(Art is from David Maisel’s excellent series of X-rays of museum statues.)
Political commentary in pop music is usually deliberately vague. It hedges its bets, resists specifics, and makes its motivations oblique. With all the best will in the world, this is very often because the songwriters themselves aren’t quite sure what they’re on about, and don’t want anyone to call them out on it. What did Blur’s anti-war single, Don’t Bomb When You’re The Bomb, for instance, really say about the invasion of Iraq?
Nothing useful, that’s for sure. It’s not even morally ambiguous, just nothingy. Political opposition to the invasion in art tended to be abstract and/or rooted in metaphor, sure, but the best work was still resonant and emotionally literate. Think of the deep, harrowing mood that penetrates all of Howl’s Moving Castle – a kids’ cartoon for Chrissake! Brilliantly repurposed by Hayao Miyazaki as an anti-war allegory.
If people are still making art about that episode its because it’s still something that deserves to be a stain on our conscience.
Which brings us to The Song of Phaethon, a new war allegory mini-symphony by the wonderful Ian Crause, formerly of Disco Inferno.
DI were ferociously intelligent and sonically ambitious to the extent you sensed that even the band themselves didn’t quite understand the sound they’d stumbled upon. If their influence isn’t felt in music today it’s only because they have proved impossible to imitate. Dense with textures and ideas, DI made an unfathomable and instinctive racket, that, with Ian’s half-spoken, half-sung monologues threading through the aural overload, genuinely felt like the music was streaming out of some essential, gibbering part of your cortex that you’d been trying to suppress for too long. I used to listen to it on headphones on Brighton beach at dusk, staring into the deep indigo Rothko of sea and sky as night fell. It felt important, for reasons that are difficult to describe.
You can say the same thing about The Song of Phaethon, which takes DI’s sample-led collages even further – all of the ‘music’ in the piece under closer inspection is revealed to be a fantastic tableaux of sound effects, each noise reinforcing Ian’s lyrics concerning the Greek myth of Phaethon. Think of how the gunshots and cash registers of mainstream hip-hop evolved to over-literalise the narrative in the MC’s flow, but times a thousand, and made into something that resembles the Bayeaux Tapestry.
What all of this has to do with the Iraq War you’ll have to investigate for yourself. All of the lyrics are available along with the three movements of the piece at Bandcamp.
Ian’s been kind enough to give XXJFG an exclusive edit of the piece, available for download.
The tone poem is ‘name your price’. When doing so, bear in mind that this is someone who – The Quietus were keen to point out, recently – was working in Tescos when he rewrote the rules of 90s indie, while his contemporaries were hoovering up half of Columbia in the toilets of Number 10. It’s worth a fiver of anyone’s money!