A.R. Kane - "i"
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
If you look closely, the grid of monochromatic hieroglyphics behind the eye on the cover reveal themselves to be letters. If you look closer still and piece them together, you will find that together they spell “supercallafragilisticexpealladosius”, a word that means simultaneously nothing and everything; a word that makes you smile just to say it.
A.R. Kane are both the most undervalued and the most prophetically influential band of the late 80s, their first two albums laying down an atlas of future directions for British alternative music to pursue over the following decade. Sitting and listening to ”i” in particular now is a strange experience, akin to opening a long-buried time capsule and discovering it to contain a recent invention. Several recent inventions even.
Formed in London in 1986 by Rudi Tambala and Alex Ayuli, A.R. Kane’s early singles found very modest success in the independent charts, but first came to real prominence when they and Colourbox (4AD label mates at the time) collaborated as M/A/R/R/S on the enormous smash single “Pump Up The Volume”, one of the first records to successfully fuse the rhythms and beats of classic dancefloor soul with emergent sampling technology. Their own material mined a different ground though, the Rough Trade debut album 69 a bizarre work of nascent dream pop that melded jazz rhythms to eerie neo-shoegazer-noise atmospherics and bewildered, drifting song structures. Barely a year after 69’s release in 1988, A.R. Kane had completed ”i”, a phenomenal accomplishment given the records astonishing and colossal musical scope.
Roughly divided into four suites of four songs each (the sleeve even assigns each suite a house of cards – spades first, then diamonds, hearts and finally clubs), plus an additional ten interludes of found sounds, ambient noise and disconcerting samples which are sometimes wonderful, mostly banal, and once or twice irritating, ”i” starts off as a record of straight-ahead pop music, becoming progressively odder and more consuming with each successive song and each consecutive suite. After someone beckons us “hello” from a distant and mysterious sonic plain, “A Love From Outer Space” kicks irresistibly to life. The song rolls along as shimmering electronic dance pop about extraterrestrial love built on house-y pianos and classic sha-la-la’s, before a low tide of bongos ushers in the dub pop of “Crack Up”. The quality of A.R. Kane’s songwriting is far from spectacular, and the scope of ”i” means that there are several lapses in quality, at times exacerbated by the dated 80s pop sheen of the production, especially in the first suite. The cheesy pun-pop of “Snow Joke” is nothing special anyway, but the presence of a truly cringe-worthy synthesizer-brass hook propels it almost into agonising territory despite the interesting use of an eerie 20001; A Space Odyssey sample. “What’s All This Then”’s clumsy lyrics and structure are almost redeemed by its sly dub patois and gliding guitar vibes, but it is let down again by the flat drum machine beat.
The second suite begins the album’s move into tentatively bizarre territory, laden with foresight and innovation. “And I Say” could have been lifted from Bjork’s fantastic Debut, not released until four years afterwards, its percussive electro bass and determinedly idiosyncratic vocals almost spookily close to the Icelandic genius’ breakthrough material. “Conundrum” is a slow drawl, a demanding, unfamiliar sexual obsession jam built on drone and repetition, the near-refrain “when you touch me... when you fuck me...” almost painful in its desperation. The phased vocals and gorgeous pop weirdness of “Honeysuckleswallow” heighten the sexual tone of the suite, before a moment of perfect guitar ambience (“Long Body”) segues into the heady, baffling “In A Circle”, built on layered strings and delirious voices and concluded with a delicious, soothing coda.
”i”’s third suite is heralded by “Miles Apart”, a near perfect pop song, an amalgam of meaningless lyrical profundities (“and it really doesn’t matter if you break my heart...”) and lysergic guitars that threatens to escape the confines of the otherwise galactic boundaries of the album. If dolphins bothered to make pop music it would sound like “Spook”, spectral guitar chimes putting The Edge to shame and ignominy. Midway through “Pop” the vocals, always otherwise distant, suddenly slip into disarming intimacy, spinning your head around yet again as wraith guitars rise and fade like mayflies in the midday sun.
“Down” ushers the final suite into being, threatening to usurp The Verve’s entire career in five minutes with its simply perfect space-drone-rock sublimation, metronomic percussion and hypnotic bass impulsion washed with waves of hallucinogenic guitar chimes and streams, Rudi’s vocals all implorations, “oh / stay down, / just / stay down, / please / stay down”, and euphoric sighs concerning church bells and “skinny trees”, incantations of “little fingers / push me over...” The best moment of the album? Oh, but there are so, so many others... The murder-pop drone of “Supervixens” follows “Down”, before it is superseded by “Insect Love”, effortlessly capturing the electro garage lurch that Primal Scream have been so eagerly pursuing for the last half-decade. Finally, “Catch My Drift” soars gently in the lower stratosphere for six minutes, a perfect dub trip, Rudi’s damaged voice finding its perfect fit, scatting and jiving ideally over rolling reggae bass and beautifully syncopated drum patterns and lilting guitar up-strokes, rim-shots precise and sharp and foggy sampled ambience oozing from channel to channel, A.R. Kane finally lost in smoky ecstasy The eternal, transcendent moment lifts and fades, before a female voice, distant and post-bliss, intones “I just challenge anyone to listen to them and not cry...” Pretentious, yes. Off the mark as well, probably. But you can’t fault the sentiment or ambition.
”i” is a kaleidoscope of future sounds. It’s a ragged listen, certainly; the breadth of ground and ideas it covers and encompasses means it couldn’t be any other way. Moments of it are exasperating, passages where the idea is so good but the execution so poor, the first solution sought hurriedly to enable progression to the next brainwave, the next territory; but for every second of infuriatingly missed targets there are three of brilliance. Screamadelica, Blue Lines and Loveless are often taken as the three touch stones of nineties alternative music, a triumvirate of masterpieces from 1991 that would foreshadow the musical development of the rest of the decade; but ”i” precedes and predicts them all in one way or another. Why A.R. Kane have never quite received great critical acclaim or popular success is a mystery; possibly the UK is still too stuck in its ways to accept black musicians operating in spheres outside of their allotted territory – early press coverage described them as “the black Jesus & Mary Chain”, a remark only a few thousand miles off the mark. White musicians have been happily encouraged to appropriate black musical ideas and territory since pop music was born, aping blues, jazz, hip hop, reggae et al left, right and centre; but for black musicians to step the other way is still frowned upon and seen as quizzical and unusually eccentric. It’s unfortunate, then, that they’ve been so nearly forgotten, because ”i” is a flawed and crazy work of brilliance.