Post-Rocktoberfest 2011: Disco Inferno – The Five EPs, Song-by-Song
To celebrate the belated official release of Disco Inferno’s The Five EPs compilation – and to beat Neil Kulkarni to it – Bubblegum Cage III hereby presents a brief song-by-song analysis of five EPs by Disco Inferno. For some really detailed information on all of these songs (and more!), take a look at this Ian Crause interview on Crumbs in the Butter.
Before delving in, though, it might be worth giving a brief explanation of why this here blog considers such and obscure band to be such an important band. It has to do with sound and music.
Didn’t John Cage once say that, in the future, music would be made using machines that could record a sound – any sound – and play it back at any pitch, for any duration? (Seriously, if anyone can find the actual quote, it would be much appreciated!) Maybe, because – in one sense – this is a typically prescient Cage quote. Essentially, it predicts sampling. On the other hand, maybe not. It’s really quite anomalous because it references music in the conventional sense. Cage tended to feel that sounds should be allowed to be themselves, without interference from composers or musicians (hence his famous “silent piece”). This philosophy opened the world up to the musical potential of non-musical sound/noise (and also prefigured any number of “abstract” musical genres – from free improv to ambient).
This is where Disco Inferno come in – they applied Cage’s all-sounds-are-musical philosophy to the traditions of rock and pop music, often pushing themselves towards total abstraction but always pulling back at the last minute. They also made the connection between sound-as-music and the sampler as musical instrument per se. Rather than using clunky sampling keyboards to do this, they used MIDI pick-ups and drum pads to control their samplers, which allowed them to literally play sounds from their immediate environment – and turn them into pop songs! Applying a basically unlimited sound palette (favouring emotionally-evocative environmental sounds and audio puns on song lyrics) to established pop/rock practices, forms and set-ups, they created an astonishingly vivid and visionary body of work that absolutely no other band has had the courage to follow up on.
Summer’s Last Sound (Cheree, 1992)
“Summer’s Last Sound”
So, Disco Inferno were quite possibly the most truly visionary artists in the history of western popular music. Which is not to say that they were best, necessarily because one can’t help feeling they never really hit what they were aiming at. This track was probably the closest they came. It remains their most heroic achievement and their best song.
Before this EP (hardly an EP, really, as it only has two tracks), Disco Inferno were a fairly undistinguished indie trio with pronounced Factory Records influences. Inspired by the sampledelic examples of Public Enemy and The Young Gods, they decided to pool their limited resources to buy the samplers and MIDI pick-ups that were the basis of their classic sound.
From a technical standpoint, this was a nightmare. Singer/guitarist Ian Crause apparently spent quite some time trying to record just the right bird sounds to use for the guitar/sampler parts on “Summer’s Last Sound”. His instrumental parts were created by capturing MIDI data from his guitar onto an Atari ST computer, which kept crashing in response to Crause’s Durruti Column-esque cascades of notes.
It was all worth it. “Summer’s Last Sound”, as previously noted, is Disco Inferno’s finest moment. But it’s also perhaps the quintessential DI moment. It’s the perfect encapsulation of the band’s incredibly vivid, almost unbearably bittersweet mixture of pastoral beauty and urban dread, where the two opposing elements become inextricably entwined, staggering along together, never quite collapsing into total chaos.
For a really detailed look into this song, some speculative transcriptions of the words and some recent input from Ian Crause himself take a look at this post on Sit Down Man, You’re a Bloody Tragedy.
“Love Stepping Out”
More of the bittersweet same on the B-side. Not quite as effective as “Summer’s Last Sound” (the sequenced acoustic guitar samples are maybe a little stiff) but pretty bloody beautiful all the same.
A Rock to Cling to (Rough Trade, 1993)
“A Rock to Cling to”
There’s long been a bit of confusion about the track-list of this EP (again, more of a single, really). It begins with a short song with vocals and ends with a long instrumental track. Many sources have listed “A Rock to Cling to” as the latter, rather than the former but that’s incorrect (aside from anything, Crause clearly sings “I still need a rock to cling to” on the first song). Hopefully, the official release of The Five EPs will have cleared up this confusion once and for all.
In any case, “A Rock to Cling to” sounds like a partial step back to the early Disco Inferno sound and it lacks the vividness of the Summer’s Last Sound tracks. It is very beautiful though and makes genuinely haunting, very subtle use of the band’s samplers. The B-side, on the other hand…
“From the Devil to the Deep Blue Sky”
This one is almost like a show-reel for Disco Inferno’s unique rock-band-through-MIDI-into samplers set-up. It really is extraordinary – working wonderfully as a demonstration of the band’s techniques and as a piece of music. Still, without Ian Crause’s flat, bitter little voice cutting through the swirling cascades of sound, it really just tells one side of the story.
