Legendary Pink Dots:
All the King’s Men [ROIR; 2002]
You have to admire a band that just doesn’t care at all about fitting in with any current trend in music. Legendary Pink Dots have wedged themselves so firmly into their own specific niche over the years that it’s unlikely they could leave it even if they wanted to. In just over twenty years, they’ve kicked out nearly forty albums (live records and comps put them near sixty), and not one of those releases has ever seen them set foot into a realm you could call commercial. While obscurity and difficulty certainly aren’t virtues in their own right, the various lineups that have revolved around the core of Edward Ka-Spel and Phil Knight have always found oddness without much effort– some of their best records (From Here You’ll Watch the World Go By, A Perfect Mystery, Chemical Playground 1 + 2) revel in sounds that most would roll their eyes at.
And that’s an important point– most people will not like this music. That’s just fact. The keyboards drip in sounds other bands avoid like the plague, Ka-Spel’s lisping delivery can be over-the-top even for Goths, and huge swaths of this album are bathed with washes of sound that go places only when they feel like it, not when you want them to. The band’s closest kindred spirits in terms of approach (though not necessarily in sound), are darkwave acts like Current 93 and Nurse with Wound, though their music only occasionally reaches the points of creepy surrealism or abrasion that those artists aspire to.
And despite all this, there’s something arresting about the music that Legendary Pink Dots make. The band grabs you with a song or two, blinding you to the fact that you’re being gradually lowered into a morass of strange, uncompromising sound. In the midst of all this is the inescapable fact that Ka-Spel can’t pronounce the letter “r,” a fact which will either drive you up the wall or endear you to him. I have to say that after a brief period of adjustment way back in the day, I came to like his voice– it nicely suits the music.
It’s almost not worth getting into specifics about songs, as the whole record feels very much of a piece, from the weird synthetic opening to the droning club beat that guides the last thirteen minutes of its duration on “The Brightest Star”. Programmed drums and little whizzing noises serve as the bed for “Cross of Fire”, which is about as appropriate a bowshot as you could have for what comes after. Ka-Spel starts out at the back of the mix, before an army of buzzing devices lifts him on robot arms into the foreground. He still sounds like he’s standing 20 feet down the hall speaking into a megaphone, but he somehow comes out ahead, at least before a guitar processed beyond recognition guts everything and leaves behind the artificial organ and string motifs of “The Warden”.
“The Warden” is one of a handful of comparatively straightforward dirges that populate the wasteland of guitar and keyboard drone that fills the album’s middle. The drum machine is halfway between Enya and being switched off, the string patches are utterly fake and the tempo is molasses slow, but all of this, combined with Ka-Spel’s dreamy intonations and some wandering, Leslie-coated piano, makes for something utterly unique and fascinating. “Sabres at Dawn” is a broken-down carnival ride waiting to maim a child, while “Touched by the Midnight Sun” is disquietingly empty, plying only a few sparse drones and some water-like ambience behind Ka-Spel’s disembodied zombie sing-speak.
The aforementioned closer picks things up at the end, and though its dance beat is a strong one, it’s what’s going on around it that’s really interesting– these sounds conjure images of clubbers being ripped to tatters by knives, splattering a blender load of distortion and whirring helicopter synths all over everything. When it finally sputters to a halt after 13 minutes of punishment, you’ll be ready to come back into the light. It’s difficult to say exactly who will like this, aside from those already along for the Dots’ freakish ride, and saying, “you’ll either love it or hate it outright,” though probably true, isn’t very helpful. So let me say this: Legendary Pink Dots are a singular musical experience, and if that’s worth your money, have a fun trip.
– Joe Tangari, February 27, 2003