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A Deliberate Rejection Of Beauty? Disco Inferno's D.I. Go Pop
Ned Raggett , February 13th, 2014 07:12

Ned Raggett looks back twenty years to an album of "urban sound with seaside and seasonal reveries that aren’t quite that, a burst of activity that could also be a last gasp"

With some bands, it’s the albums you focus on - longer, more time in the depths - rather than the surrounding singles, stand alone or not. Through a combination of artistic impulse and the fortuitous invention of the CD burner, I’ve spent over a decade and a half doing the reverse with Disco Inferno’s second album, D.I. Go Pop, now twenty years old. Long story short: I burned tons of copies of the EPs on either side of that release, it eventually got formally released as The Five EPs, and the bandmembers and others talked with me about the tracks in detail. I’m not burnt out on either the songs or the band but I think I’ve said all I’ve had to say about those EPs now for a long while.

But to me D.I. Go Pop is itself still fresh. And it IS fresh, a knotted twisted agglomeration of approaches from the time when post rock as a term made a certain sense, the idea that a kind of form had been perfected, so why not explode it? The story of Disco Inferno is and remains that of focused intelligence, a desire not to simply repeat, a belief that ‘pop’ is eternally mutable and can mean whatever it wants, or what its creators want. It’s short like many a great pop collection, barely cresting half an hour, it wastes no breath. It’s a classic three piece rock band not wanting to sound like one when they didn’t have to, because the technological tools were to hand. Just. Inspired by the Young Gods and Public Enemy and My Bloody Valentine and so much more, figuring the way to move forward wasn’t necessarily to break the equipment but to break the assumptions around the equipment, playing sound with strings.

Perhaps above all else, though, it was angry. IS angry. Good god were Disco Inferno an angry, frustrated band. Some of that dark energy eventually became interpersonal, ended the group after the increasingly bad hands fate and life dealt them, but so much of it was the thrill of getting something off their chests, looking around at where they were at, the country they were in and the structures they had to deal with, and mentally blowing it the hell up. But not chaotically, not in the sense of uncontrolled roar and sprawl. Disco Inferno instead focused it all, layered it, delivered it sometimes cryptically, sometimes immediately and in painfully direct ways. Never sloganeering as such, never rabble rousing, more the voice that captures how things can make you punch a wall at just how stupidly moronically unfair it all is, but exacerbated by people theoretically speaking for all who can’t even be bothered with any sense of lip service, or are clearly too blind to realise what they say. D.I. Go Pop came out of Thatcher’s wake; any wonder that it sounds just as aggrieved now in the full churn of Cameron and Clegg’s clusterfuck of a shotgun marriage?

Not that I would or could have felt that particular force then or now, living near the Pacific rather than the English Channel, say. But the appearance of D.I. Go Pop in America was a pleasant surprise; I’d already scored In Debt on my first visit to the UK in 1992, began converting friends soon after, watched Melody Maker singles reviews columns like a hawk for what seemed to be regular new entries in the already astonishing discography. Who knew they would get an American release for D.I. Go Pop on Bar-None, a sturdy enough indie label from Hoboken then perhaps most known for first signing and initially breaking They Might Be Giants? (In an even odder twist, In Debt later got licensed for release on Carrot Top Records, which first came into being to release records by Archer Prewitt’s inspired indie/exotica oddballs the Coctails. You wouldn’t call it a case of obviously kindred spirits, but maybe that was the point - all three bands fit in exactly nowhere but their own spheres.)

Nothing really much came of that American release - there wasn’t a tour over here, which I dreamed of, and which became even more tantalising when I heard later reports of the shows around that time, sound being sculpted and pushed even further as the band continued to work on new songs. I was lucky enough to interview Ian Crause, though, and I’ve still got the recording - that said, a quick dip into it recently and I couldn’t stand the sound of myself (and I sure hope I don’t have a lot of those verbal tics anymore), so maybe another time for a proper listen in full. But it was interesting hearing two young men - we were both in our early twenties - talk over a record one had lived with and created and the other had dived headlong into and played and replayed. The thing was, that physical/mental divide we DID have clearly turned up, with me almost doing music journalism as my lark upon a lark, a side pursuit to my fully paid for fellowship-supported grad school, where Ian was dealing with the far less salubrious realities of widespread indifference, no guarantees and a class system - practically a caste system, one starting to build up and return even then - with a stacked deck to begin. I was lost in the sound, he also had something to say.

