Edward Ka-Spel's recent hot streak arguably takes a bit of a break with this release, but that is at least partially by design, given the Chemical Playschool series' role as a repository for indulgence, improvisation, experimentation, orphaned songs, and general weirdness. The bulk of these lengthy pieces center around Ka-Spel's surreal, paranoid monologues and throbbing, synth-based space rock vamps, which can be quite compelling (and also disturbed-sounding). The catch is that these lengthy not-quite-songs are not particularly well distilled, leaving the album's many high points embedded in quite a bit of meandering psychedelia.
"Immaculate Conception" opens the album in somewhat deceptive fashion, as it initially feels a lot like a catchy, well-crafted song. Over a very minimal throbbing synth line, Ka-Spel sings a pleasantly lilting melody while strange sounds and backwards guitars and pianos swell around him. That illusion only lasts for about four minutes though, at which point the piece becomes a very clear foreshadowing of what is to come. The aesthetic can certainly be described as "space rock," but it is a very specific and unusual strain of it, in that most expected "rock" elements are nowhere to be found. Instead, Ka-Spel tends to sing somewhat linear songs over subtly pulsing electronics until the bottom drops out and the structure is crushed in a black hole of abstraction, studio effects, and moody atmosphere. The only real difference between "Immaculate Conception" and the three major pieces that follow is that "Conception" is just nine minutes long and only fleetingly collapses before regaining its structure.
I suppose that probably makes it the album's most accessible song, but I have always preferred the Dots' darker, weirder side, which is where most of the album's remainder takes up residence. My favorite piece is the (initially) warm and burbling "Sparks Fly/Museum," which eventually gets consumed by an escalating tide of electronic chaos. After a very lengthy descent into The Silverman's rumbling, bleeping, and whooshing free-form spaciness, a new (and superior) song emerges. The new song ("Museum") is much more dense and menacing, showcasing how truly compelling and blackly funny Ka-Spel's monologues can be ("I'm here, suckers!").
The similarly lengthy “The Opium Den” contains only fleeting traces of actual song, but offers an extremely beautiful instrumental passage that sounds like hammered dulcimer before it ultimately dissolves into some rather hallucinogenic drone with whispered and rasped vocals. "Ranting and Raving," on the other hand, returns to the darkness of "Museum," as Ka-Spel's creepy, echo-heavy stream-of-conscious almost-poetry ("please keep an ear out for my screams") unspools over a heavily throbbing bed of buzzing industrial synth and clattering, panning tribal drums. Then some sort of gibbering, chirping digitized menagerie erupts and my brain is left well and truly scrambled. After that, there is nothing left but the come-down. Though uncharacteristically brief, "Immaculate Conclusion" brings the album to an appropriately eerie close, as the increasingly processed Ka-Spel endlessly chants "you all belong to me" over layers of buzzing and squelching radio waves and a fragilely melancholy melody until his voice fades out to leave only a crackling aftermath.
The whole album adds up to complicated experience that is pleasantly difficult to wrap my head around. Taken on a song-by-song basis. Chemical Playschool 15 can seem quite exasperating and flawed, as nearly all of the songs feel like great ideas that have been stretched, bloated, and diluted into merely decent songs with occasional and ephemeral flashes of brilliance. Taken as a complete album, however, it all seems perversely successful and cunningly assembled. In fact, all the excess and indulgence and 20-minute songs seem to turn into assets in the right light, as the album could not be nearly as immersive if it were shorter or more aggressively edited...and total immersion is essential to this suite's magic. I may not like every aspect of Chemical Playschool 15, but by the end of the album, I definitely felt like I had been on a long, surreal, and exhausting journey and emerged from the wilderness a little bit different, which is an experience that few other albums can offer.
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