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Ian Crause
The Vertical Axis Neil Kulkarni , February 20th, 2014 06:52

Oh god he's a prickly bugger. A prickly, beautiful, brilliant bugger. Ian Crause, founder frontman of thee great lost band of the 90s, the avant-pop Disco Inferno, is at the other end of the world to us right now. He's in Bolivia. For a long time, ever since Disco Inferno left us, when asked if I knew what he was up to, "Christ only knows" was my only response. Now I know.

Alongside surviving, he's been making The Vertical Axis. And clearly seething. And clearly sitting on, developing and perfecting a whole riot of new colours and new ideas. From his perch, the grim current death march of British life must seem part-hilarious, part-horrific and mostly inevitable. The Vertical Axis is an attempt to fuse his personal, political and aesthetic ideas into a whole new art. Nothing short of the totally new – the uncomfortably new – would ever sate Crause, he made that much clear with the run of astonishing records Disco Inferno crafted from '93 until their too-soon demise. The Vertical Axis is something I suspect is a masterpiece, something I suspect is, like Disco Inferno, almost too close to real life's unreality to yet be safely processed. I hold it at arm's length like it's an ACME bomb, even though I find much of it ravishing. Because this isn't life organised into art. It's art with its own life, art that perfectly reflects the dazzling dazed times we're in. It's what William Blake would be making right now – visionary, mystical, in love and loathing for England and it's nothing short of a pop masterpiece. You'd forgotten that music with guitars that wasn't metal could still have a sense of purpose; a sense of reason to be. If anyone could make me love guitar pop again, it's him. And he has. The prickly bugger.

As with the best hip hop at the moment, I'm tempted to fall back into my old habit of separating the musical and lyrical to be able to offer any critique, but that would only deny the rushing simultaneity that's the key to how The Vertical Axis takes over your day. So while the lyrics are caustic, cutting, and occasionally ungainly with spite, the music makes all a breathless rush of air and pressure and detail. Even rewinds won't reveal every facet, Crause is still an exquisite guitar player, up there with Insides' Julian Tardo as one of the 90s most thrillingly precise, massively melodic masters of what bliss can still be squeezed out of the neutered wood'n'wire phallus. Beyond his guitar playing and vocals though (both of which really reveal the depths of this man's New Order obsession, and for how long and how far beyond he's gone stylistically from his mere 'sources') it's the frantic rub of his sound's kaleidoscopic elements that captures and engages you from the first moment of 'And On And On It Goes'. The backdrop behind the identifiable sounds (bass & beats throughout are glitchy and/or absent) is alive with flickering minutiae, responsive to every word ('on an on it goes, a perpetual motion machine, drawing its life from a pen, and if the pen don't work use an M-16') strafing your head with tumbling anti-rhythms, Eno/Byrne-style refractions of recorded space.

If that sounds too busy for your bonnet don't be put off – this isn't an uncaring pell-mell thrown together mess – it all sounds painstakingly put there for a reason, it all coheres into a singular dazzle that gives you a pure contact high. It's as if the techniques Disco Inferno started using from their epochal Summers Last Sound EP onwards (i.e. marrying/marring guitar-based songs with a deep sample-adelic sense influenced by Young Gods and Public Enemy) are finally free of whatever band-constraints were keeping things at least vaguely-rooted in an identifiable space. On the wonderfully nutzoid 'Black Light' ("I do so hate the Tories... it's when I look into their eyes/it's then the blackness shows/ the dumbest black, one often feels/ an animal is looking back") you can hear Crause's innate psyche-sense finally get freed in a gorgeous Throwing Muses-style two-chord ratcheting up of the tension. 'Suns May Rise' is just too unpredictably unselfconscious to seem like music, more like an iridescent tangle of nature shattering into your consciousness, pulling at you with sampled laughter, peals of harp, glowing algal electronics beckoning you into the slipstream, ripples of pure pleasure popping off all over you. I haven't heard anything remotely as blissful since the closing two tracks of A.R.Kane's '69' – reason these names come back to me is less to do with the sound of The Vertical Axis, more to do with the spirit of this album, its boredom with old moves, its insistence on finding new ways to express new ideas, new ways to satisfy ancient longings, scrape out ancient loathings.

The Vertical Axis is clearly sung by someone for whom looking back is mostly horrible, for whom looking out at the present is also mostly horrible, someone for whom the future is there to be dreamed into being, whether utopian, dystopian or somewhere in between. The title track radiates with a drum'n'bass intensity, fizzes with distorted vocal samples and dirty Fennesz-style electronics. It seems to set itself an impossible ambition – to actually capture what it's like to be alive in 2014 as the capitalist death machine entrances and entombs us – and ends up trapping you in that gorgeous frightmare, making you feel incredibly uncomfortable yet fascinated by your own idiot joy reflection. On 'Foreign Land' Crause's voice is as clear and poignant as it ever gets – and because you can hear the structure it becomes a queerly schizophrenic listening experience; the places he's allowed his untrammelled imagination to take it sonically, the crush of high streets and battlefields and coffee bars and scrapyards the sound drags you through. Startling music that makes you question everything you thought you knew about music and words and how the two can meet. 'More Earthly Concerns', like much of The Vertical Axis, utterly destabilises your conformist notions of how music and a voice 'sit' with each other – you have to lean in to hear him, which is scary because you don't know what's gonna happen next, as the thumping art-rock (v. Low) gives way to an entirely abstract plainsong bridge - Crause finds himself crushed to a unicellular thinness in the soundworld, before lunging out of the sparkling cement. He is seemingly wandering this strangely familiar new world alongside you, a narrator just as prone to get lost in the labyrinth as his listeners.

And then finally 'A World Of Ghosts' seems to summate where Crause is at right now, the grief, regret and hope he's wrestling with – the lyrics entering a pure Blakean visionary state, taking in drowning cockle-pickers, poundshops, the clammy clamour and crush of London's ongoing self-destruction – the spectral suggestiveness of the rumbling doom-folktronica becoming a place Crause finally seems to feel an inhabitant of, a bubble of memory he can't escape. And it's all over. And you need to have a cup of tea and a sit down because for the past half hour your heart-rate has been precisely anchored to Crause's music. And you want to step back in there but know it'll be too much too soon if you go straight back. And you wonder what you use music for now. And you realise how much is mere soundtrack of your life's movie. And how little and few and rare are the records like The Vertical Axis that don't give you any such option. That insist on instant and complete immersion. In its own movie made of sound.

In a way, the only way of dealing with The Vertical Axis is to let it take you over as much as it clearly has taken over Crause. It's like a thirty minute brain transplant, a mind, all of it, all of it, pressed into plastic and then into your head. You don't feel bullied as such, it's just surprising when art insists on your time like this - you can't skip tracks, you can't even skip within tracks (a moment missed and you lose the flow, like missing out a verse of a poem). But get it straight, The Vertical Axis is not about recovering something that's been lost from guitar pop, or recovering something that's old-fashioned or even a forward-trajectory that "music doesn't do anymore". It's about a totally new statement from one of British music's most crucial, unheard, incisive, imaginative and dammit, inspirational figures of the last 20 years. Yeah, Crause is over there, and you might not have heard from him for a while. But The Vertical Axis is an ancient-futurist masterpiece that is happening right here, right now and I doubt you'll hear anything in 2014 so beguiling, so brave, so beautiful. Seek its benedictions immediately. Thank god for this prickly bugger.