Cinematic. Epic. These are words which have been whored out far too often, especially when it comes to describing and defining music. Froth and PR corrode their meanings, reducing them to fancy synonyms for nothing more than crude scale, and we forget that other qualities are wrapped into them. These words shouldn’t just be cheap and glittery tags for charlatans – the kind who steep their tunes in giant vats of reverb, or who substitute eye-watering grandiosity for sincerity. There are more crucial meanings. There’s storytelling, and the churn of history. There’s the play of images, the triggering of senses. Eventually, there should be some kind of understanding.
Ian Crause knows all of this. Back in the 1990s – when he was barely out of his teens, and the driving force behind the startling expressionist pop band Disco Inferno – he was struggling with it himself. Even then, though, he wasn’t stumbling to understand: he was striving to perfect. Disco Inferno had come from limited beginnings but grown fast. Originally a dour post-punk power trio, they’d seized the opportunities presented by technology and imagination and transformed themselves into a whole-world window. Hot-wiring their way into the disruptions and illuminations of found-sound and musique concrète, they plugged guitar, bass and drums into digital samplers and grew themselves an ever-expanding sheath of noises: a startling collage of jarring sound effects, layered into composition and twisted into context.
Disco Inferno’s swarm of noise was never there simply to overwhelm. Instead, it refracted and illuminated the poignant dissatisfied pop songwriting which stood, steadfast, at the band’s core. They were doggedly political, but owed nothing to dogma. Caught within ominous social currents and inside treacherous personal eddies, their songs bore witness to cruelties, both intended and impersonal. Those tearing rivulets of sound-montage were flashes of further illumination, put there to side-swipe and snag the attention, and to up-end complacency. The fragments of birdsong and clattering glassware; the careful punctuation of trains and screams and distant firework-pops; the sound of feet jogging grimly away through a numbing snowfall – all of it bore witness to the swerving cacophony of the world, smearing past our ears and battering our psyche, carrying its deeper meanings and significances into us via a pummeling swirl.
At the heart of this unsettling barrage were Ian’s lyrics, which were wise, stark and bleak beyond his years. He sang about the crumbling of vulnerable individuals; about the fraying of the social contract and distortion of social forces. He sang about the stifling, stunting pressures callously imposed from above. He sang about all of this in a still, small, stubborn voice which sounded like the next-to-last exhalation; as if he was a few crucial steps and dogged heel-digs away from giving up and bleeding out. He sounded brave, bitter and doomed – snarling his scorn at the boot-tread even as it rolled over him. For a while, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Bands who refuse to comfort us (or refuse to stroke our sundry petty vanities) rarely get rewarded, and Disco Inferno were no exception – the strains of dealing with commercial indifference and inner despair finally tore them to bits in 1997. A couple of barely-noticed Ian Crause solo EPs hiccupped out in the band’s wake over the next few years, and then he too seemed to drop out of the story.
In fact, he’d only dropped out of the cheaper kind of mythology. That’s the one in which ducking out of music becomes death or disappearance by another name. His own story – the real story – moved on regardless. There were years of growing up and grim jobs to come, and years of being chewed over by the same callous forces he once sang about. In amongst the drudgery, there were other factors. There was fatherhood, and family. Surprisingly (for a lyricist already so accomplished and intelligent) Ian made his first adult engagement with literacy. Curiosity, plus a determination to pursue the roots of song and storytelling, led him to the themes and voices of classical literature. His developing interest in the telling parallels with contemporary society kept him immersed in it. Crucially, Ian discovered the works of Ovid – Roman epic poet and exile – via dedicated translations by Ted Hughes and David R. Slavitt.
Like Ovid, Ian would eventually become an exile himself (a self-determined one, abandoning Britain for Bolivia) and enter into a new swell of creativity. Via his ‘Metamorphoses’, Ovid eventually inspired The Song Of Phaethon – Ian Crause’s formal return to music, transformed and developed. It might not be the first new note he’s delivered after eleven years of radio silence. That would be More Earthly Concerns, which welled out via Mixcloud and blogclick in March 2012, and which I’ll talk about elsewhere. But (as Ian begins to dole out his work, in handfuls, onto Bandcamp) The Song Of Phaethon is the first of Ian’s songs to be let out into the marketplace. It’s also probably more crucial in understanding his evolution since his Disco Inferno days.
