It is rare for me to get very enthusiastic about tour-only releases, as I feel that artists generally want their best material to be heard by as many people as possible rather than just a handful of collectors. This compilation of The Legendary Pink Dots’ ephemeral holiday EPs was an exception though, as it has always driven me slightly crazy that I had missed the boat on so many special one-off releases. Also, Edward Ka-Spel always seemed like the rare artist who might be unpredictable and prolific enough to cheerfully release his best material in an incredibly limited edition. Upon hearing the sprawling Festive, I can safely say that that was not the case, as a lot of LPD's holiday epics tend to be drifting, understated soundscapes or amusing experiments in twisting and tweaking samples, but a few pieces are legitimately striking and the cumulative effect of all this material at once is pleasantly overwhelming. As such, this prolonged plunge into the benignly deranged holiday rabbit hole is strictly for fans of the Dots' more abstract and unrepentantly indulgent side.
Festive is wisely and deceptively frontloaded with 2015's "Hypothetical Angel," the closest thing to a single on the entire collection. Even so, its tender and lilting balladry only lasts about three minutes before dissolving into eerie synth drift and something that sounds like a children's choir that has been digitized, stretched, and pixelated into a chorus of lethargic, drugged robots. Then, of course, comes a delightful parade of chopped and collaged snatches of Christmas movies that is just the right balance of whimsy, darkness, and hallucination. It may very well be the definitive phantasmagoric Christmas-themed mindfuck of all-time (I especially enjoyed the looping and cartoonish outro of "Christmas? Bleh!"). Yet another highlight of the first disc comes from The Legendary Pink Dots Hallowe’en Special 2015 (I love how each release sounds like a variety show): "The Wall Street Spectre." Opening with an appealingly sing-song vocal melody over a wobbly and heavily chorused arpeggio pattern, "Spectre" takes a page from "Angel" and dissolves into something far stranger and more abstract after just a few short minutes. The crux of it all is a wry amusing and occult-tinged Ka-Spel monologue about "market forces" in the guise of a fellow named Hollow Ian. Midway through that interlude, Ka-Spel's voice takes a turn for the demonic and the music becomes increasingly distorted and wrong-sounding. Unfortunately, it does not quite hold together as well as "Angel," quickly degenerating into a disjointed and seemingly arbitrary flow of odd found-sound vignettes and snatches of music.
The rest of Festive is even less song-based, alternating between lengthy plunges into brooding ambiance and droning psychedelia and brief interludes of surreality. For the most part, the interludes are interesting, but too short to make a strong impression. "Pink," for example, is just a loop of Bing Crosby’s "White Christmas" that gradually morphs into "I'm dreaming of a pink solstice" as it becomes more distorted, echo-heavy, and obsessive. Elsewhere, "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Decade" is a haunted bit of minor key chamber music that sometimes sounds like it being dragged into the pit of hell.
Obviously, the longer pieces are considerably more substantial, but their flashes of inspiration are a bit more stretched and diluted. "Pagan Place" is the most immediately gratifying of the lot, as its initial collage of woozy music box melodies and children singing is an unusual balance of warm and creepy. Gradually, however, it gets more discordant and impressionistic and the children all disappear to be replaced by a groove that sounds somewhere between Eastern European folk music and prog rock being played backwards. "The Witching Hour," on the other hand, dispatches with any attempt at a hook at all and plunges wholeheartedly in nearly 25 minutes of fragmented nightmare. It feels like a mash-up of horror movie ambiance and cheap Halloween tapes heard through a heavy fog of drugs. The remaining longform pieces are considerably less fractured though, opting instead to quietly sustain a dark mood. In that regard, the quietly simmering and blearily hallucinatory "Seasonal Chill" is a dark horse contender for the real centerpiece of this collection, as it just eerily stretches out for nine minutes of focused and languorous disquiet. The inscrutable closer "Purple" seems to attempt a similar feat, but is just too drifting and understated for its own good: it feels like being trapped instead a festive snow globe where everyone else is dead–initially disorienting and sinister, then increasingly dull and devoid of surprise.
Obviously, the big selling point for this collection is that it makes available five rarely heard and rather anomalous LPD releases. In that regard, it serves its purpose beautifully, even if not all of those EPs quite captured the Dots at the peak of their game. In fact, Festive would be a far better album if it had been aggressively condensed rather than comprehensive and complete. As such, Festive is probably only for completists and fans in love with the band's more subdued, ambient side. I personally like it, but it is definitely the sort of album that I would be rather hesitant to recommend to anyone: it is quite a diffuse and exhausting listening experience, as there are plenty of long and meandering lulls between the various flurries of activity. Also, no one piece manages to stand out as particularly essential within the LPD canon, though there are plenty of cool ideas and flashes of humor strewn about in wait for patient listeners to happen upon them. The emphasis was definitely on spontaneity, fun, and naked experimentation here rather than songcraft or editing. As such, Festive is a perversely non-traditional album that celebrates holiday traditions, as it eschews hooks and cohesiveness and does not hold up well to attentive listening or scrutiny, but does a perfectly fine job of blurring and softening the edges of harsh reality for a couple of hours.