91. DISCO INFERNO – THE 5 EPs (2011*)

Experimental, Indie / Alternative, Post rock

Disco Inferno: A Sense Of Otherness  Somehow I contrived to miss Disco Inferno. They arrived either ten years too early or ten too late, it’s hard to tell, but by the time they had established themselves, popular music’s few remaining visionaries were retreating into hibernation. 1991 proved a pivotal year. It was the year of Laughingstock and Loveless, as well as the last significant records by Public Enemy and The Young Gods. And then, suddenly, as those few flickering wicks burnt out, indie music was plunged into its Dark Ages. The air was thick with the stench of grunge and grebo – Neds Atomic Dustbin and their ugly ilk – while the nightmare of Britpop hovered vulture-like, ready to strip its rotting carcass. Britpop would become a model of retro complacency, mostly underwhelming, largely uninspired. Many of us felt queasy and headed for the dancefloor. I had a pretty good time there. The one regret I have is that I missed Disco Inferno. 

DI were, on the surface, a conventional post-punk (guitar/bass/drums) trio – Ian Crause, Paul Wilmott & Rob Whatley – with a penchant for early Joy Division and Wire. They began to suffuse those primary influences with the spirit of ’88 (AR Kane, Public Enemy, Young Gods, My Bloody Valentine), and then, following the release of their first album Open Doors Closed Windows in 1991, they stretched out into genuinely new and uncharted territory augmenting their sound with sampling technology alongside a proliferation of inspirational ideas. Crause recalls: “I had been at home with my guitar synth and sampler since late ’91. We came back in to rehearse again with the sampler and what I had written on it in about April or May ’92, not really knowing how it would all piece together as a band. We had a whole week of rehearsals booked and by the end of the week we were kind of stunned at ourselves ‘cos none of us had ever heard anything like it before, not even stuff like Public Enemy or the Young Gods. It just sounded so fucking odd…all of us were completely thrown by the noise in that room.”
A succession of spellbinding EPs followed between 1992-94, gathered together here on this 5 EPs compilation. And they are brilliant. At the time, those critics in the know wilted, quickly running out of fresh superlatives with which to embroider their reviews. Crause knew the band possessed something very special indeed, but the public wasn’t ready. And there was nobody else doing what they were doing. “Oh we were in the middle of fucking nowhere from the start of using samplers ’til we split.” Despite that, by the time Britpop hijacked the airwaves, DI were continuing to make authentically original music, uncompromising, challenging, visceral and at times breathtakingly beautiful. “When we were recording ‘DI Go Pop’ and ‘Summer’s Last Sound’, Charlie, our producer, did say he was finding it hard going as we had chosen the sounds for their narrative and not musical qualities.” Lyrically, Crause steered an uneven path from (poetically) documenting existential crises (“All the joy in my life had rotted away/I saw a vision in blue and my blues flew away/And just for a second I truly believed/Though I don’t know what in” – from ‘Second Language’) to caustic social commentary. It was often dark stuff.
“And the gulls are coming in off the coast/the smell of corpses pour from in/mass graves uncovered/must be abroad, it can’t be here/I can sense your violence, but I still don’t understand/the way the past looks dead when you’ve got the future in the palm of your hand.” And so begins ‘Summers Last Sound’ a magnificently unsettling fanfare to this most fertile of periods. 
Shrill screams undercut a naggingly insistent guitar riff on ‘A Rock To Cling To’ while ‘The Last Dance’ & ‘The Long Dance’ (from ‘The Last Dance’ EP) are poppier, more infectious, almost straying into mid-period New Order territory. But it is the more experimental tracks which sound positively scintillating. Crause has expressed his distaste for ‘Scattered Showers’ mainly due to what he regards as its lyrical deficiencies (“they really let the thing down. I was so far off the mark with it.”) but I can’t help but hear The Velvet Underground’s ‘The Murder Mystery’ being leaked through a distorted PA system at Brands Hatch. Here and elsewhere, the band utilise their Foley’s Sound Effects toolbox to its full potential, yielding extraordinary results.
Then there are the glistening guitar lines of the aforementioned ‘Second Language’, which alongside those on ‘At The End Of The Line’ recall Vini Reilly’s wonderfully inventive work with The Durutti Column. In actual fact, as Crause explains, those songs bore a more surprising influence: “The original guitar sound I had, with a lot of delay lines, was inspired by a German guy I saw on telly called Eberhardt Weber. He put his cello through massive delay lines and I was stunned by it. I liked Durutti Column what I heard, but I didn’t hear an awful lot to be honest…I realise it can sound very similar sometimes.”

