It’s not easy having the word “legendary” in your band’s name, and doubly difficult when you’ve been around for 30 years, always toiling far away from the mainstream. It would be expected for a band with such an ironic name to have a sense of humor or self-deprecating awareness of their own obscurity, but the extremely prolific Legendary Pink Dots has no problem playing it straight and serious.
The band follows up 2008’s relatively accessible Plutonium Blonde with Seconds Late for the Brighton Line, an album full of brooding post-punk psychedelia. If Plutonium Blonde was a brief experiment with pop-infused electronica, then Seconds Late for the Brighton Line is a return to the more familiar dark, atmospheric sound that made them cult favorites throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The Legendary Pink Dots’s inhuman sounds are rooted in their embrace of keyboards and synths. Edward Ka-Spel and Phil Knight have seen several different lineups come and go, and on Seconds Late for the Brighton Line, they seem to eschew sidemen completely. Throughout the album, traditional instrumentation like guitars and bass are rarely heard, and the drums are more likely to originate from a hard drive. Songs like “No Star Too Far” and “Russian Roulette” are all edgy, a tense pulse of keyboards repeating, building up over louder and louder squeals and, on occasion, heavily compressed bagpipes. If Joy Division didn’t become New Order, this might have been where computers took them—not onto the dance floor, but a more nebulous, desolate place. The near-ballad “Hauptbahnhof” is a slow-burning affair, with Ka-Spel saying goodbye to the world in his familiar, cheeky Britpop voice. It lessens the weight of such dismal lyrics, but still manages to feel earnest and true. He doesn’t sing so much as describe the world he finds himself in, lyrics—such as “Your number’s up, the chips are down, you thought you counted”—coming in the form of chants and rambling monologues, as traditional verses and choruses are dispensed with altogether.
The music doesn’t reach out and pull the listener in. Pink Dots has never worn their hearts on their sleeves, and Seconds Late for the Brighton Line confirms that this is their comfort zone, behind icy keyboards and drones. It seems distant, despondent, and with several songs hitting the seven- to nine-minute range, endless.
Despite this, the music is never overtly abrasive, and on tracks like “God and Machines,” the artificial sounds slow down to the point where it takes on a relaxed, ambient atmosphere. But even here, it’s more numbness than relief. It’s the sound of Pink Floyd if they were stuck behind the Wall permanently but eventually got used to it. Ka-Spel and Knight cite ‘70s krautrock acts like Can and Faust as their main influences, but the energy that can be found in those band’s performances, even in the studio, is lacking here. The attempt of the track listing to alternate between brooding slow songs and barely more upbeat ones falls flat, especially on the second half of the album, which feels more like a extended musical suite than separate tracks.
Ka-Spel laments the possibility of having “drowned in all that beauty,” which is repeated as if through a tinny intercom on “Radiation Day.” It sounds like it’s a far-off memory, which is exactly where the Legendary Pink Dots likes to keep such things. Confrontation hurts, and on Seconds Late for the Brighton Line, they keep their typically safe distance.