Artist Spotlight: The Legendary Pink Dots

The Legendary Pink Dots are a long running psychedelic, literary, industrial, rock band. They formed in 1980 in London, though they’ve been based in Amsterdam since 1984. The band is fundamentally composed of Edward Ka-Spel (born Edward Francis Sharp) and Phil Knight (often credited as The Silverman), and has had a rotating line up of musicians when recording and touring (Discogs lists 20 other musicians who are currently in the band or have been in the band over the years).

The band has been incredibly prolific over the past 36 years. Discogs lists 98 ‘albums’ in their discography, though that is somewhat misleading thanks to the band’s tendency to cross pollinate releases, not to mention releasing sessions of their various albums and a long running series of ‘Chemical Playschool’ releases consisting of outtakes and various other stuff. Additionally, both Edward Ka-Spel and Phil Knight have released several solo albums (or, confusingly, collaborative albums not under the Legendary Pink Dots name). And then there are other projects that are, more or less, extensions of The Legendary Pink Dots like The Tear Garden (with cEvin Key from Skinny Puppy) and Mimir with Christopher Heemann and Jim O’Rourke among others.

In sum, there’s a metric shitton of music, which makes the idea of a concise Artist Spotlight laughable. Additionally, I’m not really the person to make an extensive survey of them. Even though I had heard of them as far back as the mid-90s, their vast discography always intimidated me. It still does. I kept on the periphery as a fan of The Tear Garden, who have only released 5 albums… or 8 I’m not sure, again, archival stuff presented as a ‘new’ album. I did buy their Raining in Heaven album (originally released as Greetings 9 + Premonition 11), which may be the single worst place to start with them. I’ve only really gotten back into them within the last month thanks to their extensive, albiet extremely disorganized bandcamp page. And within that month I’ve almost been listening to them nonstop.

For most bands, a month of intense listening would probably result in a pretty good understanding of their output. But The Dots don’t work that way. That bandcamp page has over 200 releases and I’ve only scratched the surface. My main concentration has been on the 90s with a few excursions into earlier 80s stuff and some post 2010 stuff. These leaves out early rough cassette releases, which have an audience, and the 2000s, which doesn’t seem to be particularly highly regarded. It does seem that the 90s produced their most widely regarded stuff. In that time the band shifted a few times. It might be helpful to delineate those phases, but I don’t have enough knowledge about the lineups to do that without do a bit more research. Instead I think I’ll point out my favorite releases that I’ve actually purchased, and include a few key tracks.

However, before I do that I should note that maybe one of the biggest stumbling blocks for most people regarding the Dots is Edward Ka-Spel’s… unique vocals. Ka-Spel has a very distinctive voice, the most notable feature of which might be its seeming inability to fully articulate [ɹ], the alveolar approximate. Which is to say he’s got trouble with his ‘r’s. He also has a fairly nasal voice. Nevertheless, I’m having some trouble articulating exactly what’s off putting about his voice because, much like Joanna Newsom’s voice, it becomes such an integral part to The Legendary Pink Dots sound, that it’s no longer off putting, but quite pleasant and, in fact, key to their appeal. But your results may vary.

Early Highlights

Definitely the highpoint of LPD’s 80s period, Asylum might, in fact, be their masterpiece. Released in 1985 on Play it Again Sam, it was a sprawling double album that include industrial goth pop alongside experimental tape collages. It starts out with the great ‘Echo Police’ (you’ll notice that I have a particular affinity for LPDs opening tracks which are usually some of the albums’ strongest).

This song begins with a fairly low energy synth pop approach, with an almost processional stateliness, but around the halfway point the guitar kicks and pretty soon the beat becomes faster, a violin is introduced and the whole thing turns into a cacophonous jam.

‘Golden Dawn,’ on the other hand, maintains a gloom and gothicness throughout. Edwards slow almost dripping vocals here add a tension to the song, and his occasional forays into higher or lower registries hint at a sort of Hammer Horror theatricalness. Maybe ‘hint’ isn’t the right word.

And then there’s ‘So Gallantly Screaming’ a cut up nightmare about an apocalyptic America. It might, in fact be relevant right now.

Several years, and a number of band changes, later The Golden Age was released. Again, the opening track is great. Here it’s ‘Maniac’

A track straight out of Sacher-Masoch. Again, we’ve got a fairly straight forward beginning, but the freak out comes earlier. It’s the outro that really cinches this one, though. (I should mention, this YouTube is clearly from an earlier release than what’s on the bandcamp page. The bandcamp page is of a remaster from 2016, it sounds about 100% better. It’s kind of shocking, actually).

‘Maniac’ is a bit misleading, however, to the entirety of the CD which is more subdued. Take ‘Hotel Noir,’ for example. A palatial ghost ballad, it is a bit more indicative of the mood of emptiness and loneliness permeating this record.

90s Hits

Each album from the 90s could probably fill up 1000 words. Especially near the end of the decade things were getting huge, with epic nearly prog rock ambitions. I’m going to unfetter myself from discussing individual albums, for the most part, though The Maria Dimension probably deserves special mention. It’s the easiest to recommend, in part because it shows a lot of facets of the band. Again, the first track, ‘Disturbance’ is a highlight

The long outro of this highlights the contributions of Niels van Hoornblower who would be an important member for the entire decade. He’s certainly not burning up the track here, but he contributes to the general trance like feeling.

And speaking trances, The Grain Kings invites you into a swirling one, increasing guitar freakouts, horn solos and a propulsive beat… You’ve got a stew goin’!

The other side of the decade, saw the release of A Perfect Mystery. This, in fact, might be my favorite album by the Dots. Again, the opening track, ‘Lent’

As the title might indicate, the theme of this track is asceticism and self-flagellation. But after Ka-Spel spits out the wonderfully alliterative ‘we bear the bitter mark of Caine’, the real pleasure starts as half of the track is taken up with interactions between guitar and reeds with a great beat. I love this shit, and most of the rest of the record follows suite in this vein. See also, the spectacular ‘Pain Bubbles’

Don’t think that The Legendary Pink dots turned into a Jam band in the 90s, though. Perhaps their finest releases were Shadow Weaver and Malachai: Shadow Weaver part 2. Both albums are at least somewhat associated with Steven Stapleton of Nurse With Wound (and there’s a band that could use a Spotlight…), though Malachai is the only one that features actual contributions by him (other than the cover). Here the focus is more on a trance inducing direction like in ‘Zero Zero’

Or the beautiful ‘Leper Colony’ which features some incredible booming production:

‘Joey the Canary’ is probably the most psychedelic The Dots have ever been:

Where as they could get no more Nurse With Wound than with ‘Window on the World’

Other highlights include ‘Clockwise’

‘As Long as it’s Purple and Green’ which envisions an alternate universe where LPD is a trip-hop band:

‘Nine Shades to the Circle’

And many, many more!

It’s exhausting writing about these guys. There’s many highlights across their vast discography, and many head scratching inclusions. They’ll certainly never see any mainstream success (after 30 years of obscurity, that ship has probably sailed), but I hope somewhere here might find something to love.