing home horrors of B.S. Johnson‘s bleakly humorous House Mother Normal (1971). ‘Premonition 1’, which follows, is important namely because it is the first of Ka-Spel’s premonition songs. The track is an unearthly mash-up of previous material, including one of my favourite early L.P.D. tracks ‘City Ghosts’. We are also treated to a particularly sinister use of chipmunk vocals, worthy of Joe Meek.
There are a couple of cuts on the album which seem to address the development of digital technologies in the early 1980s. It is hard to know for sure, but the lyrics of ‘Digital’ seem to be about online friendships. This is particularly interesting when we consider that Premonition was released in 1982, approximately 13 years before the broad commercialisation of the Internet. That said, I can easily imagine Ka-Spel having been active on Usenet during its halcyon days. More interesting still is ‘Dying for the Emperor’, almost certainly about a man lethally addicted to Space Invaders. I once played a 2-hour game of the classic space shooter without dying, my skills bolstered by listening to Weezer’s Pinkerton in the background while I played, so I could relate to this song. Its message may have sounded absurd in ’82, but it seems canny when you think of the real-life deaths of gamers addicted to Starcraft and WoW since its release.
‘Brighter Now’ feels a bit misplaced on the album. ‘Intruder’ is an unpleasant scrappy tune about a little abject mess. It reminded me of the horrible ‘Bodies‘ by The Sex Pistols. After listening to Premonition I happened to read a review and watch the end of an episode of the 1976 British horror anthology show Beasts called ‘Baby‘, about a mother who falls victim to witchcraft. Her diabolical offspring could have been the subject of ‘Intruder’, with its body horror theme. Tonally, Premonition covers a lot of ground. Elsewhere on the album we hear Ka-Spel indulge a typically late-20s nostalgia for lost adolescent relationships. ‘Oceans of Emotion’, for example, is unashamedly angsty. A lover takes her own life and the young man left behind asks his departed sardonically and rhetorically, “Weren’t you just a little hasty?” “A tube train just does nothing for your figure.” Finally, the 7-minute long ‘Premonition 2’ is deeply lovely in places. It includes a gorgeous piece of unaffected finger-style guitar. I love when organic sounds break through in the Dots more electronic records, as happens here.
So, Premonition is certainly a good listen and relaxing in places due to its ‘brainwave generator’ style sleepy tones. However, while it would be unfair to accuse the Dots of being in a creative rut during this period of their career, they were beginning to repeat themselves. I am excited to get onto reviewing their broader, more ambitious projects from the 1980s, not to mention Chemical Playschool 3 & 4, providing me with another chance to produce a collaged visual interpretation of the Dots’ music!
Matt: First off, what is it about Weezer and classic videogames? When the Green Album came out, my best friend and I would listen to the promo cassette I had of it over and over while playing Frostbite on an emulator. I’m not sure, but it really fit, and to this day, I can’t listen to that album without thinking of Frostbite. Strange. Perhaps that’s why some of the post-Green/Maladroit albums haven’t clicked with me. I never spent time playing Atari to, say, Make Believe or Raditude.
That said, this is NOT the Weezer Project, this is the LPD Project, so I had best start writing about them. Premonition is another one of the albums that is a little hard to find now, so I had to cobble it together from some of the different sources — which is too bad, as it’s a pretty good one. I really like how it has the song suites and segues — it really feels like a cohesive whole. Some cool ambient type of things, like “As If”, going into great pop songs like “Amphitheatre”, “Oceans of Emotion” or “Intruder”, or a mix of the two in songs like “Odd”.
One thing I’m interested in, considering that I really have not heard much of the Dots’ discography other than what we’ve already covered, is the other “Premonition” songs — “Premonition 1” is a cool collage with lots of neat backwards stuff and “Premonition 2” is a nice piece of ambient work, something that you could almost fall asleep to…. at least maybe until about 4:30 in. (And I mean that in a good way.)
