[30 June 2004]
Director Mel Stuart’s 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has gone down in history as a beloved family film, but most of its viewers are well aware of its slightly sinister qualities simmering beneath the shiny, colorful surface. In fact, Roald Dahl’s classic story, adapted for the film, descends directly from the British whimsy introduced in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and contains very little of the film’s latent darkness; while the novel also features the strict morality lessons that demonstrate fat boys being sucked up through tubes of liquid chocolate or boisterous girls inflating into giant blueberries, the post-‘60s hippie hangover and psychedelic freak-out moments exclusive to the film are clearly identifiable elements of their time. In the film’s most impressionable segment, “The Wondrous Boat Ride”—in which the brilliant Gene Wilder intones a creepy poem about going, rowing, and hellfires glowing, while surprising and disturbing media images flash on the still black background behind him—viewers are assaulted with a sickening combination of fascination and fear, as they are forced to confront a sensual stimulation beyond their regular level of understanding. This is the kind of moment that the Legendary Pink Dots have been recreating on record for almost 25 years. The Whispering Wall, possibly their 21st proper studio album, often hints at the band’s tendency to throw the listener blindly into overwhelming (and truly rewarding, for the initiated) freak-out moments, but never quite goes there, leaving those with whetted appetites to pursue the more difficult moments into the remainder of the Dots’ catalog.
Instead, The Whispering Wall captures the Dots at their most accessible and appealing. As a palatable entry point, it may leave long-time fans feeling that they’ve heard some of these exercises before, but new converts will admire the variety and breadth of sound on display here. The heavy guitar, funereal organ, and pounding drums in the strong “Soft Toy” mildly recall what once was by playing to expectations of the goth/industrial audience into which the band has been unfairly immersed for years, but the song effectively balances darkness and beauty as the band always have. “Dominic” offers the Tom Stoppard treatment to the tale of Humpty Dumpty, complete with a nursery rhyme chorus, while the similarly vaudevillian sing-along flavor of “Peek-a-Boo” has been successfully revisited several times throughout the Dots’ career. “In Sickness and in Health” is a precious ballad, predominant on later Dots records such as 2002’s All the King’s Horses, and is a fine example of the band’s ability to insert space amongst the usual chaos of the band’s principal players: wordsmith Edward Ka-Spel, synthesizer wizard Phil Knight, and reed maestro Niels van Hoorn. Finally, “No Walls, No Strings” is all space—soothing, ambient washes of ethereality to cleanse the palate before moving on to the next record, or rather replaying this one in an attempt to fully process it.
And repeated listening is a necessity with the Legendary Pink Dots. A dazzling but distracting array of approachable styles like this may deter a new ear from understanding the true reason why the sound of the band is never simple, even when it seems to be, or why the band would ever choose to approximate the sensation of that “wondrous boat ride” in sound. The aforementioned tradition of British whimsy is merely used as a starting point to hook the listener, a deliberate sugarcoating of the underlying electronic experimentalism of Kraut rock and early industrial music, as well as the skill-developing repetition and groove of progressive rock (“For Sale” is a shimmering example of the band’s proggiest elements on The Whispering Wall). Once the listener is hooked, the Dots’ constantly aspire to push the conventions of standard pop/rock and what kinds of sound the listener will allow within the limited context, and at times the results are off-putting. Yet, it is at these more experimental moments that the band truly succeeds. Such experimentalism has always been a fundamental part of both the band’s sound and songwriting, even throughout their early days of self-released cassettes featuring the lowest fidelity sound imaginable; but while other bands might diverge into passages of atmosphere and loose structure to compensate for a lack of real songs, the Legendary Pink Dots have honed their writing with its experimentalism intact for a quarter of a century. Thus, what feels like experimentalism on the surface (i.e., the noisy grind of “The Divide”, the gruelingly slow development of the intro to “In Sickness and in Health”, or the watery effects and echoes that act as the segue between “Sunken Pleasure” and “Rising Pleasure”) is actually the most integral aspect of the band’s sound—their raison d’etre. In contrast, most rock bands are content to build their songs upon guitar riffs; the real problem is that most listeners expect nothing more.
The Whispering Wall additionally benefits from the ROIR label’s extended distribution, as it is the first proper studio album by the Legendary Pink Dots to be readily available outside of mail-order and specialty stores in over a decade. (2002’s All the King’s Men is somewhat of an outtakes album.) New listeners beware, however; the intellectual stimulation of hardcore Dots records is addictive, and The Whispering Wall may act as a gateway drug into their world.