Nine Lives To Wonder (Tentative Review)

Tentative Review #102
Legendary Pink Dots
Nine Lives To Wonder (released 1995)

Track: Rating:

  • Madame Guillotine **** 1/2
  • On Another Shore ****
  • Softly Softly *** 1/2
  • Crumbs On The Carpet *** 1/2
  • Hotel Z ****
  • Oasis Malade ****
  • A Crack In Melancholy Time *** 1/2
  • Siren ****
  • The Angel Trail *** 1/2
  • Nine Shades To The Circle *****
  • A Terra Firma Welcome *** 1/2

Personnel:

  1. Martin Dekleer: electric and acoustic guitars, timpani on “Siren”, drums on “The Angel Trail”
  2. Edward Ka’Spel (“Prophet Qa’Setel”): vocals, keyboards, destroyed lyre
  3. Phil Knight (“The Silverman”): keyboards, devices
  4. Ryan Moore: bass, drums on “Madame Guillotine”, “On Another Shore” and “A Terra Firma Welcome”
  5. Neil Van Hoornblower: saxophone, cornet, flute
  6. cEvin Key: drums on “Softly Softly”, “Crumbs On The Carpet”, “A Crack In Melancholy Time”, “Siren” and “Nine Shades To The Circle”

Comments:

Despite being almost totally unknown in America, the Legendary Pink Dots have been able to sustain an unbelievably prolific career from their base in the Netherlands. Since Chemical Playschool in 1981, the group have released albums on a regular (almost annual) basis — and this in addition to various EPs, solo projects, and collaborations with cEvin Key (ex-Skinny Puppy) as The Tear Garden (whose Last Man To Fly album is discussed on the Tentative Reviews web site).

While their early works were strongly rooted in Euro-pop stylings, the Pink Dots eventually developed their sound into a unique form of modern psychedelia — combining Floyd-esque sonics (including more than a few blatant PF references) with some truly disturbed childlike/apocalyptic lyrics, frequently dwelling on space-related themes. Interestingly, these themes are frequently delivered in a somewhat detached manner (which might, come to think of it, account for the group’s staying power). Perhaps any country which is fairly lenient towards casual drug use is bound to produce casual psychedelia. It’s difficult to say. But whatever their origins, the LPD have managed to come up with some truly intriguing music within the space of their careers.

Some would argue that the LPD hit their “peak” with Asylum in 1985. Perhaps. But even a random purchase of any material released since that time is bound to yield a decent return. And, while it’s arguable that some Pink Dots releases have been “formulaic” in recent years, the boys are usually able to come up with enough new twists to keep things interesting.

Which isn’t to say that every song is a perfect gem. Some of the tracks on Nine Lives To Wonder (1995) are clearly less inspired than others, and there are times (here and elsewhere) where the eclecticism seems a tad forced. But even the lower points on the album aren’t all that low. While NLtW may not be the highest water mark in the LPD catalogue, it’s still a very good album, and a worthwhile purchase for progressive fans with a psychedelic bent.

The album commences, not surprisingly, with heavy apocalyptic overtones, as the saga of “Madame Guillotine” is brought forward — to judge from the lyrics, this figure seems to be power of cosmic destruction, forever trying to to remove the blood from her soiled hands (Kali meets Lady MacBeth?). The music is both strongly electronic and profoundly spacious, with older-sounding synthesizers matching with saxophones towards the end to a interesting (and very musical) effect. The shift in lyrics from personal to global occurs at about mid-song, with Ka’spel’s invocation of the famous “when they rounded up the […]” passage from holocaust times. This isn’t a particularly new direction for the Pink Dots, but it starts the album off on a strong enough note.

“On Another Shore” is an extremely background-sounding number, with all of the instruments (and, to a certain extent, the voice) mixed rather low — this eventually leads to a somewhat trancelike effect by song’s end. The bass and drum-brushes set the restrained tone of the song from the beginning; interestingly, the only instrument which breaks through this mix is the flute. The lyrics are a paean to a mysterious lost companion, who has apparently left the protagonist in isolation — the flutes might suggest an allusion to ancient Greece, but this could just as easily involve themes of alien visitation — lines like “The good ship sails away forever” might suggest the latter rather than the former. Not quite as well-crafted as the first track, this is still extremely good.

The album undergoes a sudden shift with “Softly Softly”, an odd blend of late-1960s Brit-pop (in the music) and vague psychedelic hints (in the lyrics). The mix is much crisper than before (which is doubly odd given the presence of a Skinny Puppy member on drums), and the flute once again receives a strong role. Short, articulate and non-essential, this may be the perfect case study of a “minor album track”.

