The Return of the Legendary Pink Dots
Few bands have as legitimate a claim to the label uncategorizable as the Legendary Pink Dots. Formed in London in 1980 and currently based between there and Amsterdam, the group has remained continuously active for thirty-six years, producing a discography that is dizzying in both quantity and quality. Led by founding members Edward Ka-Spel and Phil Knight (aka the Silverman), the Dots emerged within a post-Throbbing Gristle industrial music underground. Their earliest cassette releases, such as the “Chemical Playschool” series, Kleine Krieg, and Basilisk, are among their most interesting and unusual. Establishing a template that has characterized their music ever since, these early releases feature abundant synthesizers and drum machines that drive familiar song structures mixed with experimental interludes and unexpected excursions into hallucinatory, psychedelic soundscapes. While their sound has remained consistent and distinctive throughout their history, what makes the group immediately recognizable is the unmistakable voice of Ka-Spel, whose thickly accented, theatrical delivery perfectly complements this darkly exotic sonic brew. Equally comfortable with everything from short odd-pop ditties to thirty-minute-long acid trips, the Dots’ style is imbued with a variety of mystical themes and imagery, resulting in what might be described as anti-establishment, anarcho-occultist, electro-folk cabaret.
From the beginning, the Dots have been prolific and promiscuous. Their numerous early releases included contributions from a wide range of guest artists from groups such as Nurse With Wound, Chris & Cosey, and Attrition, and appeared on obscure British labels such as Third Mind, In Phaze, and their own Mirrordot Tapes. My own introduction to the Dots was through various British industrial music compilations of the early ’80s, and some of their strongest early work can be found there, on such volumes as the “Rising from the Red Sand” series, Life at the Top, and Could You Walk on the Waters, all from Third Mind, as well as The Elephant Table Album (Xtract), Devastate to Liberate (Yangki), and others. Unless you were interested in this small, marginal musical subculture, you were very unlikely to have encountered the Legendary Pink Dots during the early ’80s.
In the mid-’80s, however, they signed with the somewhat more prominent Belgian label Play It Again Sam, releasing a string of albums that would reach a bigger audience and extending their reach beyond the U.K. Several of these releases, such as Asylum (1985), Island of Jewels (1986), The Crushed Velvet Apocalypse (1990), and The Maria Dimension (1991), remain among their best-known and most widely distributed titles. Though still deeply involved with synthesizers, drum machines, and musique concrète soundscapes, their style would continue to broaden, with elements of folk, new wave, and prog rock becoming more pronounced, as guitars, violins, and other instruments became more prominent. With their newfound visibility, the band would begin touring extensively, making their first visit to North America in 1989. Though their relationship with Play It Again Sam would eventually dissolve, new doors would open, including a significant partnership with Soleilmoon Recordings, a Portland-based boutique label specializing in electronic and industrial music that, beginning in 1995, would release a staggering number of new releases and reissues on the U.S. market. Though the Dots would remain a cult act, by the end of the ’90s their audience would become truly international.
New releases, reissues, and compilations in a variety of formats and on various labels continued apace throughout the 2000s, but as the digital music revolution took hold, the Dots were among the first artists to fully embrace the internet, and in particular Bandcamp, as the primary outlet for their recorded work. Appearing to own the rights to much of their back catalog, as of this writing the group offers 201 separate releases, including side projects and live recordings, for direct purchase at legendarypinkdots1.bandcamp.com. The site is continually updated and augmented, and for the true enthusiast, their entire discography can be had for a mere $933.38!
In late September, as part of their thirteenth North American tour, this one in support of their latest release Pages of Aquarius on the Pennsylvania-based Metropolis Records, the Dots appeared at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory before a small but enthusiastic audience. The strange and engaging Ka-Spel stood center stage. Barefoot, dressed in a long black robe, and wrapped in his signature scarf, he is the group’s primary channeler. Drawing heavily from the new album, the set had the quality of a mystic ritual, weaving stories, songs, soundscapes, and theatrical gestures into a dreamlike journey that was as unsettling as it was enthralling. Opening with, rather appropriately for this New York show, “D-Train,” a harrowing, synth-heavy track from Aquarius that includes such lines as “What brought you out on such a night?,” “No one here gets out alive,” and “Never take the D-train,” the set unfolded fluidly, with each piece flowing into the next, like a lucid dream. Knight remained permanently installed to Ka-Spel’s right behind an extensive array of synths, computers, mixers, and other devices, while guitarist Erik Drost remained at the back of the stage. The night clearly belonged to Ka-Spel, singing, talking, and performing from center stage and moving intermittently to the electronic table setup to his left to contribute synthesizer and pre-recorded material from his laptop.
Punctuating the evening were several politically tinged diatribes, or skits, focused on current events. In one such episode, Ka-Spel animatedly mouthed a sample as he repeatedly triggered it from his keyboard: Charlton Heston famously speaking the phrase “from my cold dead hands!” at the 2000 national meeting of the NRA. In another such skit, Ka-Spel performed a capella a kind of lyric verse filled with dark imagery and repeatedly returning to the line “In the land of the free,” an apparent commentary on our current American predicament. There were other such moments of timely critique, one involving a recording of a Southern American preacher, and another wherein Ka-Spel stood motionless in a saluting pose while a track featuring a military-themed sample played in the background. In the context of the entire set, these extra-musical elements added greater depth to the almost Lynchian atmosphere of a world gone strangely and subtly off kilter. Taking this absurd sense of punctured normalcy to its logical conclusion, at the end of their one and only encore, as the band departed the stage, The Carpenters’ “Close to You” played through the house sound system.
As with the group’s vast recorded output, the evening was a little uneven. Though the Dots themselves were never lacking in professionalism or focus, some songs came off better live than others. Some of their material is simply more compelling. Given the enormity of their output, it’s safe to say that the Dots aren’t too concerned with self-editing. When the group was at its best, a song might begin rather conventionally and innocuously and then, after completing a suitable exposition, would unexpectedly, almost imperceptibly, shift into a strange and magical hallucinatory sound world, as if the doors of perception had suddenly been opened, as if the spiked cocktail you drank earlier in the evening had just started to take effect. During these hallucinatory episodes, which occurred several times throughout the roughly seventy-five-minute set, synth effects would blend with field recordings, vaguely recognizable samples, and myriad other abstract sounds, all delicately treated and woven together to maximum transporting effect. These are the moments that keep me coming back over years and years to this uncategorizable group.
Admittedly, the Legendary Pink Dots is not for everyone, and it’s probably impossible to identify a signature album or track that defines them. Pages of Aquarius is as good a place as any to start. It’s a distinctive and consistent collection that embodies many of their signature traits and shows that the band is still finding inspiration. Thirty-six years is an impressively long time to keep a project going, particularly one that goes so decidedly against the grain, and the Legendary Pink Dots should interest anyone who considers themselves a part of the counter-culture, or aspires to an uncompromising, visionary musical life.