There is huge variety here, a veritable smorgasbord of sonic adventurousness. Best of of all is ‘Love Stepping Out’ which sounds like Kraftwerk’s ‘Europe Endless’ playing as the wedding guests spill out into an old English churchyard. It is simultaneously naturalistic and disorientating, and crucially, entirely devoid of rock cliche. “Punching women, kicking men/Five on one, one on ten/These fuckers getting all that they deserve/It’s just tricks with mirrors/that makes them think they’re in the right.” There is so much going on here musically and lyrically, it needs a dozen listens to unmask its own face. What was the aim behind it? “To try to create a sonic environment where the real world conducts itself like music but stays psychoacoustically in situ so it feels like the world is playing itself like a composition.” Crause wrote it on his electric guitar, “but I ripped the pickup off so had to use the nylon acoustic guitar sample which came on a floppy with my sampler to replace it. That just went through a delay like the original guitar had done.” Suffice to say, like everything else on here, it is bloody magnificent.
Disco Inferno may now be considered a seminal influence on ‘post-rock’ while Crause has continued to make stunning music of his own. Despite their inability to make any commercial breakthrough, he continues to be much respected “by the same people who were well receiving the Disco Inferno records in ’92 and ’93 like Stubbs, Reynolds, Kulkarni, etc, who understood what we were doing and what I do.” And rightly so. If I missed Disco Inferno the first time round, then it has been a fascinating late discovery. Sometimes one can have the most bewilderingly thrilling time catching up. (JJ)

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20. MATT JOHNSON – BURNING BLUE SOUL (1981)

Post-Punk

So much for British psychedelia: Syd’s Pink Floyd the only enduring body of work from a time when the top of the UK charts was ring-fenced by Englebert Humperdinck, the whole hippy dream lampooned mercilessly by the Small Faces and the best we could do aside from letting the mad genius play, was – apparently – Status Quo. Ok, there was The Beatles – who did it well, sometimes very well – and, ahem…’Their Satanic Majesties’. The odd hidden gem such as The Eyes’ ‘You’re Too Much’ or ‘I Must Be Mad’ by The Craig if you looked a little harder, but as for great albums…nothing much doing. Some might point to The Yardbirds or The Creation and of course there was the plain weirdness and wizardry of The Incredible String Band but arguably nothing besides that to take you to the aural outer limits.

The prevailing perception is that psychedelic music was an historical (largely US) phenomenon which materialised around 1965, peaked two years later on the West Coast, and gradually burnt out thereafter as the decade drew to its unhappy close. The long-playing record was its principal currency. But this perspective is a narrow one. When I first heard those Grateful Dead albums, the promise of their garish dayglo sleeves (so intriguing to a teenager with a 1960s fixation) was quickly nullified by the content within. So this is psychedelic? It seemed to me that the copious use of hallucinogenics led only to overinflated egos and particularly unadventurous sets of extended blues jams. This was clearly not the mind-expanding experience I had so enthusiastically sought. And I, in my youthful innocence, was looking for something which might distort my perception of reality just enough to take me to another world for 45 minutes or so…I persisted with my search and soon found an unlikely source.

The The’s debut album ‘Burning Blue Soul’ was released in 1981. For contractual reasons it was credited to its creator, Matt Johnson. He was 19 years old. Even now, few would classify it as a ‘psychedelic’ album. But let me go one step further. I contend that not only is BBS a great ‘psychedelic’ album but it is possibly the greatest ever British psychedelic long player. It is however a particular species of psychedelia, peculiar to a post-punk UK landscape, one brought about by a failing industrial economy, and an emerging nihilistic moral vacuum.
So what makes this record psychedelic? Perhaps let’s begin with a definition:

Psychedelic (adj): of or noting a mental state characterized by a profound sense of intensified sensory perception, sometimes accompanied by severe perceptual distortion and hallucinations and by extreme feelings of either euphoria or despair. (www.dictionary.com)

Nothing here about ’free love’ and getting it together (maan!) Matt Johnson was not the cheeriest of chaps in 1981. While he often claims that this, his debut album is full of wry humour, it frequently reads like a teenage suicide note.