The Last Dance (Rough Trade, 1993)
“The Last Dance”
This is one of the more commercially viable tracks on the five EPs (alongside “It’s a Kids World”). Ian Crause was often photographed wearing a New Order T-shirt and that band’s influence is strongly felt here (DI even brought in New Order’s engineer to work on this EP). Lyrically, “The Last Dance” is even more of a statement of intent than “Summer’s Last Sound” – laying out Crause’s resolutely atheistic and forward-looking bruised romanticism in the clearest possible terms (“In the end it’s not the future but the past that will get us”). Musically, the track features some truly astonishing moments, like when the snare drum finally kicks in or when Crause’s guitar bursts into peels of echoplexed exultation. Bloody gorgeous, basically.
“D.I. Go Pop”
DI Go Pop the album represents DI at their most their most chaotic and “DI Go Pop” the song does the same. It really does sound like a discoteque on fire.
“The Long Dance”
Basically a longer and rather different mix of “The Last Dance”. Actually, it sounds like it might be a completely different vocal take. Those “moments” discussed above hit home a bit harder on the shorter version.
Sounds very much like a better-recorded version of the sound explored on DI Go Pop (the album). Guitars, samples, beauty, chaos. You know the score by now. Crause’s chiming Vini Reilly-esque guitar anchors it all, which sets the scene very nicely for the next EP…
Second Language (Rough Trade, 1994)
This EP features some of Crause’s finest guitar playing and this song is perhaps the single best demonstration of his nimble and expressive style. The over-the-top tremolo moves at the song’s climax are bananas.
“The Atheist’s Burden”
Disco Inferno’s sense of humour has rarely been remarked upon but it’s there for anyone to hear – hell, the band’s deeply ironic name should be a dead giveaway. “The Atheist’s Burden” starts off as one of their goofiest numbers, with Crause using his guitars to play pan flute samples over a clod-hopping four-on-the-floor beat. But as he narrates a typical DI story of one man’s oscillations between cynicism and wonder, things start to get much deeper and end up really uncannily beautiful and touching.
“At the End of the Line”
A highpoint – the bit where a massively time-stretched Wilhelm scream kicks in is absolutely chilling. Really sounds like a person drinking in the beauty of the world, just as it all falls to pieces.
“A Little Something”
Booze seems to have played a major roll in every stage of the DI story. Hear, Crause sounds rueful but resigned on the mater” “If I get a little something/I can sleep”. He is, of course, accompanied by a cavalcade of clinking, slopping audio puns.
It’s a Kid’s World (Rough Trade, 1994)
“It’s a Kid’s World”
A rare example of Disco Inferno transparently sampling other people’s music – notably Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” and the “Dr. Who” theme. Lyrically, it’s a very apposite foreshadowing of the demonization of youth that has blighted British life over the last decade or so.
“A Night on the Tiles”
Booze again. The most chaotic DI moment since “DI Go Pop” (the song). Totally insane use of an Edith Piaf sample.
“Lost in Fog”
Fucking hell, what a way to end! A similar sci-fi narrative to “At the End of the Line” but with that track’s chiming musical clarity replaced by a dense… well, fog of sound. Towards the end, it sounds like Crause is using his guitar to destroy an upright piano. Which, in a sense, he probably is.
Like all Bubblegumcage III posts, this was typed in a hurry by a junior staff member, who then passed it on to an intern who pretended to to (but clearly did not) proofread it. After that, the post was passed on to this here blogs senior editorial team for approval, before being run by a team of extremely expensive lawyers. It was only at this point that someone saw fit to comment: “Didn’t you publish this exact post three years ago?” Oh, yeah.
Still, it’s interesting to see the changes that three years can make to a person’s opinions (and yes, yes it really is just one person, of course). “The Last Dance” better than “Summer’s Last Sound”? Really? Actually, in some cases, it’s interesting to see how little these opinions have changed. Look at the bits on “A Rock to Cling to” and “Scattered Showers” – practically the same wording!
In any case, it seems that Bubblegum Cage III (albeit in its previous incarnation) really did beat Neil Kulkarni to it! Of course, his article will probably be a lot more thought through and well written than anything you’ll see around here. A link will be posted as soon as his thing goes online.
Edit: Here‘s the link to Neil Kulkarni’s excellent piece: