If you read British music magazines around 1994, there was a good chance you probably came across a small article or two about a young band called Disco Inferno. You’d read quotes about how their album was unlike anything anybody had done before, how utterly incredible it was, but if you lived in North America, far away from a good record store, the only thing you would know about Disco Inferno’s album D.I. Go Pop would be its distinctive cover art. That photograph of a pastoral English setting, bluntly obscured by a white circle in the center, with three arcs extending outward, looking like monstrous sound waves emitting from the middle of a lake, was one of the most indelible album cover images in the ‘90s, yet so few people actually heard the music inside. As ignored as Disco Inferno was in North America, the band, surprisingly enough, didn’t get heaps of press in the UK, either, as the album was completely shut out when the major publications made their year-end lists. Two years later, despite releasing some of the most beautiful, jarring, and innovative music of the ‘90s, the band would be no more.
The Internet can be a wonderful thing, though. With the arrival of online music stores and auction sites, not to mention the explosion of file sharing in the late ‘90s, it’s become much easier for curious music fans to learn more about obscure acts like Disco Inferno, but unlike the availability of the MP3s, it’s still been difficult for people to find reasonably-priced copies of the real product. Finally, One Little Indian Records has caught up, reissuing D.I. Go Pop and the band’s second album Technicolour in North America for the first time, as part of its new “Crossing the Pond” series of UK albums that have not seen domestic release Stateside. A full decade after D.I. Go Pop‘s initial release, it’s the perfect opportunity for people to discover one of rock’s most innovative, tragically overlooked bands, and might I add, it’s about bloody time.
When they first got together in 1989, Disco Inferno was a strictly post punk outfit whose sound was influenced primarily by Joy Division and Wire, but beginning with their 1992 single Summer’s Last Sound, the group began to experiment a little more, the music inching toward more electronic sounds. Their first two EPs for the Rough Trade label, A Rock to Cling To and The Last Dance, were even bolder, as Disco Inferno made the leap from post punk to post rock, as the songs began to feature more and more samples, loops, ambient sounds, and most noticeably, a combination of jolting noise and entrancing melodies. The band was quickly moving toward something big, and it would all come to a head on their 1994 album.
The cheeky title of D.I. Go Pop could not be more misleading. Just like the band’s highly tongue-in-cheek name, this music is anything but pop, as Ian Crause, Paul Wilmott, and Rob Whatley created an album so audacious, its unique beauty still resounds strongly today. Utilizing MIDI samplers which were triggered by guitar, bass, and drums, the band was able to go beyond the limitations of a mere guitar rock group (Crause once said he had six samplers hooked up to his guitar, one per string). One would expect that the end result would wind up being nothing more than a chaotic, noisy, haphazard, cut-and-paste attempt at musical assemblage, and yeah, there is a fair bit of cacophony on this album, but like My Bloody Valentine’s timeless classic Loveless, underneath the din is an album of such startling beauty, and even more surprising structure, that once you notice it, it seems like a huge revelation.
Just listen to that sample of dripping water in the opening seconds of “In Sharky Water”; at first, it sounds like the kind of white noise you’d find easy to ignore, but it doesn’t take long before you notice that there’s a mellifluousness and a rhythm to it; on this album, the band clearly has a John Cage-like knack for hearing music coming from what would be normally perceived as non-musical sources. You hear examples like that throughout the album, ranging from crashes, glass breaking, and whistling, to samples of camera shutters clicking and a frenetically-repeated sample of children singing on “Starbound: All Burnt Out and Nowhere to Go”. Aside from “In Sharky Water”, actual drums take a backseat on this album, as rhythms are provided by various samples, and most notably, the bass playing of Paul Wilmott. “New Clothes For the New World” alternates from crashing sounds and chiming samples, anchored by a smooth bassline that sounds swiped from the Happy Mondays catalogue, while the more sinister, intense “A Crash at Every Speed” is driven by a low, rumbling bass vamp. “Next Year” features a melodic, upper-register bassline that’s very similar to Peter Hook’s work with New Order.
Vocalist/guitarist Crause, an admitted misanthrope, often served up a very bleak, Morrissey-esque worldview in his lyrics on the band’s early singles, and though you do hear bits and pieces of a similar sentiment on this album (“Chameleon skin/Is what you need to be in/When nothing’s as it appears/Why should you be?”), his vocals are buried so deeply in the mix, it’s impossible to tell just exactly what he’s singing most of the time. The plaintive, melancholy “Even the Sea Sides Against Us”, one of the more instantly accessible songs on the album, revisits the Joy Division/Echo & the Bunnymen sound of their earlier material, as Crause’s lyrics sound as charmingly morose as ever (“We’re waiting for a future to come and sweep us away”).
The album comes to a gorgeous climax on the final two tracks. “A Whole Wide World Ahead” sounds like a Nick Drake song recorded outside in a raging thunderstorm, nothing but acoustic guitar, Crause’s spoken lyrics (which are almost understandable… almost), and a swirling, siren-like harmony in the background, all underscored by various whooshes, rumblings, and crashes. “Footprints in Snow”, on the other hand, sounds gloriously innocent and optimistic, as you hear little crunchy-sounding samples that actually do evoke images of someone running in the snow, with a gentle bassline provided by Wilmott, more chiming samples that sound like glockenspiel, and Crause’s oddly affecting vocals. Then, just like that, after 33 fleeting minutes, it’s all over, save for the bizarre insertion of a recording of the band being told to be quiet by their landlady.
D.I. Go Pop sounds even more interesting when heard in context with the band’s five great EPs, released between 1992 and 1994. You hear Disco Inferno evolve from the straightforward post punk of “Summer’s Last Sound”, to the all-out post rock of D.I. Go Pop, as the band gets more and more daring. It’s also fascinating to hear the band’s two EPs that followed D.I. Go Pop, Second Language and It’s a Kid’s World. Hearing the absolutely gorgeous guitar work on “Second Language” (arguably the band’s best song) echoing The Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly, and “It’s a Kid’s World”‘s brilliant combination of the drum track from Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” and samples of various children’s TV show themes, you hear the band focus more on melody, while utilizing sampling technology, and still creating some stunning pieces of work. If there’s any justice in this world, the band’s pivotal EPs they recorded for Rough Trade will be compiled on one CD someday.
Still, it’s the band’s irreverent genius and the meticulous arrangements on D.I. Go Pop that stick in your mind the longest. As current artists like Manitoba and Four Tet have the technology to assemble albums much more easily these days, the painstaking lengths that Disco Inferno went to perfect their sound in those pre-folktronica days is only occasionally duplicated today. Disco Inferno has long since departed, and were sadly overlooked by most people (including yours truly) a decade ago, but now, with this new re-release, it’s high time we all gave this most innovative band the recognition they so dearly deserve. And unlike that grouchy landlady, you’ll be wanting to turn this music up, not down.
// Notes from the Road
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