‘I have no future for I’ve had no past
I’m just sittin’ here pullin’ arrows out of my heart.’
‘…See me dwindle, watch me dwell
In my cut out corner, in my plastic world.’ (‘Icing Up’)

‘Saturday night and I was lying in my bed
The window was open and raindrops were bouncing off my head
When it hit me like a thunderbolt
I don’t know nothing and I’m scared
That I never will.’ (‘Another Boy Drowning’)

100,000 people today were burned
I ‘felt a pang of concern
What are we waitin’ for
A message of hope from the pope?
I think he got shot as well.’ (‘Song Without An Ending’)

Johnson’s dogmatic pessimism – such a contrast to the ridiculously utopian optimism of the 1960s – seemed so beguiling to me when I first discovered this album as a 19-year old in the late 1980s. I was helplessly drawn to this strange otherworldly concoction as I stared gloomily at the bedroom ceiling. Today for some, its self-obsession and sixth form existential angst appear naiive and suggest the author was still a little wet behind the ears. But it is the music that really counts here, and for that we can forgive Johnson his lugubrious self-indulgence. Matt was concerned that people would find his lyrics too direct and worked tirelessly to bury the vocals deep in the mix, and this only serves to intensify the disorientation of the listener.

There are all kinds of things going on here: some have criticised the album’s ‘crude tape-splicing’, rather than appreciate it’s brilliant range of guitar and keyboard treatments. Consider for instance the inauspicious and relatively uneventful opener ‘Red Cinders in The Sand’ where a subterranean tribal drum pattern emerges from a piercing sonar tone before breaking briefly into a middle-eastern raga-type dirge. Then we have what sounds like large metal sheets being thrown unceremoniously onto a truck. A pulverising industrial beat emerges accompanied by shards of feedback and a droning tuba (?). It’s an unnerving sound reminiscent of Throbbing Gristle and pre-empting the kind of territory that would be explored by the likes of Test Dept. in the mid-1980s.Or listen to the feverishly voltaic spittle of guitars over a portentously motoric bass riff on ‘Out Of Control’, which could have served as a fitting soundtrack for the classic lost 1970s BBC TV series ‘The Changes’.

‘Song Without an Ending’ is truly astounding. A bass-driven hurdle over nervy jagged guitar lines with the kind of riff the likes of Hot Chip would sell their souls for. Listen to the swell of the surf-style reverb break in to the relentless groove at 1:14, followed swiftly by a paranoiac backwards guitar accompanied by an expansive keyboard part which, synthesised with the galloping clutter of beats manages somehow to make the song feel simultaneously claustrophobic and panoramic. Quite an achievement.

It’s not hard to detect the sleight of hand of Wire duo Gilbert and Lewis on a few of the album’s more abstract moments. They are at work on one of the oddest of all, ‘The River Flows East In Spring’ where the spiderlike guitar picking of the intro is abruptly assaulted by what sounds like a stampeding fanatical Maoist (?) chant.

And to top it all there is the aforementioned ‘Another Boy Drowning’ where Johnson’s palpable despair sits incongruously with perhaps the most gorgeous melody of his career. It’s written like it was his last day on earth – and perhaps he feared it might have been.

Recently, listening to one of my favourite albums from recent years, the justly celebrated Loud City Song by Julia Holter, I was struck by the profusion of ideas on the record. It’s what set it apart from the competition in 2013. A line from one of her songs seemed to encapsulate this: ‘There’s just no room for all our thoughts’ she purrs on This Is A True Heart. Well, although Loud City Song is a more cohesive and assured record than Burning Blue Soul, by comparison with the sheer volume of ideas on Johnson’s debut, it sounds positively anaemic. There is such a proliferation of mindbending moments on Burning Blue Soul that it’s hard to draw comparisons with other ‘out there’ records. It could be a spiritual cousin of ‘Metal Box’ and rivals the likes of ‘Starsailor’ for sheer inventiveness and ‘Sister Lovers’ as a capsule of psychological meltdown. But while flawed and in some ways a sprawling mess, Johnson dazzles us on BBS with his musical dexterity and with a kaleidoscopic palate, which unleashes a deluge of visionary dreamscapes. If psychedelic has anything to do with loss of ego (the ‘I’), then Burning Blue Soul is a spectacular failure. It’s narcissistic traits leave no room for doubt on that front. But if we go by the definition above – while there may be only sporadically euphoric moments, the songs on his debut album take us on those profound and intense hallucinatory journeys from which our fragile minds will never fully recover…(JJ)