Disco Inferno’s footprint on contemporary pop music may not be immediately apparent, at least to those most concerned with chart positions or timeless, X-Factor-friendly tunes, but the importance of this Essex trio is belatedly beginning to find recognition amongst a new breed of enveloping-pushing sonic alchemists from M.I.A. to No Age; Matmos to Battles.
After a brief stint in the late ’80s, recording minimal, nihilistic, Joy Division-inspired doom-pop in a studio cemented deep within a Leyton railway arch, teenagers Ian Crause, Paul Wilmott and Rob Whatley found a new lease of life and wild vision thanks to the procurement of a sampler and a Young Gods album. As Crause put it in 1992: “I wanted the sampler to enable me to be a chameleon – to be a songbird or an army or a flock of birds – to use the music as a soundtrack to help us visualize or add layers or meanings to the lyrics… I think I succeeded. Nobody cared. Nobody bought it.”
Certainly, DI concerts of the period were often bewildering affairs. On stage, the requisite rock arsenal of guitar, bass and drums was augmented by an unexpected aural exotica – the instruments fed through a sampler, so that each note or beat triggered a menagerie of sound effects: a bird’s tweet, a car crash, a cascading waterfall… As with many peddlers of ideas that don’t fit neatly into convention, Disco Inferno regularly found audiences befuddled, hostile or simply absent.
The 5 EPs is a great place to start if you’ve never heard Disco Inferno before (and don’t be put off by that name) as it charts, chronologically, the group’s evolution from naïve dabblings with sequencers (the beautiful neo-pastoralism of ‘Summer’s Last Sound’) to their confident deployment of both sampling technology and overt melody (‘It’s A Kid’s World’). A jump from the pocket-size Cheree label to heavyweight indie Rough Trade in 1993 resulted in an essential increase in budget and with it, a far more effective realisation of Crause’s ever more grandiose dreams. “‘From The Devil To The Deep Blue Sky’ is supposed to be the sound of every church, mosque, temple and synagogue being dismantled by the people who built them and the resulting peace. Surprisingly, nobody got it,” Crause once explained.
Evidently, the likes of The Wire, Melody Maker and Radio 3’s Mixing It ‘got it’ but the masses simply didn’t follow. DI weren’t ticking boxes, they were thinking outside of them. Unglamorous (all their income was spent on technology, not clothes), unpretentious and often downright challenging, DI would never take root in the collective pop conscience. Crause was always too low in the mix, burying his thick Ilford accent, as he sang of politics, religion, the state of the nation and love; his spidery, Vini Reilly-esque guitar underpinned by Wilmott’s dub-steady bass which would sometimes give way, thanks to the sampler, to soft gushes of autumn wind. Meanwhile, Whatley’s percussive camera shutter clicks and glass smashes would be triggered from a transparent, plastic and neon drum kit.
They imploded in 1994, a mess of musical (and personal) differences, crooked management and empty pockets. Floorshow, Crause and Whatley’s subsequent studio-bound project, was equally plagued by ill fortune, inner turmoil, malfunctioning technology and a disinterested label and folded after the recording of an unreleased debut album. It’s heartening to know, then, that Disco Inferno are belatedly getting their due. The 5 EPs is certainly a dazzling reminder of a band which saw a door marked ‘future’ and ran through it, hoping that others would follow. It’s a testament to DI’s bravery that, 15 years since their demise, few have still dared to. Glen Johnson