The Gethsemane Option (The Quietus)

Review source: The Quietus

Over 33 years and 40-plus albums, the Legendary Pink Dots have forged a unique, subterranean path through a cross-section of British, European and American musical subcultures. With roots in the same fertile soil of English 1980s post-punk, post-hippie, acid-informed occultism as Psychic TV, Coil, Current 93 and Nurse With Wound – equal parts Stonehenge Free Festival and Ballardian industrial estate dystopia – they’ve detoured through goth, industrial, ambient and dark folk along their journey, from lo-fi tape experiments to alternative dancefloor fillers, subversive pop to abrasive noise, often within the same song.

If anything, though, the Dots can be seen as a singular development of the underground psychedelia that first inspired main man Edward Ka-Spel (born 1954) as a teenager: Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd, the alien visitations of early David Bowie, the art-rock of Henry Cow and the Residents, and of course the first wave of German kosmische music – Can, Faust, Neu! These early visions of artistic freedom have informed the band ever since, through changing incarnations built around Ka-Spel and founding keyboard player Phil Knight, aka The Silverman. Alongside a complex, somewhat tongue-in-cheek mythology constructed via their lyrics and presentation, this approach has seen the Dots filed away as the cult bands’ cult band – beloved of a hardcore few, quietly influential yet perpetually existing well beneath the media radar.

Since the mid-90s the band have been somewhat better known in America where, partly due to their association with Canadian pioneers Skinny Puppy, they’re considered a part of the industrial scene and embraced accordingly. They were even courted by Blondie producer Craig Leon and Van Halen producer Ted Templeman, opportunities they missed out on not due to any stubborn refusal to compromise their ideals, but due to an endearing absent-mindedness; they basically forgot to return their calls. So it is that the latest Dots release comes not courtesy of Time Warner but Pennsylvania’s more modest Metropolis Records. And for a band long based in the Netherlands, and focusing much of its activity in America, it is an inescapably English record, concerned with our heritage and history, our current dire predicament, our blinkered island outlook and, perhaps, our potential for change and liberation.

An accessible and ambitious album, The Gethsemane Option still retains the main stumbling block for any casual listener coming to the Legendary Pink Dots – Edward Ka-Spel’s voice. It’s a flat, nasal drone, part lisp and part sneer, high-pitched and slightly camp, and unapologetically emphasising an East London-Essex-Suffolk accent. It’s a voice not dissimilar to the vocals of Genesis P-Orridge, Current 93’s David Tibet, and Alternative TV’s Mark Perry, making it the default non-singing voice of the Southern English, Post-Punk Occult Underground. And, unfortunately, in the uninitiated it can easily evoke images of Peter Cook as EL Wisty, dressed in cloak and pointy hat, earnestly insisting that he’s been ‘aving a dabble in the black arts, and investigating the works of Aleister Crowley, and it’s all very interesting actually… But the strange thing is that, as you persevere, Ka-Spel’s initially comical vocals become the very glue that holds the album together, and grow in emotional power with every listen. Soon you wouldn’t have them any other way.

Opening track ‘A Star Is Born’ rides in on sinister, unnerving washes of synthesiser that suggest some rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem – or Balham – to be spawned, and this is a nativity tale of sorts, relocated to a “shabby flat in nowhere town, made glorious tonight.” A special child comes into this world certainly, but whether Christ or Antichrist or half-baked homunculus is unclear, as is whether Ka-Spel’s pronouncement that “this is Holy Magick in a cool, cruel world” should be taken sincerely at face value – or whether, as his trademark sneer suggests, the protagonists of the song, hoping for better days and a swift rise from powerless misery to some higher status, are to be both pitied and feared. Whatever, electronic percussion chatters like a horde of cockroaches emerging from behind the skirting board to pay their respects, and the atmosphere curdles into some hybrid of Eraserhead and Rosemary’s Baby as imagined by Czech puppet master Jan Švankmajer.

‘The Garden of Ealing’ is an expert evocations of all the vague, romantic notions of England’s lost golden age, opening with cross-faded snatches of music hall comedy and a Radio 4 type voice reminding us that “we are just a small island.” The song itself could easily be the work of Momus, or an especially melancholic Pet Shop Boys, bedevilled by slashing, rust-flaking electric guitars courtesy of Eric Dorst, echoing down abandoned tube lines as up above the London traffic winks through the falling drizzle. Like a Graham Greene novella, it meditates movingly on the reassuring fantasies of an expat exile, fearful and threatened by the unfamiliar modern world and feeling “invisible, like a ha’penny in a drawer in an attic stored, for rainy days that never come.” He retreats to within the comforting lines drawn in black-and-white by a 1940s comedy feature. “Trying to laugh it off… it takes away the fear that history has ended, that the vestiges of everything I cherish have subsided…”

However, we should never allow fear of the new and unknown to push us into retreat, especially when that retreat is disguised as progress. ‘Esher Everywhere’ begins as a lament for a world homogenised by cultural imperialism, but Ka-Spel’s tone is at first ambiguous; his calls to “turn off the box” and “remove the locks from your windows” might suggest that he approves of this flat-packed New Jerusalem. The clue should have come with the line “they’re sweeping up the debris” however, and the recordings of the 2011 London riots that follow his call to “step outside and breathe the air” suggest that all is not well in this suburban Eden. And when he sings “we’re all in this together, in a place that we can share – our Big Society; let’s call it Esher Everywhere…” it becomes clear just whose flawed vision Ka-Spel is describing, and that the limits of this glorious freedom are sharply circumscribed for most.

Ka-Spel could well have Cameron in mind too on ‘Pendulum,’ intoning “there is no place for small mercies in your sterilised universe” over droning, Cluster-like ambience. But the suggestion is there in the title that things will swing back again. “Your truth… it’s drawn with a stick in the sand, as the desert wind rages and covers your hands. Blameless once more, in the end, just a man.” The pulsing machine skank of ‘Grey Scale’ recognises the small compromises with the system we all make; gradual steps towards total surrender and a life lived in abject fear. “We know where you’re hiding”, mocks a sing-song voice towards the end. Better to follow the heavy, striding bassline of mathematical-occult essay ‘One More Dimension’ as it traverses landscapes of strangely pastoral electronica, before giving way to the sound of a loudly creaking floorboard, or swinging door – suggesting that the way into a different space, another way of being, is right there in front of us, but hidden just out of sight.

 

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