Live Review: Legendary Pink Dots at The Earl

Two shows over the weekend delved into equal but opposite ends of the outer reaches of vivid, noisy and arty psychedelic rock, yielding vastly different and equally distinctive sounds.

On Halloween night I hid out in the balcony during the Deerhunter record release party for their third album, Microcastle. Times New Viking opened with a crackly, noise-afflicted pop dirge of brain-teasing hooks swimming in ugly but beautiful overdrive. Jay Reatard followed with a face full of hair-thrashing, shot-gun punk energy, playing a little longer than his typical 20-minute set, but not by too much.

From a smaller stage it’s much easier to get swept into the moment of sheer, cathartic punk rock release during Jay’s shows. But from the safety of my perch in the balcony high above Variety’s stage, Jay’s typically sped-up tirades did the songs a bit of a disservice. He peeled through dozens of songs, spanning his “solo” singles pre-Blood Visions all the way through his recent spate of Matador 7-inches, but he just couldn’t get through them fast enough. Songs like “Hammer I Miss You,” “My Shadow” and “Screaming Hand” were played so fast that the delivery felt cartoonish… Intense to be sure, but they could definitely benefit from a dose of Xanax.

Afterward, it took Pylon a minute to reach cruising altitude with opening song “Cool,” but they hit stride soon enough. The sparseness and dub-like tension in their pop/new wave pop arrangements gives the group both strength and a timeless sense of intrigue, which was made all the more intense following Jay Reatard’s spastic energy. or whatever that’s worth, a few youngsters within my earshot grumbled that Pylon went on for too long… but the rest of the steadily building crowd seemed no worse for the wear.

Deerhunter closed with a performance that empowered songs from Microcastle with a much greater punch than anything the record offers. “Cover Me (Slowly),” “Never Stops” and “Nothing Ever Happened” unfolded behind a stunning barrage of lights as each song transformed from elegant order into chaos; culminating in a massive, all-consuming drone. When the audience demanded more, the group obliged with a menacing “Lake Somerset” stomp that bled into a few other more recent songs before segueing back into the drone and putting a cap on a weird and sensory overloading Halloween night.

The following night I made my way over to The Earl to catch “an evening with the Legendary Pink Dots.” I always forget about the gothic appeal this group holds, until I’m confronted with their audiences… That and when the door guy asked, “what’s up with all the goths here tonight?”

It’s nothing more than a coincidence as far as I’m concerned; a byproduct of the Pink Dots pairings with the members of Skinny Puppy for the Tear Garden albums… That and Edward Ka-Spel does posses a certain dark and mystical quality that doesn’t fit easily anywhere else. But I still maintain that throwing around words like psychedelic, avant-garde, post-industrial folk, experimental and just plain weird are more fitting of the group’s sound and vision. It’s an age old dilemma that has followed the group since their inception in 1980, and it’s not a bad thing.

Over the last several years the group’s touring line-up has settled on Ka-Spel, Niels Van Hornblower (Saxophone and various other wind instruments, both familiar and alien), Martijn De Kleer (guitar/bass) and Phil “the Silverman” Knight (keyboards/knob-twisting).

The latter two tend to keep to themselves during shows. But while Ka-Spel sings his guts out and works through some intensely spiritual and psychological demons, Niels goes wild with reptilian dexterity. From the stage he blows his saxophone into people’s faces and sporadically leaves the stage to assault on-lookers with a horn that’s fitted with a blinding flashlight that seems to burn brighter with every skronk and horn blast. The paring of these two characters creates a powerful tension of wacky sincerity that balances equal parts deep, dark honesty and avant-garde comic relief.

Not many artists can pull off this kind of dynamic, and a small but dedicated crowd of on-lookers pressed hard against the stage and hung on every word, every noise and every note the group created. Their set leaned heavily on material from their most recent release, Plutonium Blonde, but, just as they always do, the Dots rattled off a few older numbers as well. With a catalogue that includes easily between 50 and 100 legitimate releases, it’s pointless to keep your fingers crossed and hope for anything specific. Some highlights during show at The Earl included a spot-on performance of “The Grain Kings” from The Maria Dimension, and “Fifteen Flies in the Marmalade” from Asylum.

The group was in strong form as they played for nearly two hours, and even cracked jokes about coming to American only to be confused by talk of Joe the Plumber on CNN. The Dots put on a show with intensity and a cerebral balance of rumbling noise, and a heart-wrenching strum over narratives that take you on a journey into the farthest reaches of inner space and drop you off right where they found you… Only slightly shaken by the group’s singular blend of psychedelic paranoia, melancholy and bliss all rolled into one brain-bending and mysterious sound.

Photos by Chad Radford


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