Legendary Pink Dots, "Island of Jewels"
Metropolis Records continues their ambitious LPD reissue campaign with an expanded and remastered edition of this oft-fascinating album from the band's celebrated mid-'80s hot streak. According to the band, Island of Jewels was "the natural successor" to The Tower, but it was chronologically sandwiched between two of the Dots' most beloved albums from the era (1985's Asylum and 1988's Any Day Now). Being eclipsed on either side by arguably superior albums has not been optimal for Island of Jewels' stature within the LPD canon, yet it still captured the band in legitimately inspired form (albeit in service of an especially bleak vision this time around). As I did not start delving into the Dots' oeuvre until the mid-'90s (I was lured in by The Tear Garden), I still find it a bit difficult to embrace some of the conspicuously "'80s" elements from this particular phase, as the synth sounds and slap/fretless bass themes have not aged terribly well. Then again, it seems deeply wrong-headed to take issue with the tools that the band used to craft such a playfully surreal and endearing collection of songs, as only a fool would let passing stylistic trends rob them of their sense of wonder. While I would describe Island of Jewels as a more of an acquired taste than some of the surrounding releases, it is a taste worth acquiring, as this album is a delightfully hook-filled and hallucinatory world to immerse oneself in.
Belatedly delving into '80s-era Legendary Pink Dots is a curious experience, as albums like this one capture an incredibly imaginative and talented group of musicians still somewhat in the thrall of their influences and the popular instrumentation of the time. As a result, a lot of this album sounds like someone from the Victorian era became obsessed with '70s prog and set out to make a half-carnivalesque/half-melancholy concept album armed with a fretless bass and an inexpensive synthesizer. Given that singular vibe, even the weakest songs are compellingly weird, but the tradeoff is that the best songs almost always have some kind of irksome imperfection. Perhaps that latter part works in the band's favor entertainment-wise though, as the dated sounds undercut Edward Ka-Spel's bleakness to create something more charming and fun. The first half of the album is teeming with such skewed delights. My favorite is the wonky, lurching "Dairy," which feels like a unhinged magician with a drum machine leading a dance party on a disturbingly Sid & Marty Krofft-inspired children's show. "The Red and the Black" deserves an honorable mention too, as it sounds like a macabre art-pop ensemble performing a shape-shifting cabaret show, but a mischievous bassist decided to wrong-foot everyone by obsessively playing a cheerily cartoonish riff over and over again.
Of course, there are some legitimate Dots classics here too, such as the neo-classical goth-pop balladry of "Shock of Contact." To some degree, it feels like a prog band doing a spacey electric cover of an old harpsichord piece, but that aspect is eclipsed by an especially haunting and beautiful vocal performance from Ka-Spel. The other big highlight comes in the form of the "Our Lady" trilogy near the end of the album. The first part, "Our Lady In Chambers," feels like a darkly lysergic piano ballad plucked from a fairy tale, but one propelled by a thudding drum machine, liquid fretless bass riffage, harmonized lead guitar, dramatic violin flourishes, and occasional stabs of fake horns. Ka-Spel's vocals are wonderfully tender, poetic, and beautiful, so it is easy to imagine a contemporary live version of the piece being an absolute stunner. I was also impressed by "Our Lady of Darkness," which initially sounds like an absinthe-drunk mad genius performing a one-man opera in his mountain castle, but unexpectedly erupts into a very cool and intricate instrumental outro. Notably, the vinyl and digital versions of this reissue enhance the original twelve-song album with eight freewheeling bonus pieces, and they make this latest incarnation considerably more fascinating than the original. My notes on the bonus material are full of phrases like "terrifying German expressionist puppet show set in space" or "sounds like a disco-era erotic vampire musical on rollerskates," and those are not even the pieces identified as "Version Ridiculous" (an honor reserved solely for ‚ÄúNo Bell No Prize"). Needless to say, those are exquisite experiences that are impossible to find elsewhere, but the biggest surprise was "This Could Be The End (Alternative)," which radically transforms Asylum's closer into a ghostly folk gem with Attrition's Julia Niblock on vocals. I would not have a expected a bonus track with Ka-Spel on the sidelines to steal the show, but the timeless "folk horror" feel makes it one of my favorite outliers in the LPD canon.
Samples can be found here.