Legendary Pink Dots Seconds Late for the Brighton Line

[ROIR; 2010]

Styles: electronic, synthonic prog, post-industrial
Others: Depeche Mode, Van der Graaf Generator, Enigma, Throbbing Gristle

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that most readers aren’t looking for me to establish how Seconds Late for the Brighton Line fits into a 30-year, 40-odd-album career; realistically, this review is going to be about a band more than an album. Legendary Pink Dots are a delight: persistently eccentric, culty and batshit, their claustrophobic music acts as a sort of eternal padded cell for the dregs of 80s new wave and the kingdoms of 70s prog alike. Part of me itches to rattle off a stream of reference points, because the first few listens always feel like a strangely frustrating game of connect-the-dots. But that sort of dissection misses the point. The Dots’ sound seems innately ‘resolvable,’ but even if it is, it gets us no closer to their listenership. Although they evoke and build on selfserious anachronisms like Depeche Mode, they are not ‘Recommended If You Like’ Depeche Mode because a) they take it too far until b) clichés become a unique conglomerate and in the process c) unravel everything that drew anyone to Depeche Mode in the first place.

I’d suggest that a better career analog is an artist who sounds nothing like Legendary Pink Dots: Tom Waits. Like Tom Waits, LPDs will always be part of the 80s zeitgeist — they both sound instantly familiar. (Anyone know that Ween song “Right to the Ways and the Rules of the World”? This stuff is in your brain whether you want it there or not). Despite the fact that Tom Waits and LPDs are both arguably getting better at what they do with time and practice, their ‘best’ albums kind of have to be from the 80s or maaaybe early 90s. Most importantly, both have an infinite wellspring of inner darkness that their fans simply do not tire of. The best part is, if the abyss makes you giddy, if you dare to smile at their affected demons, that doesn’t turn it into a joke. This affords them both lots of quirky opportunities. If Pete Hammill ever sang, “Feeling so alone now/ I could really use a hug,” his fans would not be pleased; when Edward Ka-Spel’s plea pops up in “Leap of Faith,” it’s brilliant. It’s like a moment of tenderness from the bad guy in a Willow-era fantasy flick.

Lyrically, the Dots are not quite so relentless as they once were, but they’re still a swirl of surrealist doom ’n’ gloom (“Only taste the icing/ Never taste the cake/ You’ll drown in all that beauty/ Drown in all that beauty”) punctuated by double-take sketchballs: “Made my girl a promise/ She just turned nineteen.” (“Do the math” seems to be the album’s loose concept.) Ka-Spel’s anguished voice, winding through eerie half-steps apparently against its will, creates such a brutal/endless/Sisyphean journey that at times the album comes off as an extended suite. He and co-founder The Silverman apply their three-decade experience manipulating synthesizers into grotesque shapes to huge, Pit-and-the-Pendulum chord shifts.

The stellar “No Star Too Far” provides Seconds’ best example of what these guys are capable of accomplishing in nine minutes. The first three minutes are a gleefully abstract spoken-word piece backed by a sparse, reverbed-out sequencer and panning sighs. “Shout ‘destiny’! That always works.” Ka-Spel sounds darkly sarcastic, but then gets worked up: “It’s destiny! No one shirks their destiny!” It’s a confusing breaking point, and all of Ka-Spel’s frustration is funneled into a tiny, high-pitched synth that sounds like a hornet struggling for life. Even as blurry feedback and some kind of barely-discernable didgeridoo-slash-Gregorian loop pile up throughout the song, that synth keeps its seizure going, manically scribbling over itself, long past the point where it’s about notes anymore. And that’s the key: It seems like an extension or even mockery of virtuoso keyboard solos, but it pleases the ear more like a complex drone, dense non-melodies fused into sound shapes. It’s a fascinating document of how far the group’s audacity gets them.

“No Star Too Far” ushers in the album’s ‘creepily pretty’ section, which culminates in the 13-minute instrumental “Ascension,” a lovely-if-inapt piece of new age post-rock propelled by rain dance drum brushes. Most of the album doesn’t have anything as sublunary as percussion, though, and the result is that the listener effectively has to guess how far the free-floating synths are from the ground. This is an appropriate metaphor for both Legendary Pink Dots’ hypnosis and their crutch: their career doesn’t need to have any direction because no one knows where they are. The Dots can count on only their diehards being capable of situating Seconds Late For The Brighton Line relative to 2008’s Plutonium Blonde, but they can also count on their diehards not giving a shit. To be fair, I cannot imagine the crap they’d be turning out now if they’d broken through in the 80s like they ought to have — a broader fanbase would probably, for starters, demand they decide whether they’re ‘serious’ — so they’re better for their parallel-universe status. I can only say so much for Seconds, but as Legendary Pink Dots the band are a must-listen, it’s convenient that their career is porous with entry points.

Links: Legendary Pink Dots - ROIR

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