The Grateful Dead's Twilight Zone soundtrack is for Deadheads only, and only some of them. Almost totally forgotten -- or perhaps never even known, even among devotees -- this disc captures the Dead's work on CBS' 1985 reboot of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. This, in some ways, is as it should be: besides its obscure provenance, the decidedly independent Silva Screen Records, it was recorded in the mid-'80s, a period of an excessive creative nadir in the Dead's career. Though ultimately disappointing, the Dead's Twilight Zone work is still a pretty delightful curiosity for those already so steeped in the heady sea of Grateful Dead music and have progressed through the Dead's other tangential obscurities (like Phil Lesh and Ned Lagin's avant-garde Seastones; Mickey Hart, Henry Wolf, and Nancy Henningss gong-droning Yamantaka).
By the mid-'80s, with Jerry Garcia's songwriting input disappearing into heroin addiction, the Dead's energy went into heavy experimentation with MIDI and other early electronic instruments, culminating in 1991's Infrared Roses, which collected their "space" jams. The idea of doing soundtrack work for the Twilight Zone must have seemed right in their ballpark. All that was required of them was that they play the three-note Twilight Zone theme song (which, in itself, is a gas). But the recordings proceeded, however, without bassist Phil Lesh -- the band's main link to the avant-garde -- who was opposed to the band's participation. Produced by Phil DeGuere (director of the infamous Dead concert film, Sunshine Daydream) and musically directed by Merl Saunders (Garcia's '70s collaborator, and overdubber on the Dead's Europe '72), the sessions were led by drummer Mickey Hart, who conducted several while in the hospital, recovering from back surgery. Several tracks -- including the latter half of "Suite from 'The Shadow Man'" and "Kentucky Rye, Pt. 3" -- recall the Dead's "space" segments, the band focusing on abstraction. Their choices of synthesizers are, as they say, "of the period," but it's still some of the band's most adventurous music, including descents into deep dissonance and surprise, like the doofy orientalisms of "Suite from 'The Misfortune Cookie.'" There is also a brief appearance from then-huge pop star Huey Lewis, playing harmonica on "Suite from 'Nightcrawlers.'" Where the album gets questionable, however, is in its occasional forays into incidental pop music, including the uncredited pastel saxophone of "Can She Type" and "Hold On to That Feeling," an atrocious Saunders' co-penned pop tune in the first half of "Suite from 'The Shadow Man'" sung by a woman unidentified in the liner notes. Also unclear from the liner notes is if "Kentucky Rye, Pt. I" marks Garcia's first use of the pedal steel since the early '70s. Only a bit of "Suite of 'the Shadow Man,'" which contains some of the only vintage Garcia soloing, and the instrumental boogie "Kentucky Rye, Pt. II" sound anything like the Dead's own work, the latter sounding almost like a Dead tune without lyrics.