The Brown Acid Caveat by The Tear GardenRelease date: June 23, 2017
A band who’ve always had an aura of standing staring out of the front of the ship of mental exploration, The Tear Garden drop in to update us with the latest news from their psychedelic wanderings, with a sprawling album The Brown Acid Caveat that hits their trademark notes of chemical whimsy.
The opening track ‘Strange Land’ even lists a random range of places passed through… the Avalon, Bombay, Himalayan foothills, Denver (?), and so on. “I sense I’m out of place, for my next trick I’ll show you how to make some space” we hear later on. The sounds are backed with a glitterball shimmer and beat, its uptempo step a contrast with Edward Ka-Spel’s languid vocals. This idiosyncratic voice, always likely to produce differing responses from listeners, is a bit more subdued than in some other records, though his knowing chemical goblin vamping is still in place.
It’s probably a more even-tempered record than some of their previous, with most of the musical structures being pretty likeable.. I’m not 100% sure this is the best thing, as I was kind of charmed by the pattern of other albums which for me had several tracks which were skippable, others which were full-on mind-bending kaleidoscope explosions of synthetic sonic brain expansion. Back in the day, I used to hunt for Tear Garden albums in dingy basements in Camden Town, and was rarely successful in finding them… a time when collaborations by artists you liked were mythical secrets demanding obscure quests, rather than instantly accessible career quirks. Hardly anyone I knew had even heard of Skinny Puppy, let alone the Legendary Pink Dots or their even more obscure collaborative side-project. Which meant that, when I found the CDs with the arcane names (To be an angel blind, the crippled soul divide, anyone?) there was already an investment in it. The mix of beautiful arrangements of orchestral instruments, programming and trance-y keyboards and synths sometimes fell flat, and sometimes was completely, bizarrely intoxicating; sometimes the vocals put me right off, at other times they were creepily intriguing. The bit in ‘On With the Show’ where its foregrounded “Reality, reality…” doesn’t do it for me, but elsewhere it’s not over-done.
With the sounds used, I’m sure an expert might be able to pick out the tech on show, but there’s a strong sense that this could easily have come out at any point in the band’s career, and that’s great- a stick-to-your-guns continuation of a familiar sound. “Lola’s Rock” even has a monologue about asteroid cults… so 90s! But like most monologue-to-music style tracks, it’s worth following the first time but the interest wears off on repeated listens. On the other hand, ‘Sinister Science’ meanwhile is probably my favourite track, a slow, dub/triphop style number which transcends any association with particular periods of those styles, with all kinds of deep shadowy space in which delicate shards of unusualness can slowly unfurl.
The album goes on for nearly 80 minutes, which perhaps is more of a marathon than it needs to be. This was a crowd-funded album project, and it seems to have been very successful according to the goals it set (177% of funding pledged at time of writing). This genesis point might have something to do with the length, a direct investment by fans making overt the need for them to feel they get their money’s worth, conscious that this is often crudely measured in song length minutes. But the real subtle strength of the record is the minute detail, the choices made on the tiny sparks and swooshes added around the edges of tracks, in the corner of your ear. The small, strangled wisps of violin on Amy’s Personality, for example, later echoed by vapor trails of distorted guitar and muttering vocals… the panning skritchy wave that swooshes from right to left ear during ‘On With the Show’ amidst some glass shards of glinting sound, the nod in ‘Calling Time’ to Skinny Puppy’s hyperactive channel-hopping use of sampled movie dialogue, the electro-baroque intro of ‘Kiss Don’t Tell’ which is then joined by boingy guitar swoops that balance marvelously along a tightrope over absurdity. That track also has a classic Tear Garden moment towards the end, where the bottom drops out of the world and we’re catapulted into whimsical weightlessness.
All of which displays and exemplifies what a collaboration should be: as a long-running project made up of members of two different bands that shared a certain dark vision, the stereotypical bits of both bands aren’t just welded together, but allowed to alchemically react with each other in mutual transformation.