Friday, April 12, 2013

Biography for the The Complete Singles Collection (One Little Indian, 2012)

by Simon Reynolds

It is tempting to describe A.R. Kane as the great lost group of the 1980s.

“Great” is spot-on.  And “1980s” is more or less accurate (they did release some stuff in the Nineties but the late Eighties was A.R. Kane’s recording prime).  No, it’s the “lost” bit that is misleading. It gives the impression that this was a group that was neglected, overlooked...   if not utterly unknown, then certainly marginal in the scheme of things. And that is inaccurate. 

Not only were A.R. Kane renowned and revered, but, in certain quarters, they were regarded and written up as one of the central groups of their era.  The singles and albums received rave reviews (and when I say “rave” I mean frothing at the mouth, purple-prose-drooling paeans).  Their faces appeared on the front covers of the British music weekly papers.  But A.R. Kane weren’t just critics’s faves either. Sixty nine, their debut album, topped the independent charts in the summer of 1988. 

But wait, there’s more: bizarrely, A.R. Kane actually made it to Number One in the UK pop charts, via M/A/R/R/S, their short-lived and fraught collaboration with Colourbox.   Okay, it was “Pump Up the Volume”, the mostly-Colourbox side of the double A-sided 12 inch single that got the radio play and the club action. But A.R. Kane could take consolation from the fact that the all-our-own-handiwork flipside “Anitina”--included on this collection-- is by far the more remarkable and enduringly captivating piece of music. (Not that they need consolation, really, what with all the money they earned from M/A/R/R/S).

Still, the “lost” bit of “great lost group of the 1980s” does apply, in so far as A.R. Kane are now the stuff of cult memory.  As often happens, the passing of the years resulted in History shaking out and settling into a shape that doesn’t necessarily reflect how things were seen at the time.  So some late Eighties groups (My Bloody Valentine, Pixies) have maintained a high profile, while others, considered their contemporary equals,  have faded into the background (A.R. Kane, Throwing Muses). Hopefully this long-overdue collection of A.R. Kane’s EPs and singles, which has arrived—funny coincidence—the same year as MBV’s own EPs compilation, will serve to redress this injustice.

Other players came and went but the core of A.R. Kane was always Alex Ayuli and Rudy Tambala. From East London, they had known each other since primary school.  Released on One Little Indian in 1986, their debut single “When You’re Sad” reminded reviewers of The Jesus and Mary Chain: the template of sugarsweet melody juxtaposed with scouring wall-of-noise that in the wake of the J&MC’s early Creation singles was widely adopted across the British indie scene during 1985-87. But in their early interviews, Alex and Rudy adamantly insisted they had nothing to do with indie rock and cited as their true inspirations jazz-fusion figures like Miles Davis and Weather Report, ECM Records outfits such as Azymuth, along with the (genuinely lost) black postpunk group Basement 5. The only vaguely indie-land outfit they expressed admiration for was The Cocteau Twins.

Probably a truer indication of where A.R. Kane’s heads were at was the flipside of “When You’re Sad”, the drifting, gaseously gorgeous mood-piece “Haunted”. It fit the way that Alex and Rudy described their creative process: in early interviews, they spoke of how “our songs emerge out of total chaos” which “we chip away at until there’s this beautiful shape”.  Alex declared that “our ambition is for people to have dreams for which our music is the soundtrack”.

Early in 1987 A.R. Kane signed to 4AD and in July they released the Lollita EP, produced by Cocteau Twins’s guitarist Robin Guthrie.  Lollita starts dreamy, with the lilting, love-sickly title track, but quickly turns to nightmare with "Sadomasochism Is A Must" and “Butterfly Collector”, increasingly psychotic thrashes that seemed to shower the listener with shards of splintered crystal. In their first front cover story (for Melody Maker) Alex and Rudy talked about how the record had turned into a sort of accidental concept EP about the tainted-ness of love.  But the darkness and violence had always lurked malignantly within even their most idyllic-seeming songs: “When You’re Sad” was originally titled “You Push A Knife Into My Womb."

Violence certainly came to the fore during A.R. Kane’s sporadic live shows of this period, squalls of abstraction in which Alex’s fragile vocals were buried deep inside the seething colour-swirl of feedback and FX-wracked texture, a barely-sculpted chaos almost impossible to correlate with the recorded versions of the songs.  Despite their Hendrix-redolent love of electric guitars and effects pedals, A.R. Kane weren’t a rock band in the conventional sense, i.e. a group that gigs regularly and whose recordings offer a polished-up version of the band in performance.  A.R. Kane were more like an experimental guitar pop unit who loved to push the recording studio to its limits.  

Which is why 4AD supremo Ivo Watts-Russell thought it would be a smart idea to team A.R. Kane up with another bunch of studio boffins on his label, Colourbox. The resulting collaboration M/A/R/R/S (the name is based on the first letters of the first names of all the people involved) proved to be a paradoxical blend of triumph and fiasco. One the one hand, “Pump Up the Volume” reached Number One in the U.K. and dominated dance clubs worldwide all through late 1987. It spearheaded the “DJ record” craze for sample-collage cut-ups (Bomb the Bass, Coldcut, S’Express, et al).  On the other hand, Colourbox and A.R. Kane couldn’t find workable common ground, and as result “Pump Up the Volume”/”Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance”” was more like a split single than a real collaboration.  On “Pump,” all you hear of Rudy and Alex is a single trail of lustrous feedback; Colourbox, for their part, only supplied a basic drum machine undercarriage to the delicious soundclash of lover’s rock reggae and “Third Stone From the Sun”-style kaleidoscope-guitar that is “Anitina”. The latter track anticipated directions later pursued by everyone from Saint Etienne to The Stone Roses.  But in the acrimonious wake of the unexpected mega-success of “Pump Up the Volume”, all the parties involved decided there would be no follow-up single or album.

