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The official story of the Legendary Pink Dots' name mentions a keyboard player who needed nail polish to remember the notes. Yet leader Edward Ka-Spel has picked up the kaleidoscope dropped by Syd Barrett and brought it blazing into the 21st Century with a distinctly Pink Floydian hue. Not the "tear down the wall!" stuff but the magical world of tiny gnomes, astronomy domines, borrowed bicycles, and playful Emilies.
"We're certainly psychedelic, but carrying on the torch from the '60s wasn't ever our intention," Ka-Spel says in a voice that turns every R into a tongue-rolled W."We've always wanted to be rather timeless, actually. It's not about nostalgia at all. We want to make the most psychedelic music that's ever been recorded."
The band, which formed in London in 1980 but has long used the Netherlands as its base of operations, has spent 24 years making the most psychedelic music in quantitative terms: It has released more than 60 (!) albums in that period, including compilations. Then there are another 15 discs that Ka-Spel has created on his own as well as the half-dozen he's made with his side project, Tear Garden. Psychedelic maybe, prolific indisputably. Not even the enigmatic Ka-Spel has enough fingers and toes to keep track of all those children.
With such a conveyor-belt output, it's hard for the Pink Dots to remember more than the last few albums. The band lives in the present, and many older songs "have run their course" and are now retired, Ka-Spel explains. The newest album is Whispering Wall, a trippy little warning light atop the reactor core of the Apocalypse.
Since the band's start, singer/keyboardist Ka-Spel (a.k.a. D'Archangel, a.k.a. the Prophet Qa'Sepel) and keyboardist Phil Knight (a.k.a. the Silver Man) have constituted its abstract-electronic foundation, and in 1988, saxophonist/extrovert Niels van Hoorn offset their inherent weirdness with love-loaded melodies and outlandish stage presence. Festooned with leopard-print suits and matching hats and strolling into the crowd with wireless instruments, van Hoorn is comic relief to Ka-Spel's intractable oddness.
The band's initial cassette-only output was spotty, and early albums like Curse (1983) are marred by unfortunate new wave slap-bass buffoonery. Watersheds like Any Day Now (1987) and The Golden Age (1988) brought the band's involuted mythologies and surreal carnival atmospheres into focus. Still, so obscure was the band that it was denied a visa to tour the U.S. in 1990. "Ah, yes," Ka-Spel remembers. "It was a case of someone who hadn't heard of us deciding we had no artistic merit."
America finally opened its doors the next year, and the Legendary Pink Dots have since made annual pilgrimages to increasingly large crowds. The records have kept coming too, and career highlights like 1997's Hallway of the Gods and 1998's Nemesis Online presented the group's electronically bent psychedelia in its multitracked glory. Better yet, the band had perfected twistedly gorgeous pop songs. Acoustic madrigals like "Fate's Faithful Punchline" and "Lucifer's Landed" are just beneath the threshold of universal accessibility.
Like other Pink Dots albums, Whispering Wall includes a psych-popadelic nugget ("For Sale"), a dissonant rocker ("Soft Toy"), and a moody, ten-minute-plus opus ("Sunken Pleasure/Rising Pleasure/No Walls, No Strings"). "There are always little lines that run from one record to the next," Ka-Spel says cryptically.
The records Ka-Spel releases on his own (the most recent, Pieces of 8, should in no way be mistaken for the Styx album of the same name) are even more out-there than the Pink Dots. The third outlet for his boundless creativity, the Tear Garden, is a more industrial affair -- not surprising, given that it's a collaboration with members of Canada's brutal Skinny Puppy. After a 35-date tour with Legendary Pink Dots, Ka-Spel will record a new Tear Garden album in Los Angeles and then tour again with that project. All this comes after a pair of albums released in 2002 (All the King's Horses and All the King's Men) which was followed by a world tour in 2003 and then immediately by the recording of Whispering Wall. "We've been going so hard," Ka-Spel says. "We're coming off a real explosion of activity."
And the reclusive front man, who turns 50 this year, has no plans to shut off the tap. In fact, almost two years ago, the notorious chain smoker stubbed out his last cancer stick. Feel better, Ed? "To be honest, not especially," he deadpans. "I know you're supposed to have twice the energy, but I can't say I really felt that."
Still, he promises, "There're plenty of years left in the Pink Dots. The fact that we love it so much helps." For almost a quarter century, the band has operated under the motto "Sing While You May," which may explain its voluminous output. Comments Ka-Spel: "Time is accelerating. Imagine the world as a drowning man seeing his entire life flash before his eyes. I'm encouraging people to enjoy it while it's there."