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Dream Pop's Year Zero: A.R. Kane's i Revisited
Ned Raggett , July 8th, 2014 06:28

Our man in Orange County Ned Raggett once again gives his American perspective on a British album, this time AR Kane's I

A double album, or rather as I always hear it, a CD packed to the gills. A cover that's almost entirely half cryptic black and white line drawings in curved orderly array. Interludes throughout, bridging songs and moments in the space of seconds. A card suit theme, songs organized by clubs and diamonds, hearts and spades, at least in the booklet. A poker face indeed, or maybe a high stakes game of bridge, or something else? Nothing is given away on 1989's i - the second of A.R. Kane's three full albums, the type of thing that theoretically could have capstoned a career rather than provided a centerpiece to it, English art music of the best quality from a band continually suspicious of what England exactly is.

But in a way, i feels like it should have come earlier. Or rather, could have - thanks to their anonymous fame as part of M/A/R/R/S, delivering a massive hit in the shape of 'Pump Up The Volume' on both sides of the Atlantic, it was perfectly clear they had no problem with dance music, however described. Compared to the filigrees and fillips that began the previous year's full album debut sixty-nine, i almost bursts out of the gate, the brief squall and call of 'Hello' aside, with 'A Love From Outer Space' having the rough drums familiar from earlier releases matched by house piano, polyrhythms galore, strings scraping and swooping across the mix as much as the soft backing vocals.

Cleverly that kind of immediate spirit didn't stop there, whether it was the nervous crisp kick and deep bass of 'Crack Up' feeling like early eighties punk-meets-funk once more, 'What's All This Then' continuing the interpolations of Jamaica on English soil, the sweet Philadelphia-disco-touched symphonics of 'Snow Joke'. Throughout Alex Ayuli's voice floats, alights and dives as appropriate, whether it's romance or a state of sanity or some other alteration at play. (Hearing how the guitar snippets match the singing on the chorus of 'Crack Up' is one of those lucky moments of delight you catch yourself marvelling at.)

Definitely, i  is also a case of front-loading to a large degree - these are the first four full songs on the album, and if that wasn't intentional, I would be terribly surprised. It's not A.R. Kane tamed, merely focused - the singing hasn't changed but simply reapplied itself, the guitars shimmer and disorient in overload in different fashions (hearing how they and the piano on 'What's All This Then' play around each other as a woozy dance even as the beats punch through is a classic example of hiding in plain sight).

Even as the album progresses things seem to change very little, but the changes are there, as the pace slows a bit, space fills out the arrangements, things begin to float away off into space a touch more - starting with an interlude called, of course, 'Off Into Space'. By the time of 'Honeysuckleswallow' the disorientations of their earlier years that led to all too easy and somewhat missing the point Cocteau Twins comparisons seem to be back in full effect along with the name, even as so much else is going on all at once. Acoustic guitars sparkling like John Martyn in raptures, deep swells of feedback embracing the extremities of Miles Davis's own leave-them-all-behind plunges into sound, crisp clicks of percussion as much from unforeseen futures as anything else.

For all that, 'In A Circle' has precise string arrangements, maybe not Michael Nyman but definitely not James Last, arranged by former Marc Almond collaborator Billy McGee. It turns stranger and queasier by points as it goes along with the vocals from Rudi Tambala's sister Maggie, until it all suddenly reverts back again to precision and soft percussion; squaring the circle, creating new form. i is a generous album, allowing for these kind of pursuits, clearly part of the larger whole but distinct and different in their own right.

Generating more tension as it goes, i sometimes seems to relax into the particular polish evident in the start of the album, but the stakes get higher. If 'Miles Apart' seems almost easygoing, gentle even; the guitars are more immediate and piercing here on the chorus, not sprawling or angry, as focused and crystalline as any sonic cathedral but like daggers made of icicles, underscoring sentiments that sound sunny but aren't really at all. The grappling angst, the bitter tension, brassy voices singing "I'm gonna leave you!" on 'Pop' no matter the quiet importuning. 'Sugarwings' sounding like a woozy late night as much as a pretty Sunday afternoon, and more and more in the darker corners.

Harder and angrier becomes a theme towards the end, last hands being dealt and someone coming up short, the interludes get more unsettled, the drums sound harsher and rougher, the stormclouds gather behind the sparkle, uneasy dreams increasingly untethered even if the beats progress. There's even a punk rock thrasher of sorts in 'Insert Love', and why not. 'Down' has an introduction and arrangement that you could (and honestly should, as with much else here - Ayuli came up with the term 'dream pop' for a reason) say 'invents' shoegaze as much as whatever was in Kevin Shields's head. Yet nobody that followed really got something like quite this. Then there's 'Supervixens'. In Prince's hands that might sound like some of sort hypercelebratory title matched with beats to boot. A.R. Kane turns it into a slow, angry monster that maybe HRH Purple could have only matched with 'The Beautiful Ones', but even then it would have to ride a stuttering glam beat turned into a vicious slow swing. And if you want to handwave the lyrics about how "killing her was the best thing I ever did" and the like, that's your business, but speaking of Shields and his crew give a listen again to My Bloody Valentine's 'Cigarette In Your Bed' sometime as well. I'll accept that metaphor and fantasy exists while I'd prefer another world anyway. I suspect they all would too, still.

"I just - challenge anyone to listen to them and not cry" says a final female voice in the final interlude. It's actually a conclusion, insistence swathed in echo and follows a final somewhat calmer full song in 'Catch My Drift', a full on dub number as much a catch for breath. But about that last challenge: a fan about the band? A random sample from somewhere? Something constructed strictly for the effect? Does it matter? i is 25 years old this year, and sounds like it could just as easily be from 250 years into the future. I would like to hope it could live that long - no quotes needed.