All in all, I quite enjoy Premonition. I’ve discovered, too, that I like the more normal-lengthed Dots albums than the ones that sprawl all over, and I think it does the songs a disservice to have the sprawl too. I remember thinking with Chemical Playschool 1 & 2, say, that there were a lot of really great things on there, but they all kind of get in the way of each other, and collapse under the weight. Premonition is just under an hour (at least in my cobbled-together version), and that seems about right. But maybe it’s a function of age. When I was younger, I couldn’t understand the complaint that something was “over-long”, if all the songs were good. But now I do. And I can’t tell if it’s just that I’ve gotten a lower attention span since getting older, or if I was just a particularly dumb kid. (And who says it can’t be both!)
Tom: It’s that difficult time of year; fifteen weeks of lecturing within a condensed four-month period. I have been back up to full-time at College since September. With the marking, lesson preparation and administrative burden, it has proved difficult to keep in touch with life, let alone the ongoing challenges of tracking down and assessing the LPD back catalogue! I not entirely sure whether the Premonition I have listened to is the complete or ‘correct’ version; websites such as Discogs, Rateyourmusic.com and the All Music Guide don’t agree on a definitive track-listing. Still, I have managed to give it a listen – the portent for more living and writing, with the festive season near.
Curiously, it seems that the LPDs never made it into John Peel’s Festive Fifty – clearly a proposition too niche for the indie-minded voters in that yearly yuletide ritual; though it is difficult not to assume that Peel must have played them on his show, amid the wonderfully jarring juxtapositions that were his hallmark.
It opens with the air of a horror film soundtrack and the sort of backwards-voices we have heard and will go on to hear; Premonition is another bit-player of a release, and does rather get me desiring that elusive whole album of new material.
We have: vocoderised utterances, that hazy-woozy stentorian organ sound, facile plays on words (“Scenes like this / Caesar lives”), brief sample-based ambience with muffled newsreader reports of extraditions and hijackers. No problem with any of these things, other than that they begin to seem like stocks in trade, clichés even, when used so frequently within the LPDs’ 1981-2 oeuvre.
There are, yes, rehashes of previously recorded songs: a more major-key ‘Ampitheatre’, a ’Dying for the Emperor’ that stands out a little more in its company here than amid the kaleidoscopic CP1&2. The wonderful ‘Voices’ has a third appearance in the LPD directory. Was this repetition necessary? Was Ka-Spel thinking of the very decent Hall and Oates album of 1980, Voices – featuring the succulent ‘Kiss on My List’ – when writing the song? My mind is drawn to such detours!
In the so-so new song ‘Splash’, there is a characteristic Ka-Spelian counter-semantic rhyme: “I’m drowning / Clowning with my friends”. Stark dissolution paradoxically connected to jocular social bonding.
I like how the delay is applied to clanging percussion in a brief section of ‘Premonition 2’; a nod to dub reggae, which had exerted a significant impact on British music in 1978-82: The Pop Group, Steel Pulse and UB40, among others. ‘Odd’ has its charms. Such gently ambling guitar: the section from 1:37-2:10 is particularly to my taste with wistful chords and a momentary, lone whistle. The voice muses about “a loony” while reflecting that he is seen as one himself; though this low-key nugget loses some focus with the intervention of reversed and garbled chipmunk-voices which add precious little. Most impressive on Premonition is ‘Oceans of Emotion’, which spins a tale of communication lapses and dying dreams; sea shells placed to ears and graceful deaths “like Cleopatra”. This has a notable energy beside the repetitive, lethargic inertia found elsewhere. There is a striking drum roll and build up that sounds commercial and forward; those frenzied, trebly hi-hats! Perhaps such a move was the most truly avant-garde to undertake at this juncture.
Some of the ‘experimental’ stuff just seems hackneyed in context: ‘Premonition 1’ (following ‘Premonition 4’ which we heard on Brighter Now) is merely mildly ‘odd’ next to the genuinely out-there ‘Break Down’ from CP1&2. This makes for somewhat lumpy psychedelic pottage, compared to that weirdie’s almanac of a track.
My sense of vague dissatisfaction can be summed up by how the elegant opening of ‘Intruder’, curiously, intangibly reminiscent of Grantchester-pastoral Pink Floyd, is never really followed up. There is a startling Dadaist spate of baby laughter at one point, but not that much of a song or a deeper musical canvass. Then, in ‘Premonition 2’, the Ian Paisley samples are backed by cyclical, ‘Odd’-like guitar chords, but this subsides into an unspecific unease. This isn’t a bad record; it just tantalises a little too much with its periodic hinting at vaster reserves.