A.R. Kane then jumped ship from 4AD to another of the era’s mighty independents,  Rough Trade. In April 1988, they released the Up Home!  EP, arguably their most concentrated slab of iridescent awesomeness and a true pinnacle of an era that  abounded with astounding landmarks of guitar-reinvention (Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything and their two 1988 EPs, releases by Butthole Surfers,  Dinosaur Jnr, Spacemen 3, Loop, The House of Love, and more... ).  The clanking dub-sway of “Baby Milk Snatcher” combined an oblique jab at Margaret Thatcher (in the title) with the languid erotica of lines like “suck my seed”;  “One Way Mirror” induced snowblindness of the ears with its dazzling rush of supersaturated textures; “Up” was A.R. Kane’s most glorious expanse of sound yet,  the winding, slowly ascending melody like a spiral stairway veering up from a plateau of mirrors.

The album that followed, sixty-nine, saw reviewers going verbosely ape-shit.  Perhaps sensing that they’d taken the Niagara-of-noise aesthetic as far as they could, sixty-nine  saw Alex and Rudy attempt some different directions (stripped-down and groove-oriented, ambient and meditational) along with the expected glistening grottos of abstraction.  Continuing this move away from the “classic” A.R. Kane sound, the Love-Sick EP  (October 1988) was a transitional affair, with tracks like “Green Hazed Daze” and “Sperm Travels Like Juggernaut” moving towards a cleaner, sharper-defined sound that faintly recalled the lush ‘n’ lurid Goth-psych of the Banshees circa Kiss in the Dreamhouse.

Then came the remarkable reinvention that was “i”. Originally titled Supercallafragilisticexpealodocious until the Disney Corporation took exception, this 1989 double album was a bold stride in the direction of pop. This shift to clarity and accessibility seemed to be signposted by the first single off the LP, “Pop”, but the band insisted that the word “pop” referred to the bursting of a romantic bubble, the end of a relationship and its attendant illusions. (The “short version” of the song, included here, starts with a sample from Martin Luther King: “I have a dream”).  Once again, A.R. Kane were probing one of their favorite sore-spot zones of inspiration, the dark and twisted side of love.

Some of the best tunes on “i” can be found on this collection, because they popped up on various EPs and singles over the next few years. Rough Trade’s 1989 Pop EP included “What’s All This Then” (an off-kilter skank-house groove trailing a wake of  hallucinatory after-images) and “Snow Joke” (a delightful hybrid of bouncy electro-bop and M.O.R. orchestration  abruptly split apart by samples from ECM artist Norma Winstone and 2001, a Space Odyssey’s computer-gone-crazy HAL).  The following year Virgin France put out “i”  highlight “Crack Up”, a mixture of jittery paranoia and pump-and-pound club energy that seemed to have assimilated some groove-science from the whole M/A/R/R/S misadventure. Then, in 1992, to accompany their A.R. Kane anthology Americana, David Byrne’s label Luaka Bop released “A Love From Outer Space” as an EP with four different mixes of the title track  (“Solar Equinox”, “Lunar Eclipse” and “Venusian Dub” along with the “i”   original) and threw in “Sugarwings”, also from “i”   and one of the group’s most beguiling broken-heart ballads.

In the early Nineties, Alex and Rudy set up their own label H.ark! and released a series of wondrous EPs by outfits like Papa Sprain and Butterfly Child,  groups that had clearly been shaped by A.R. Kane’s  vision.  And you could see the influence of their late Eighties music popping up in all kinds of places by the early Nineties. Along with My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins, Alex and Rudy had  contributed a hefty quotient of DNA to shoegaze’s blurry-guitar sound, particularly with the movement’s more idiosyncratic groups such as Pale Saints, Moose and Slowdive.  They had also been an influence on the UK branch of post-rock, operators like Seefeel and Bark Psychosis and Disco Inferno,  while the brilliant west country neo-psych outfit Flying Saucer Attack explicitly and fervently cited A.R. Kane’s  early singles and EPs as a formative catalyst. 

But when A.R. Kane released their next (and, as it turned out, final) album New Clear Child in 1994, they had abandoned the very aspects of that their sound that had been most inspirational: the halcyon guitar-haze. A confounding move as far as many fans were concerned, but possibly a shrewd one, given the total overload of shoegazey miasma that had blanketed the British music scene in recent years. New Clear Child, represented here by the Sea Like A Child EP and the America-only single “Honey Be (For Stella)”, embraced a jazz-tinged pop-funk that in places recalled positivity-era Prince or the New Age R&B of Seal and PM Dawn. For some fans, this was a step too far towards the mainstream, but really it was A.R. Kane pursuing the same goal as ever:  just a different version of what they called “dreampop”, the merger of song and space, the deep inside and the far out-there.

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