The protagonist, Phaethon, is and was one of those half-divine children who pepper Greek mythology – he’s the bastard of the sun god Apollo Helios, a malcontent boy strutting up to his sun-father’s palace to claim his ancestry and birthright before he has the wisdom to use it. Greeted, given the acknowledgment he craves, and granted the gift of driving the sun’s chariot for a day, Phaethon is warned of the terrible risks involved. Swallowed up by his grand moment, and too conceited to listen, he takes all of his opportunities to their ruinous conclusions. Losing control of the chariot, he transforms a triumphal fly-past into a joyride and then into a catastrophe. Before the high god Zeus restores order by striking him down, Phaethon scorches a gigantic swathe across the world and casts the seasons into chaos.
Like most figures woven into the complex psychological map of Greek myth, Phaethon still has his role to play. He’s a metaphor for arrogance and a sense of entitlement; he also stands for the destructive potential which both of these follies possess. It’s deep literary currency, and maybe not the first thing which you’d think of as a match for the Crause songcrafting method – so direct and personal in Disco Inferno days. Yet Ian’s battering splay of noises and disaffection opens itself up readily to the mythology, which sinks in grain-for-grain. Explosive futurism meets stern and ancient legend, and both are renewed.
Some of Disco Inferno’s post-punk grit remains at the spine of the music (listen to those dogged dot-trails of frowning bass, or to the occasional flares of wire-wool guitar), but the song falls far away from rock into something older. Myths lend themselves to being channeled into new courses by any means available – Phaethon, for instance, worked his way into a Patricia Barber jazz epic six years previously. Ian rises to his own challenge superbly. In any worthwhile sense, what he comes up for The Song Of Phaethon is a new take on a bardic chant. Its melody is minimal and hypnotic; its rhythms walking, changing pulses constantly driven by the restless words. With vivid artistic appetite, Ian also mines the story’s depths for any resonances which he can transmogrify and feed into his own samples-as-narrative approach.
In this he’s served well – the mythic structure and detail inspire and transform his lyrics, which in turn take on the layered build of classical imagery. Various whispers of fateful moira and foreshadowing rise up to nourish the sounds. From early on, Phaethon’s life is marked by the celestial – right down to the transformation of his familiar landscapes by the passage of the sun and moon each day, continual reminders of his thwarted birthright. Ian reflects this in the woven detail of the narrative: “Every day their shadows ran / down Asia like a lyre, strumming / past his village, swinging down at perihelion / to touch upon his mother’s house / then over dark and quiet woods – / their distant hawks and watching deer / oblivious in bending shade – / descending into seacloud mist, / and down towards the gull-cloud cliffs / to pour their jewels and precious metals / out along the sea.”
Just as he did with Disco Inferno, Ian juxtaposes sound effects with the lyrics to create telling sonic scenery. Though he generally wields these with the skills of a master ironist, he slam them into place with forthright punk brutality whenever he needs to. Throughout, the Greek horns and lyres are a pointed racket: ritual blares, ancient continuo lines. Signatures of antiquity and origin stand solid against the thrumming synths and Ian’s tidal electrophonic swirl of throbbing samples. In prophetic flashes, the clip-clop of horse’s hooves and the slam of violent collisions clatter and blur in and out of the mix, while Phaethon’s more innocent youth is illustrated by the clank of herd bells and goats. In time, his dogged journey through Asia and towards Apollo is dappled and smeared by a souksworth of Asian instruments and chatter, careering past the listener in a flickering travelogue: “Levantine cities raised themselves, then hazed away in dreams of sand, where sand subsumes / the earth itself and still ahead his path led on. But falling always out of reach, the rising sun. / Into the dawn, alone he walked.”).
