Joining the Dots

Edward Ka-Spel
Tanith And The Lion Tree

Reissued and remastered by Cold Spring this solo album by The Legendary Pink Dots vocalist was originally issued by Third Mind Records in 1991. Not that you’d know from the packaging which is singularly devoid of information. Perhaps only the initiated are expected to attend this party – still, I likes me a bit of context, not to mention text, of an evening’s sleeve-reading. As it happens, although it is firmly of its time and milieu in some respects, its ballooning strangenesses and eccentric personality allow it to slip above the time-stream and reach our ears from unexpected directions, so although a potentially confusing listen for neophytes, perhaps it should be accessible to others than those in the know.

Tanith and the Lion Tree is a multi-headed, single-minded, vision-driven hybrid chimera of an album. A Synthetic gothic baroque psychedelic science-fictional industrial pop song cycle cut with whimsical musical choices and a certain blasted and trembling apocalyptic awareness of a type that was somehow closer to the surface in the 80s. (I’m thinking John Balance in Coil and Genesis P-Orridge in Psychic TV, for fairly obvious starters.) Edward’s singing voice is a distinctive and singular one: sing-song, frail, wide-eyed and awe-struck delivered with his rhotasistic pronunciation, imbuing it with a naïve, visionary quality. A close reference might be David Tibet, but it is more keening, less malevolent although equally savage, sometimes. Whereas Tibet of this era is all Swastikas and Lucifer and Death In June flirtations, Ka-spel, although still tinged with the gothic at times, is harder to pin down, lyrical themes and emotions swirling like oily iridescences on water. Lyrics are woven from imagistic and stylised surrealist scenes, recurring suggestive phrases and images are recombined and floated in different musical settings.

The start of the album is its most full-on moment. We are thrown in at the deep end, as the lyrics invoke Dachau, flames and the Buddha before Ka-Spel screams and moans, electronically stretched and transfigured a universal howl of anguish “Why?!” sounding for all the world like he’s reporting from the tattered fringes of vision, over a synth-heavy backing. The title track is a ballad which seems to hide significant meaning behind obscure imagery, alternately fanciful and sinister – a fairytale, or indeed mythopoetic, quality, which is something you can pick up on in much of The Legendary Pink Dots work, I think. It is refracted through personal sensibilities and forms of expression, but there is an abiding inspiration from nonsense rhymes, the surreal, the mythic and science-fiction which is transmuted into a new, quivering, unified substance. After this intense opening duo we are allowed some respite as we drift in serene electronic ambience, dialling through the thought stratosphere, re-gathering our scattered bodies and regrouping splatted sens(ibiliti)es. ‘Four out of ten’ once again twists the kaleidoscope flapping synth-filters flopping like space-station issue flip-flops round and around in centrifugally generated gravity as Ka-spel’s disembodied voice soar and wheels. Tortured fuzz-guitar is a distant cousin to Pinhas/Heldon/Lard Free in another galaxy.

As can perhaps be intuited, the album has its own distinctive shape and contours – no off-the-shelf shape, no neat narrative arc, here – gliding from apocalyptic lullaby to hushed ambient hum to inscrutably jaunty (and weirdly loud), oddly attired and jointed song. Images are folded back and in upon themselves, bubbling out in different emotional lights. Recurring mutated lyrical echoes include the Lions of the lion tree and the ‘three times daily’ of ‘Prisoners of War’ which becomes ‘Three Times Daily’, the mantra, a ritual street recording chanted over huffing melodica, an unexplained rite, like Borges’ Cult of the Phoenix. In other places a diaphanous sac of trembling synthetic instrumentation swells and congeals into multiple forms and then is off cavorting with the MIDI marching band. This kind of combination and artistic choice makes the album quite a distinct entity in and of itself, consistent in its internal logic whilst being uniquely its own in distended and slender, bulging and graceful form.

‘The Bakersman’ marries what sounds like preset keyboard chord auto-accompaniment (Single fingered? Fingered?) and dubby delays recognisable from early Dots work with vaguely threatening and comic lyrical imagery. Straightforward narrative is elusive, but the theatrical setting and strange mise-en-scene leave potent non-verbal impressions. There is a blend of fantastical/mundane settings with a hint of bloating comedy, antic disposition and latent confusion, a continental café scene with un-introduced characters performing inexplicable actions. This, logically under such circumstances, is followed by ‘Prithee’, a yearningly heartfelt ballad, frail and gothic, awkward and vaulting at the same time.

Many records tacitly or otherwise pick a direction and move towards it or mine one particular mood; Mr Ka-spel – in common, I suppose, with a song and lyric based approach that is ultimately rooted in pop, though hybridised and grafted with strange protuberances, creates a polymorphous entity of varying mood; he steps over limiting boundaries and wanders through a wide emotional terrain, which may take a little adjusting to if you have been unaccustomed to venturing (or being pulled) into such areas. Certain works of Coil or Current 93 might have a similar effect. In a different way perhaps Michael Gira is another person who lyrically investigates similarly intense emotional material. In all honesty, the emotional worlds which it orbits are not ones I visit musically all that often at the moment, but it’s probably not a bad thing to be turned towards these relatively unfrequented areas by a work of art now and then, and on this showing Ka-spel confirms he makes an interesting guide.

It’s interesting to listen with a contemporaneous work such as Coil’s Love’s Secret Domain in mind. Whilst Tanith and the Lion Tree shares certain similarities – the apocalyptic, the peculiarly 80s overt and somewhat theatrical presentation and peculiar mixture of ecstasy, tragedy and vision – something keeps it apart from its contemporaries and imbues it with an obliquely slanted individuality. Some of the more clunky tropes of the time are sidestepped, and in its hybridity it remains buoyant, an ectomplasmic weather balloon – perhaps because it retains hidden tendrils to expansive and melodic inquiries from psychedelic and progressive rock. Wide ranging and personal reference points – not to mention a leavening humour derived from its more surrealist moves – that serve to ensure it is not tied in to one particular time and movement, and is an intriguing and fairly slippery listen, today, still. It swims in strange waters, as well as post-industrial-isms from Britain; there are hints of the electronic ‘industrial’ from the US, things like Skinny Puppy, even Nine Inch Nails. Not an entirely welcome thought, but Edward did collaborate with Cevin Key of Skinny Puppy, and of course if we are thinking about Coil as well they had a famously protracted collaboration with Trent Reznor. There is always the new-wave and pop sensibility, the jauntiness that is often likened to Syd Barrett whimsy, but could equally be compared to off-kilter Residents weirdo moves. I’ve a feeling their main antecedents may be the also rather unclassifiable Tuxedomoon. In the end, though, the syncretic vision on this solo album is individual and distinct, not to mention a segment of one that has been consistently investigated and developed from the early days of the Dots, their first Chemical Playschools, through their Crushed Velvet Apocalypse and this album onto their more recent albums like Seconds Late for the Brighton Line – a sprawling, theatrical, gothic, ambient, poetic, electronic, spacey, apocalyptic, perfumed, fey, mannered, humorous, po-faced realm which is stamped indelibly as the Dots and Ka-spel’s own. On this album he conjures up with the ingredients to hand a pungent thing, a cathartic spell. Some of the ingredients might not be to everyone’s liking and seem a little over-stated or awkward, but sometimes it’s worth transgressing (now there’s another imperative seemingly marooned in the 80s) ossified boundaries of taste, which will no doubt prove transient, to see what the beyond has to offer. A little bit of awkwardness is probably a small price to pay for a glimpse of a distinctive vision.