“Crumbs On The Carpet” sees the Pink Dots revising one of their previous jokes, and telling the story of a troupe of pathologically deranged diners unable to satiate their all-consuming appetites (the “monkey brains” section is taken directly from an earlier EP track). The electronic effects (sounding suspiciously like a video game sample) come to the foreground again, thus leading to a truly odd beats’n’horns segment about halfway through. This isn’t the strongest number the Pink Dots have ever come up with, although the weirdness does have a certain charm of its own.

Continuing the theme of sudden mood shifts, “Hotel Z” is a detailed depiction of a decadent, regal figure literally fading away in his isolation (the most obvious implication of the title would be to suggest that this theme refers to a famous musician overdosing in isolation, but the specific interpretation is left somewhat open). Sung from the perspective of the tragic hero (with a dark, acoustic backing which shifts from guitar to piano), this decline is extremely well-presented. Of note is a keyboard “solo” which harkens directly back to early Pink Floyd without quite constituting a “rip-off” per se.

“Oasis Malade” is another unusual number, with Ka’Spel narrating an encounter with an long-lost beloved, who explains that she left him to explore the pyramids in Belgium (eventually returning when she discovered that there were none). After offering him a drink of tea from a plastic cup, she leaves again. It isn’t entirely clear if this is meant to be humourous or tragic — the confessional recounting of the encounter seems to reveal the character limitations of the protagonist as much as the absurdity of the tale. The music, of course, is dark and ambient throughout.

The group returns to electronic music again with “A Crack In Melancholy Time” (amusingly, the drum beat seems to be acoustic). This song features an appearance of environmentalist-based lyrics, which have never been Ka’Spel’s strongest point (see also The Crushed Velvet Apocalypse for further examples) — the unironic nature of such themes doesn’t really suit him terribly well, though it must be admitted that his shift from the general to the personal in mid-song improves the general nature of the song. While a good number, this simply doesn’t rate with the best material on the album. An extended, pulsating instrumental concludes the track.

“Siren” begins with something of a classical flavour (admittedly not terribly complex, though), and quickly develops into a detailed/repetitive depiction of a group of sailors approaching the forbidden beauty of the titular creatures. In terms of both lyrics and music, some form of destruction always seems to lurk around the corner, never quite emerging — the thin line of beauty is put forward instead (including a “sail to me” chant, which lasts for a fair degree of time). A rather background- ish keyboard lead emerges as the track reaches its end.

And this leads to the brief “The Angel Trail”, a curious number featuring a “wavy”, almost Hawaiian-sounding guitar line merging with naive cloudland lyrics in an obvious parody of peacenik love songs. A bit on the short side (as one might expect from the theme), this is still a fairly clever venture.

The masterpiece of the album is “Nine Shades To The Circle”, a truly twisted number involving more sonic manipulation than any other track here, and a Burroughs-esque description of a morning departure for an urgent journey by train (featuring several different outcomes, all of which have the same general musical background). After an electro- acoustic introduction of sorts (presumably capturing the atmosphere of the station at dawn), the first variation on the lyrical theme emerges: an obsessed figure’s thoughts grow gradually more disturbed as he enters the station (a line about “Evil Santa punish[ing] the bad boys” comes out of nowhere), and eventually enters state of advanced paranoia in the middle of the station (allowing Ka’Spel to incorporate one of his more interesting vocal effects into the work, while the music enters a rather chaotic state). In subsequent lyrical themes, the story concludes with (i) a junkie stabbing the protagonist before the story really begins, (ii) a figure musing on a lost love while a radio explodes in the background, and (iii) a matter-of-fact description of the journey to the train, with no suggestion of what happens thereafter. Between each tale, the song structure breaks down in some chaotic manner. This is LPD insanity at its most refined, and perhaps its most rewarding as well.

Following this, “A Terra Firma Welcome” seems almost a necessary coda to prevent the album from concluding with total chaos. The music on this particular work is much more … well … “normal” than any other track here, and the lyrics are profoundly puzzling (involving a figure joining the space police, the sending of a “guest” into space with all of his body parts cut up and sterilized, and an alien race “returning for their boy”). It’s not entirely clear what any of this signifies, though perhaps any album of this sort has to end with some sort of mystery.

Nine Lives To Wonder is an interesting experience, featuring several tracks which rate well on their own terms. This isn’t necessarily the best introduction to the Pink Dots, but it should be able to convince most fans of eclectic music of their essential worth.

The Christopher Currie
(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 19 May 1998)

 

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