The effect is of a kind of illuminated text – a cinematic compression of time and location into a vivid illustrative story. That story remains paramount: even while we, as listeners, are being drawn inside those blood-in-the-head thunders and are surrounded by a glorious noise, as if we’ve been trapped under the encircling lip of a vast bronze bell. Beyond the story, though, other dimensions to the tale are coming into play. The song is also a loose parable of another gatecrashing of grand power. “He knew, he knew – / his place was beyond.”
Superimposed – a ghostly transparency – over Phaethon’s story is the tale of Tony Blair’s entry into the Second Gulf War. As this emerges through the song, it’s clear that Ian sees this as another disastrous snatch at high significance and public destiny. Something which flew high and upwards towards glory, only to destroy any achievement of its own, wreaking havoc on the ground and people below. Cunningly, occasional Blairisms are woven both into the narrative and into Phaethon’s thoughts and speech. At one point, he even blathers, Blair-like, “look, you know,” before sliding into advocate pomp and hubristic heroics. For a moment, the pleading voices of the two men overlap within Ian’s narration, making a contradictory cats-cradle out of public morality, power-grabs and a preening Promethean sense of mission. “It was not just God but also man / who clearly needs some representing – / A case I’ll take for free… / Evidentially it takes / a half-divinity to raise / the flag of man aloft for man…”
It follows – with a harsh and unforgiving logic – that the noises of modern warfare should persistently break through the song’s tapestry of ancient sounds. As Ian goes beyond everyday sound effects and begins to violently splice present-day horrors into the textures of the mythical plot and signifiers, the song is slashed up into a jittery palimpsest. Almost from the start, those bleating goats on the ancient Greek hillsides are blindsided by gunshots and by the crash of heavy munitions. With booms, crunches and clatters the shattered, warped shards of twenty-first century concrete and metal scrape and shoulder their own way into the past.
Even specific events from the myth draw across, from recent times, their own crooked parallels. The bursting, clattering crowd-sound of Phaethon’s entry into Apollo’s hall is lifted and twisted from the peak of Blair’s 2003 address to the US Congress. It becomes a Dionysiac smear of fanatical applause and whistles: something turned into a nightmare puppet show, or a rainstorm ripped horribly out of kilter. At the coda, Phaethon is poised unwitting on the brink of disaster. The ascension of the Sun’s chariot merges, indistinguishably, into the noise of a jet fighter launch. Backed by the white-hot screech of the afterburners, the lyrics weave both tales, both times and a set of terrible implications – “the steeds were armed: a blinding shock; / a ferrous scream; a rubber stamp; / and up,” – into final, irrevocable process.
By anyone’s standard, The Song Of Phaethon is a major achievement – a jump-up into fiercely intelligent, confident high art, it stakes new claims and transfigures old ground. It even manages to both stay true to and transcend the moral and political commitments Ian held with Disco Inferno. And yet… it raises a tremulous question of what might have happened to the other side of Ian Crause. Between the immersion in classical tradition (and the dense time-folding focus of the samplers) what’s left of the fervent young New Order fan who always saw himself as fronting a pop band? What, in other words, became of Crause the unlikely pop singer?For the answer, look to Suns May Rise, released three months after The Song Of Phaethon. Ian’s mining of Greek mythology is still in place (as are his detailed tapestries of sound-effect) but they’re now wrapped around an out-and-out pop song and a lustrous, dancing melody that Bernard Sumner would give his eye-teeth for. Those Greek lyres and zithers are back, as are the layers of sound effects (sea-spray and thunderous surf crash billow through Suns May Rise from start to finish); but they’re bolstered by massed stadium synth and guttering pop guitar; by angelic powder-puffs of fake-choir; and by warbling rococo flourishes of electronics. Even Ian’s voice – usually so dry, and pointed – is flushed with the balmy blue of a Mediterranean summer. Scritti Politti and Cocteau Twins, each at their flounciest, could find common ground with this song’s feverish, chattering opulence. So, come to that, could latterday Marillion.