Tegan: Do you feel weird Doctor?
Doctor 1: Full of strange fears and mysterious foreboding?
Tegan: That’s it.
Doctor 1: No, as a matter of fact, I don’t. It’s all illusion, child.
(Dr Who: The Five Doctors, BBC, 1983)
Premonition: ‘a strong feeling that something is about to happen, especially something unpleasant’.
The infamous quote attributed to Frank Zappa that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ gains extra validity when considering the music of the Legendary Pink Dots. I mean, how do you describe their output to someone who holds a more general interest in popular music? (Not that at any time in their 40 years plus career could you really consider the Dots ‘popular’). Anglo-Dutch Neo-Psychedelia? Er. A bit like Pink Floyd…but only a bit, erm, which bit?
What else was around?
Take a look at the top end of the album charts for 1982: While Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, Visage and Yazoo all got a look in, Status Quo, Cliff Richard, Barbara Dixon all did well too, even TV presenter/journalist Angela Rippon got to number 8! But was there anything comparable to the synth psychodrama of the Dots in common circulation? At a squeeze the Soho sleaze of Soft Cell or the sci-fi gothic fantasies of early Toyah were perhaps the only big selling distant relations to the sounds from the Dots at this point in time.
The Media is The Medium?
Premonition originally arrived as a cassette release. Smaller, cheaper, and somehow intangibly ‘lesser’ as a medium, both in terms of physicality and reliability (vinyl rarely stretched/snapped/got twisted or could be dropped down the u-bend), the cassette was a curious beast in the early 1980s. The future in the palm of your hand, yet somehow not quite as ‘authentic’ as an album enshrined in vinyl. It was a different ‘canvas’ with a longer running length, a more spacious aural window to fill, bringing into being the ‘extended mix’ versions of albums… (that rarely really added much, if truth be told).
And yet… ignoring the warning signs that ‘home taping is killing music’, cassettes not only ushered in the era of tape sharing and the autobiographia of ‘personal mixes’ (the forerunner of playlists), but also made home recording, even the recording of whole albums, within the reach of anyone with enough money to afford a 4 or 8 track recorder but whose budget couldn’t stretch to hiring the white coated boffins of Abbey Road.
The Legendary Pink Dots wandered down this autonomous route in their early years (and in later years seized the cd-rom format and Bandcamp platform in similar ways) with their ‘Mirrordot’ record label, issuing small run, slightly rough and ready albums to the curious and the converted.
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing, and having accidentally wiped a master tape the decision was made to perhaps leave manufacture to the labels, step forward Flow Motion records.
Premonition was reassembled (leading to at least 2 or 3 versions of the album) with older and newer material, and on listening it’s unclear where all the stitches and joins sit; as stylistically as well as through circumstance, Premonition holds a patchwork quality which in a way mirror how the cassette format could pluck and pull tracks together, an audio pick and mix for the discerning disciple of the Prophet Ka-Spel.
But what’s it Sound like?
From a 21st Century perspective; and with the prevalence of high-quality, computer-based home recording ringing in our expectations, how do we approach and appreciate Premonition? Its primitive sonic assemblage (never mind the content) makes for uneasy listening. You know how records are ‘supposed’ to sound, how a band is ‘supposed’ to sound… on a record. Now forget it.
Premonition is for me, an early and extreme example of the ‘Terminal Kaleidoscope’ in action (Ka-Spel’s name for the sonic experience he aimed to reach through the music of the Dots, an experience “rather like a drowning man seeing his life flash before his eyes… the whole speed of life gathering momentum all the time. If you look at that as a process you must reach the conclusion that you’ll eventually reach saturation and overload, thus cataclysm as well”).
Later line ups of the Dots sound like a coherent band performance. This is more a collision of sounds at an ambiguous artistic intersection mixed approximately 6 feet above the head of Edward Ka-Spel in an empty factory at 2am.
The 12 tracks are smeared into 2, one per side, with few clues as to where anything stops or starts. They ebb and flow, over and under each other, sounds collide, collage and compete for space, then find themselves cut adrift in a void of their own echo. How much of this is artistic judgement, inspiration, or shaped by limitations of the time is unclear almost 40 years later.
