Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ultravox! - Ultravox!

Overshadowed by their subsequent success, it seems that few people know that the sound on the first Ultravox album is as much garage-y, guitar-dominated new wave/punk as their future sound was synth-driven. It may come as a surprise that, although this does have arty and maybe even pretentious moments, this is a rockin’ record!

The opening cut, “Saturday Night in the City of the Dead” is a perfect example of this. Kickin’ off with Warren Cann's frantic drum beat, the guitars kick in with a slashing tone (by Stevie Shears), blues-y harmonica appears and vocalist John Foxx intones almost as if he was covering “Subterranean Homesick Blues”! This is a far cry from synth-pop and New Romanticism!

Showing their admiration for Roxy Music in “Life at Rainbow’s End”, there is still heavily distorted guitars behind Foxx’s Ferry-like singing. Billy Currie’s keyboards come a little further to the forefront, as well. This is definitely a little more arty but still quite energetic.

“Slip Away” is highly Roxy-sounding – not at all surprising due to Eno producing this record. Here the keyboards do dominate but the rhythm remains and Shears still manages to enhance everything with some well placed licks.

Foxx does move firmly into art-rock with his ode to emotionlessness – “I Want to be a Machine”, complete with atmospheric violin playing from Currie and assembly-line sounding bass from the original Chris Cross. This ends with almost gypsy-like violin arpeggios building to a cascading conclusion.

Y’know, in ways I do miss the vinyl albums and the pacing they provided. “…Machine” was a fitting ending to side one of the vinyl and pausing to turn the record over gave you a minute to let everything sink in before moving on. CDs really have a whole different way of listening to them and certainly a different pace. There had to be a distinct ebb and flow for vinyl that discs don’t have, for better or worse. For us old folks, this really makes for a different listening experience.

Anyway, I digress… “Wide Boys” comes next and blasts back with a biting guitar riff and Foxx’s distorted vocals. This is definitely back to punk-pop with an arty edge rather than pure art-rock. This has a catchy chorus and nice harmonies – should have been a single!

The band creates an almost Carribean feel for “Dangerous Rhythms”, which again has more of a keyboard presence but also a driving bass line from Cross. Cross again is featured in “Lonely Hunter” with practically a slap-bass line, long before that was commonplace! Foxx never loses the melody throughout these varied experiments and once again, Shears has some super-fuzzed guitar lines that wind through the tune.

But absolutely my fave song of the band is the exquisite “The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned”! Opening with power chords and Currie’s violin stating the riff that the guitar then builds upon and adds to. Foxx comes in with one of his best melody lines and wild, twisted lyrics, while the group pounds behind him and both the violin and guitar trade off lines. The guitar solo is a masterpiece of feedback and distortion that fits perfectly in the progression. They bring the tune down dynamically before smashing back in with fierce power chords and repeated choruses and still more great guitar playing! Wow!

The album quiets down to end with the keyboard tune, “My Sex”, which gives Foxx the chance to sing such lines as “my sex if often solo” as well as much more obscure lyrics. Very new-wave!

Overall, an excellent outing and it is unfortunate that this sound did not propel them to stardom, because I could certainly live without the future synth-driven Ultravox (without the exclamation point)!