I suspect that all of this ’80 ornamentation is deliberate. After all, it skips hand-in-hand with other ’80s excesses, and that’s not too far from where Ian’s caustic, righteous attention is focused. Beneath this gleeful and gorgeous bluster, he’s unraveling a story from the Odyssey: a warning bell for avaricious times. As the story has it, Odysseus (while returning from the Trojan Wars) visited the generous Keeper of the Winds, who gave him a bag of sea-gales to ensure that the sails of his ships would be filled and his voyage home would be swift. En route, Odysseus slept; and his friends sneaked up to rifle the bag, in search of treasure which they were sure he’d hidden from them. All they succeeded in doing was to unleash the winds, which blew the ships hither and yon and – eventually – blew them back to where they had started. Reckless avarice, bringing down calamity, provides the keystone of the song. “There will always be some fool / to pull the strings apart. /And suns may set and moons may wax, / and moons may wane and suns may rise – / the gold within his eyes will weigh / Man down a stumbling fool.”
When Ian starts singing about this, though, it’s from the point of view of that corrupted, consensual chorus of friends – the “brothers bound in bronze.” Their coy, self-congratulatory rapaciousness soak his tones like a stain on the teeth. Flushed and greedy with loot already, all they can see is the chance to grab some more. From his own place at the reins of the narrative, Ian reveals their mythic echo in today’s freebooting boy-club of bankers and stockbrokers. Men of unfettered appetite goad each other on. People who simply don’t know when to stop – and who wouldn’t want to even after being handed a sobering, sickening lesson – would still pick perilous holes in opportunity. “You had enjoyed a peace of sorts / The winds had been re-tamed and so / of course the bag was bursting fat: / It fell to men to see to that. / Again so sure the bag would hold / either wine or gold, / Necessity appeared, demanding ‘Open this’.”
It’s here (with a careering inflative screech on “bursting fat”) that Ian himself deliberately unleashes the hidden forces within Suns May Rise, to overwhelm it. From here on in, sounds rise and cyclone – seaspray, radio chatter and winnowing churns of air; a lash of strained rope which morphs from background effect to edgy kick-drum. Amongst all of this the thread of pop song holds fast, stretched taut over an ever-burgeoning epic. In a parading weave of rapid soundbites, assorted newscasters and pundits and politicians roll past in a potted history of the last generation of monetarism. At its tail-end, George W. Bush (waving through a banker’s rescue programme of the kind he’d never have brooked for any other group of people) chokes, gargles and drowns amongst the becalmed wreckage of Odysseus’ ships. Throughout, that teasing pop melody ensures that we’ll remember what happened this time around.
So… the forces eventually sink the meddlers, but there always seem to be more of the latter. Ian conjures up further mythic winds, more specters bringing in ruin from the other far-flung breeding grounds of a destructive capitalist carnival. “Through solids, countries, paper bonds; / The world again reveals itself / in entrails; in open wounds. / The priests and seers shed tears of glee / and privately amuse on how / it still can be that after so long… / there will always be some chance / to pull the threads apart.” Again, the bones of legend rear up inside the flesh of current affairs. Again, this unlikely sample-punk turned foley-bard turns up to show us where those bones are poking through – his words a layered and subtle scourge; even an education. For Ian Crause, it’s been a long and often stony road from transformative teenage angst to his current role of reveal-and-illuminate, but it’s also been a journey of integrity and hard-won vision. The results are even a story in themselves.
Ian Crause: ‘The Song Of Phaethon’ & ‘Suns May Rise’
Ian Crause (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Released: 20th November 2012 (‘The Song of Phaethon’), 18th February 2013 (‘Suns May Rise’)
Buy it from:
‘The Song Of Phaethon’ – Bandcamp (the original version reviewed here has now been replaced by this mini-album)
‘Suns May Rise’ – Bandcamp (the single version reviewed here has now been replaced by this version from ‘The Vertical Axis’ album)