In fact, it’s such a disorientating and simply odd listen that for the uninitiated, questions could be asked such as: What is it for? Who is it for? Why is it?
If you were to stop, look and listen closely to Premonition these are all quite valid questions, and anyone with expectations of a listening experience equal to (insert professionally produced mainstream popstar/group) are going to be confused.
You cannot dance to Premonition and you probably shouldn’t sing along.
The Outro is the Intro….
The album begins with a mix of choral voices, sounds played backwards, what sounds like the run off at the end of a record and at the same time something like the sonic realisation of a dust cloud, twister or spirit magicked into being. Then before we know it the ambience is one of a calm after a storm, or the après vie of a party when all the guests have gone. So, we listen to their ghosts and hints of times to come.
In contradiction to its title, there’s a sense of ‘after’ to much of Premonition. Much of it is subdued, cool and low-key, vocals are often almost whispered in confidence, an effect both disarming and disorientating. This is perhaps its most unnerving quality and yet its most human aspect and at times is a million miles away from mainstream performance styles of the day.
Another contradiction: there’s something undeniably comforting about Ka-Spel’s delivery on a number of tracks, yet the content is often dramatic, with madness, self-harm, suicide, murder, all present and reflected through the Kaleidoscope.
For example, the first song on Premonition is about someone struggling with alcoholism and how his behaviour amuses his friends so they do nothing about his situation, they let him drown in his drinking.
This isn’t like a Tom Waits song about drinking where we can all sing along and be impressed with the wit and wordplay, it’s simply a group of young people at a station, getting drunk, probably because they have little else to do or look forward to.
And that’s just the start of the album…!
You’ve got to destroy these Aliens…
Musically as well as lyrically, this is a strange trip. When tunes do appear they often resemble the closing credits to long since wiped late night continental chat shows, light entertainment from beyond the Twilight Zone.
To give you an idea try ‘Amphitheatre’. It’s probably the strongest track on Premonition and goes for a bierkeller, umpah beat that had me envisaging a chorus line of Nazi nurses high kicking to the beat while their goggle eyed and grinning patients sit swaying at their tables, a frothing stein of ale infront of their straightjacketed selves. Insanity and normality battle it out on Premonition, and ‘normality’ never seemed so strange.
Whereas the similarly pink ‘Floyd’ might construct a tear jerking 8-minute rock opera (with solos!) about how their first singer drifted away and never came back, the equivalent character in a Dots song is too busy playing Space Invaders in a dingy, sticky arcade to be interrupted. You see, he’s got to destroy those aliens. But they keep on coming back….
The Guitar and Other Animals…
It should be noted that Premonition (unlike many Dots albums) features an 8-piece band, though it rarely sounds like a band in any conventional sense. There’s also a lot of guitar, courtesy of returning early members Michael Marshall and Roland Calloway. Tonally the guitar sounds are sort of languid, the chords almost jazzy, it’s kind of (if you squint) a bit like if Vini Reilly had phoned in with a suggestion of two.
Drum machines play a significant part too, with rhythms that skitter and jump, they speed up, slow down, reverse and stretch time and are not afraid to wander into Latin patterns.
There’s also a smear of vocoder here and there, but it’s sadly too indistinct to make any sense of it.
And just when you think you have the Anglo-Dutch Neo-Psychedelic band nicely pinned down and categorised they throw in a dub reggae aesthetic into the mix. No really. On side 2 you will find music that is clearly influenced by dub reggae, mangling and mashing sound into the sonic manifestation of the psychological minefield this album becomes.
Until of course they then decide to predate the ambient industrial sound of Nurse with Wound’s 1986 album Spiral Insana. Compare Spiral’s opening minutes to side 2 of Premonition 13 minutes in. A Premonition?
Fast Forward, Rewind and stop…
I first heard Premonition in 2015, a cd-rom edition with a bonus track. I’d recently moved to London and was somewhat disorientated and isolated by the experience. I’d only listen to it at night, alone, sometimes with alcohol. It didn’t make sense, and yet something about it did, something about it said yes, life is strange, but it’s ok, and enveloped in its strangeness I peered into the Kaleidoscope and I wasn’t alone.