The Tear Garden
The Brown Acid Caveat
Sub-Conscious Communications/Metropolis Records
How to characterize The Tear Garden, the more than 30 year collaboration between Skinny Puppy’s Cevin Key and The Legendary Pink Dots’ Edward Ka-Spel? The threads that make up their discography aren’t hard to identify; there’s a baleful wit couched in heartbreak and a melancholic psychedelia that are easy to spot on every LP, EP and non-album track with few exceptions. But just being able to identify those repeated moods and ideas doesn’t get us any closer to understanding the essence of what these two friends have together, or how their divergent musical paths keep leading them back together to make such lovely music.
The Brown Acid Caveat is the first LP of new material since 2009’s Have a Nice Trip and in contrast to that record’s jammy experimentalism (a thing both Edward and Cevin excel at unsurprisingly), the songs here feel more purposeful and concise. Even when the songs stretch out past the seven minute mark, their deliberate construction hearkens back to the latter era-Nettwerk Tear Garden albums, when many of LPD’s members were involved in the project. Probably not coincidentally, some former Dots – guitarist Martijn De Kleer and dub maestro Ryan Moore – are present here, although it’s unclear to what extent they pitched in or influenced the proceedings. That said, opener “Strange Land” hearkens back to 2000’s underrated Crystal Mass, playing out as a sad travelogue through places real and imaginary, all carried by delicately strummed guitars and Ka-Spel in the wounded sage persona he’s been growing into since his very earliest recordings.
Indeed, while the group has always thrived on a mix of straight songwriting and trippy outer space journeys, Ka-Spel and Key are working hard to reconcile those ideas here. Functionally that means you get more than a few songs, like “On With the Show” and “Kiss Don’t Tell”, that start fully formed before slowly unravelling into ambient tapestries of modular synthesizer, samples and reverb. And while every song feels as though it could go in that direction, The Tear Garden do show some restraint, allowing the lovely repeating synth figure of “A Private Parade” to play itself out fully before swapping in a solo that lands somewhere between a violin and a theremin. Especially pleasant is the excellent “Calling Time” (which features one of Ka-Spel’s best bits of contemporary wordplay “I’ll serve until it’s time/I’ll serve until this bar runs dry”) which marries a propulsive bassline with off-kilter mechanical percussion and a bubbling lead, all delivered in a relatively trim 4:29.
Still, while this is unmistakably a Tear Garden record, from the dubby half-spoken “Sinister Science” to the cathartic exotica of the string-infused “Seven Veils”, we’re no closer to insight beyond simply identifying familiar components. And maybe that’s where some of the magic comes from really. It occurs while listening Ka-Spel crack a little while he partakes in cute rhyming games on plinky-plunky closer “Object” that the Tear Garden is almost an in-joke, an insular and obscure province charted by two long-time friends who found a creative unity many years ago and have never let it go. It’s their trip, but we still have the privilege of being guests, and that can’t help but still feel somewhat special.