A few years later I tried to delve deeper again, a couple of times. There was a review for the All Music Guide, but I also said this in a separate posting, in late 1999:

Whether it's the water sounds on 'In Sharky Water' leading to the drowsy swing of the band followed by the most abstract aggression anyone had ever come up with since Wire on 154, about the only obvious comparison point for what Disco Inferno were trying to do, or the camera clicks firing off into oblivion on 'Starbound: All Burnt Out & Nowhere To Go' as a squiggly "everybody everybody" chant loops on and on while deliberate guitar pluckings pick out a slight way amidst the melange, that element of post punk romance via Joy Division and Duritti Column always in the band, musically Disco Inferno looks upon the world and said, "We shall use it." Hooking up their instruments to MIDI computers and playing samples via guitar riffs; what must live gigs have been like?

Ian Crause throughout isn't a Jeremiah or any sort of prophet per se as he sings or recites, but you get scraps of lyrical meaning, groundings, talk of 'military targets' and life in 1993, the year before the album's release. Distorted and fragmented on 'New Clothes For The New World', playing against the ragged church bell samples and the jaunty whistle from nowhere, he projects the electronic paranoia which Radiohead polished up very well for OK Computer, but he's all the much more intense, crackling with a nervous energy and lingering horror for what will be just around the corner. Which isn't to say that he can't be plaintive, considering, like on 'Next Year', an odd voice of hope amidst wheezing, clattering sounds and crunch.

Guitar grind plays amidst the trebly chaos of keyboards, cars, glass shards, planes, whatever it is that makes up 'A Crash At Every Speed', Crause lost somewhere in there, then 'Even The Sea Sides Against Us' turns to the profoundly, coldly, electrically beautiful, soft strum-like sounds, high twinkles, an unexpected balm even as Crause pitilessly notes, "You don't expect to be seen, you don't expect to be heard." 'A Whole Wide World Ahead' conjures up the acoustic guitar/rain combination in newer, stranger ways, odd unexpected rhythms, Crause noting, "There's not enough shelter from all the madness around" as the melancholy flow gets more desperate and lost.

Then 'Footprints In Snow' sparkles and twinkles, a sudden nostalgic bit of hope, and all is suddenly, oddly, finally well, maybe, "free from the jackboot of history". And then the tape of a landlady telling the band to turn it down plays, and it all ends. Perhaps the world really didn't deserve them.

Rereading all that now, I sense (too clearly) the flourishes and touches that make me want to rewrite pretty much everything I ever type, but that said: I’ll stand by this, as a judgement, an attempt to capture that which is uncaptureable. It sells the other two members way short, though, by not mentioning them - Paul Willmott’s bass acts as a perfectly posed anchor and focus, sometimes strangely delicate amid the swirl as on 'Starbound: All Burnt Out & Nowhere To Go', sometimes crashing forward in, again, abstract aggression, not the kind of thing that gets called “balls out” or whatever, but more tightly wound and threatening because it’s not that immediate. Meantime, Rob Whatley’s transformation from ‘just’ a drummer to someone also playing percussive samples and other sounds took the man/machine focus of a figure like Stephen Morris and ratcheted it up into a different realm.

And all together, I hear things that come back and recur and refocus in different ways in the present. Never anything direct, perhaps, but I stand by that comparison point with OK Computer as being the far more glossy take on what D.I. Go Pop was trying to articulate, far more glossy and far less specific, far more comfortable. (And I do speak as a Radiohead fan, but you could never see a through line from Disco Inferno to Coldplay or Muse, for one thing. And that’s just one.) Time itself points out other comparisons to me - one friend described what Disco Inferno were doing here and elsewhere as being "a digital This Heat", looking back to an earlier set of UK prophets without honour; another explicitly made a connection to the maniacal vivisections of sound by Australian legends Severed Heads, who Crause later spoke about hearing well after the fact - sometimes the connections are out there, but implied rather than direct. A similar sense of seeing a limit then wondering, “Why stop?” Destructive or self-destructive in some cases, but when talking about art rather than dissipation, a very understandable impulse.

So the church bells and whistles and sea crashes continue to act twenty years later, but the whole thing still feels, even now, at once unstable and carefully balanced, the bones of the songs never totally broken but never allowed to slip by without something profound being done to them. An urban sound with seaside and seasonal reveries that aren’t quite that, a burst of activity that could also be a last gasp. And still so angry, so pitiless yet so heartfelt, the kind of thing that stays in your head when all the rah-rah charge of the immediate and clunky becomes camp rote.

A friend once said that the almost pure rush of the surrounding EPs acted as a contrast to D.I. Go Pop’s “deliberate rejection of beauty”. But the beauty is there, however glowering, and maybe because it glowers.