Brilliant – Ultravox
(release date: 28 May 2012)
There are a few things guaranteed to make my “Worry-o-meter” start to tick away when it comes to music. One is a “comeback album” and another is calling your new album something a bit either (a) weird (b) long or (c) too cocky by half. Given that the new offering from 80s electro pioneers Ultravox ticked both of these boxes I was worried, very worried in fact based solely on the criteria that this was the band that was the epicentre of my teenage years. Following a rapprochement in 2009 leading to two tours the creative juices had been shocked in to action and here they finally were, releasing their first studio album of the classic 80s line up in 26 years. Would they be any good? Would they sound the same? Would it be another adventure into “eh?” that their last album, the one called U-Vox but which is universally referred to apathetically by fans as “the pink one” had taken us on? I didn’t want them to sound exactly the same, how can they? The eighties are no more and no matter how many retro revivals we get we can’t go back and recreate that feeling but by the same rule go too far and they wouldn’t be Ultravox. The prospects of Patagonian nose flutes were out and synths were in but would they adhere to this?
Well on first sounding they have. In short the album is 5 cracking tracks, 2 “oh I don’t think so” and the remainder comprising of album/B-sides. It starts promisingly with Live, a sledgehammer of a tune that could knock a hole in next door’s garage as easily as if it was swatting a fly. The vocals are strong and backed up by an equally strong guitar and pounding drumming making for a solid track that sounds as though it wouldn’t be out of place on the Quartet album with shadowy hints of Mine for Life. I’m particularly taken with the electronic Morse code that appears in the second half. Based on this it would seem that my fears are unfounded. Flow follows with a very interesting synth led start allowing Billy Currie full rein to create an ethereal base for Midge’s soaring vocal. A middle section of synths gives way to a stripped back version with a darker edge. Very catchy. Track three is the single Brilliant, a cautionary tale of the perils of the vapid vacuosity of the modern day pop factory but whose lyrics could equally be applied to this year’s Olympics – BBC are you listening – set against a spacious arrangement of airy verse and chorus that will have you humming it for days and a short drumming section that will delight the purists. Bringing it down is the change in tempo called Change with Midge’s almost spoken lyrics which although good just feels as if it’s a constant verse waiting for the song to bloom and doesn’t really get going. Again a good synth middle section but you’re waiting for a key change that doesn’t happen. However this track moves effortlessly into Rise echoing the seamless transition of the tracks on the Vienna album and is another comment on the music industry set to a poppier beat with some very clever lyrics moving into the chorus. It would also seem based on this that Midge’s vocals are back to Vienna standard apart from a very odd whispered section which frankly is a little bit out of kilter with the rest; fortunately this is brief and Billy’s synths once again take control with a nod to the Rage in Eden era. Segueing gently into a piano intro of Remembering this is perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the album. Reminiscent of Your Name Has Slipped My Mind Again this is a brutally honest and reflective work suited to Midge’s voice with melancholic lyrics that could make you weep. Ending abruptly we move to Hello – not my favourite track of the album it has to be said. Rockier again and sounding as though it comes from the Quartet album it’s solid enough but just somehow misses the mark and is the one track where you just get the feeling that they’re trying too hard. It doesn’t help that it reminds me of “It’s a Sin” by the Pet Shop Boys. That said I do feel that this would work excellently live and often an album track transcends to a live performance and this could well turn out to be the sleeper of the album.
Track eight of twelve yes, twelve - if nothing else this album is a true “long player” - and a very neat trick is played with One. The track sounds in the beginning as if you’re listening to an original vinyl complete with scratches then Midge’s vocals segue in. To be quite honest I don’t really understand where this track sits within the album. This doesn’t do Midge’s vocals any favours, it’s also chanteuse style and my mind kept wandering to think what it would sound like sung by Sinead O’Connor or Annie Lennox. It sounds like the kind of anthemic rock song that would be picked up by an X factor finalist and ruined with a warble too many. It’s also very slow and I did find myself checking the sleeve notes to see how much longer I’d got. Fall follows reminding me of pre-Ure Foxx Ultravox at the start and then it just sounds like a continuation of One; I don’t know whether this is intentional or not, aiming to creating a transition piece along the same lines as the first three tracks on the second side of the Rage in Eden album but it does seem a bit more experimental than the previous track; breathing and piano overlaid with some very dark synths. Interesting. And then we’re back to rocky ‘Vox with Lie. This is not a single but firmly an album track in the same mold as Cut and Run, soaring and spacious with a nice melodic structure; it’s not going to set the world on fire but it does the job and again backed by some fierce drumming by Warren Cann it banishes the torpor of the previous two tracks in the ears. Satellite is next up and for some reason the opening bars made me think of James Bond’s “Know my Name” and thinking of Bond is always good. Completed with climbing synths in the background we get some Bartok inspired conversational violin which adds interest to a solid bass undercurrent from Chris Cross. This has single potential. And so we are at the final track; Contact. With a nod in my view to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” this is another slower track; I can’t help but feel cheated with a slow track as the finale of the album and would have preferred this and Satellite to have swapped places. That said it’s a very pleasant piece with gentle lyrics and echoes the reflective nature of the whole album and perhaps leaving this as the last track provides the closing tone of the album of an unanswered question.
So, have Ultravox made a comeback album to be proud of? I so want to give this 10 out of 10, I really do. I want it to be so bright it shines brilliantly and obliterates all within its path like a musical supernova. Oh. Now I’m having a problem as it doesn’t actually do that. It’s good, in parts it’s excellent but in parts it’s also not. That said this album is perhaps the frankest I have ever heard from Ultravox in 35 years of buying their music. Some of the lyrics are brutally honest in both their construction and delivery, reflecting on their time in the music industry and the passage of time itself. Perhaps leaving such a huge gap does that to a band, you’re not going to pick up where you left off and I should imagine writing an album after such a break would be cathartic to say the least. I’m sure the old timers who have been around since the era of Foxx will love it; likewise those in the fan base who have got on board around the time of their reformation. For me as the former I can certainly hear elements of previous work throughout the album and the bleakness of some of the emotions behind the lyrics is quite startling. I’m used to hearing about men with crystal cups; the hammer coming down and such phrases as “native these words seem to me”. Well perhaps these lyrics are native to them now but it’s a shock to hear something as personal as Remembering. In conclusion I’m going to give them 7.5 out of 10 as although it’s deeply unsettling in the frankness of some of the lyrics and sometimes feels as though it’s getting bogged down in the inward looking nature of the slower tracks it’s still very much an Ultravox album; soaring vastness of space and possibility juxtaposed with the almost claustrophobic reflective and intimate side of Ultravox which I haven’t seen in such quantity on one album before. Stand out tracks for me are: Live, Brilliant, Rise, Remembering and Satellite. My fast forward track is One.
Will it set the pop charts on fire? I doubt it but it’s a mostly solid album with very clever lyrics which will do nothing to harm their reputation as purveyors of finely crafted and layered precision drummed offerings of synth and guitar served up with a side order of understated class. You could do worse than buy this.
Ultravox will be touring the UK and Europe from September onwards. More details can be found on the the Ultravox fansite, EV, http://www.ultravox.org.uk/
and the official Brilliant Microsite here: