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Edward Ka-Spel, "High On Station Yellow Moon"

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Edward Ka-Spel is certainly having quite an amazing year, already releasing two great albums in the form of I Can Spin A Rainbow and The Brown Acid Caveat.  This deeply strange and proggy solo effort is kind of a bizarre bridge between those two peaks, featuring occasional contributions from Amanda Palmer and seemingly expanding upon the thematic premise of The Tear Garden's "Lola’s Rock."  High On Station Yellow Moon also feels like a repository for all of Ka-Spel's recent ideas that were too abstract and unstructured for his "proper" albums–like a pressure-release valve for an overactive mind.  In that sense, there is a definite resemblance to the collaged, free-form aesthetic of The Legendary Pink Dots' Chemical Playschool series, albeit with a fairly consistent and intriguing thematic thread weaving through it all.  Another similarity to the Chemical Playschool series is that Yellow Moon can be a meandering and frustrating listen at times, but patient listeners will be rewarded by an occasional sustained passage that captures Ka-Spel at the absolute peak of his powers.


The basic premise of High on Station Yellow Moon is laid out with reasonable clarity in the album's first half: a comet is hurtling towards the earth and a trio of astronauts (each of whom speaks a different language) is marooned on the titular space station with no way to communicate with the outside world or measure time, as a solar flare wipes out all of their electronics.  After that, however, the story quickly becomes very fractured and muddied, as does the structure: each half of the album consists of a five-part suite of small vignettes the blur and bleed together.  Much of the background is laid out in the surprisingly lyrical and simple piano ballad "OMG 666," in which the narrator expresses his optimism that technology will save everyone from the comet and that there is no need to worry…but then it blossoms into a lushly swirling darkness of crackling radio transmissions, brooding synthesizers, and distracted and decontextualized female vocals and the narrator delves into the alternate possibility of everyone being completely obliterated.  Unexpectedly, that schizophrenic introduction gives way to the album's mesmerizing centerpiece, a lengthy and haunting spoken-word passage in which Ka-Spel describes the moment when the space station’s astronauts are suddenly left stranded in space with nothing but each other.  After that point, clarity and lasting structure become rare commodities and the album dissolves into something of a kaleidoscopic fever dream, though it does re-cohere briefly for a lilting ballad with Palmer ("The Leary Cloud") that beautifully embellishes its Romantic neo-classicism with an unpredictably garbled and smeared onslaught of warped psychedelia.  The side ominously closes with that piece being pulled apart into a lurching and disjointed groove of decontextualized fragments.

The second half of the album opens with a buzzing and skittering piece entitled "Provisional" that sounds like a distant radio transmission struggling through a haze of static.  If it were not for that willfully corroded and trebly texture and a penchant for suddenly fading or dissolving, it could probably pass of a decent Legendary Pink Dots song.  That said, it abruptly gives way to yet another spoken word passage in which one of the astronauts recounts the lonely, isolated horror of being trapped forever inside a space suit.  The structure of the album definitely starts to mirror that escalating horror and feeling of disconnection at this point, as Ka-Spel cycles through his surreal and vaguely haunted-sounding motifs without giving me much time to establish my moorings.  He thankfully has one more rabbit in his hat though, as Palmer returns for the album’s other centerpiece "Eight Mile Bride," a tender and unsettling music box interlude from the perspective of a woman who performs for the astronauts in exchange for "wonderpills," but can never be reached or touched ("the entertainment for lonely men with fishbowls on their heads…untouchable").  After that sad, weirdly beautiful, and vaguely creepy interlude, the remaining minutes gradually cohere into a bleak and brooding coda of melancholy strings, mysterious textures, and uneasy drones that feels like an elegy for the hapless astronauts dying together (yet so alone) in the vastness of space.  Appropriately, the album concludes with a bitterly sardonic poem from Ka-Spel that ends with a scathing indictment of God.

Curiously, the CD version appends two bonus tracks, which maddeningly undercuts the bleak finality of Ka-Spel’s closing words.  Sequencing crimes aside, however, the bonus songs themselves are generally quite good.  One is an alternate stand-alone (if somewhat unnecessary) version of "The Leary Cloud," while "No One Can Hear You Squeak" is a nice bit of stark drone, dark atmosphere, and simmering tension enlivened by some subtly visceral textural touches that sometimes resemble a slow drizzle of broken glass or shards of metal.  The latter is absolutely good enough to have warranted inclusion of the actual album, but the symmetry and arc of the vinyl version sans bonus material feels like the more definitive and powerful version.  Of course, odds are strong that anyone interested in High on Station Yellow Moon is probably a bit of a Legendary Pink Dots' completist, as this is a comparatively modest release in a prolific year.  There is no question that most of Ka-Spel's best ideas went elsewhere, as it definitely feels like this album has a lot of vault scrapings and studio scraps inserted as bridges between the more fully formed passages.  There are fully formed passages though and Ka-Spel spins what little gold he has into an immersively surreal and evocative whole, even if he leaves the seams showing a bit (moderate expectactations are key here).  Yellow Moon is a solid, mid-tier album: if it lacks the compositional rigor and songcraft of Ka-Spel's best work, it compensates through sheer imagination and a few orphaned flashes of brilliance that did not find a home elsewhere.