Saturday, 26 May 2012

Ultravox - "Brilliant"

I suffer no degrees of separation where it comes to bands that have different incarnations, I'm simply not that fickle. I appreciate music in all it's forms and none more so than when it comes to the group and the people that are and have been Ultravox. Over the years, I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy the music of Ultravox as well as the solo output from John Foxx, Midge Ure and Billy Currie, they are all part of the same sonic pallette that paints the musical pathway of my life.

Last year was a great year with the releases from John Foxx and the Maths, a great concert and a chance to meet Ben Edwards and John Foxx - all of which were a great personal pleasure. This year, it's the turn of the Midge Ure line-up of Ultravox because after far too many years, a brand new album of original music from Ultravox has finally emerged and it's title indicates it's content - "Brilliant".

There's always some trepidation when a band comes together after years of absence and, of course, when they are that much older. Will age reflect their output? Will the time apart have diluted their former potential? Will the music be nothing more than a return to past glories with no concept or thought for the here-and now?

My copy arrived this morning from (typical of their excellent service) and the CD was immediately put into the player. Before the first listen through of "Brilliant" had finished, it had already found it's place in my personal top 3 Ultravox albums, alongside "Systems of Romance" and "Vienna".

So what have we got. Quite simply 12 tracks of contrasting mood, shade and pace. In terms of both sound and presentation, there's no denying it's Ultravox and the famed "Ultravox DNA" does indeed run through the entire album. Midge Ure's soaring vocals are there, the near symphonic strings are evident and the best bit? The return of the ARP Odyssey and "that" signature Billy Currie sound.
"Live" is powerful, soaring, driving and full of fire. The piano and strings work in perfect tandem, providing a powered backing to Midge's voice, still sounding strong. I can hear this live and see the crowd joining in on the chorus, such is the strength of the melody hook. It's an inspired and perfect opener boding well for what's yet to come.

The next track is "Flow" and I agree with many commentators who feel that this has the air of something that wouldn't be out of place on one of Midge ure's solo albums. That said, it has that afore-mentioned "Ultravox DNA" running through it like Blackpool through a stick of rock. It's a hugely uplifting track and one that I could imagine being given something of a euphoric trance re-mix - talk about making the music current and accessible!!! There is a certain intensity to Midge's vocals that is somewhat amplified by the epic arrangements behind it and the bold guitar.
The title track is a personal favourite. "Brilliant" is everything Ultravox and more. It demonstrates the skill of a group of people who have kept their identity but made themselves current. This has to be the most uplifting track on the album, it's full of power and emotion making it the perfect first single and a great re-introduction to Ultravox for fans old and new. The melody is catchy, Warren Cann's drums full of drive, the piano hookline is memorable and Ure's guitar well placed.

Up next is "Change" giving us a change in direction from "Brilliant" with it's darker overtones and definite old-school electronica feel. The sounds of the ARP Odyssey, piano and string middle section take you to places of the past, not back in time mind you, but to those past places as they are now. This is classic Ultravox yet again and maybe a track that will become a fan favourite.

And now my favourite track on the album. "Rise". This is what I had hoped for on this album and this track alone makes the 28 year gap worth it. The unashamed electronic rhythmic backing, Midge Ure's signature vocalising and multi-tracked harmonies (courtesy of that bit of black magic called Melodyne possibly?) and the utterly classic (there's a danger of my over-using this word you now) and completely fab Billy Currie ARP Odyssey solo. Another track that I can't wait to hear played live. I've read a comment that "Rise" could be seen as the 2012 equivalent to "Western Promise" from the "Vienna" album. I concur. I reckon it's better than "Western Promise" as well, and that was one of my favourite tracks from "Vienna".

An excellent change of mood and direction again with the next track called "Remembering". Billy Currie's wonderful piano, some very luscious string arrangements, Midge Ure's emotive singing and some very smooth chord progressions make this a hauntingly beautiful track. Another highlight for me.

Moving on now to "Hello". A wonderful example of modern production techniques (particularly the vocals), "Hello" once again reveals "that" Ultravox sound and feel, taking me back to "Rage In Eden", but a lot more mature and assured. All the elements work well on this track, edgy (almost glitchy in places) guitar, synth washes and the solid drums bring us to yet another Billy Currie ARP Odyssey solo which weaves across the stereo field alongside and not against the backing. Another highlight.

The next track is "One" and another track that is very indicative of a something you would find on a Midge Ure solo album. I love the crackly vinyl opening phrases before we are treated to Midge's excellent voice. The chorus is simply gorgeous and demonstrates that Ultravox can do tender as well as anyone. There is a lovely almost dulcimer-like section that put me in mind of the music from the movie "The Third Man" before returning to some more of those Ure vocal gymnastics. I love the feel of this track and how it left me feeling when it had finished - happy at the return of Ultravox and sad that so many years had been lost.

"Fall" is beautifully, nay, wonderously, dark and melancholic. Some excellent close-mic vocals over an interestingly clever, at times almost dissonant, backing provide this track with a lot of tension and fore-boding. It rises and falls in equal measure, sometimes almost disappearing before coming back bigger and more developed. Another intelligent track that shows maturity.

Another album highlight is the next track "Lie". It has the all the classic Ultravox elements - the pulsing sequenced bassline, the chugging rhythm guitar, the grand piano, the big string synths and again the soaring voice of Mr. Ure. It's the perfect follow-on from "Fall" and another fine example of Ultravox's ability to play with light and shade. I'm looking forward to hearing this one live as well - the interplay of light and sound could be sublime.

The pace continues with another highlight in the form of "Satellite". This is another track that, in places, puts me in mind of the "Rage In Eden" album - I read a review that compared it with the track "I Remember (Death In The Afternoon)" which I totally get, particularly the guitar. And yes, whilst there are certain similarities to that album, it's the maturity of the sound that makes it so "now". It was great to hear the violin solo giving the piece an edge that will make it a crowd pleaser when played live - I immediately detected the Bela Bartok influence and there's nothing wrong with that.

And so to the closing song "Contact". Another hauntingly beautiful track full of atmosphere and feeling. I'm reminded of the closing track from "Rage In Eden" (yep, that album again) called "Your Name (Has Slipped My Mind Again)" - something noted in other reviews of the album. "Contact" has more structure and feeling, accentuated by a very emotive violin solo, and a certain simplistic charm that potentially makes it one of the strongest tracks on the album. A perfect closing that gives the album something of an Ouroborous feel in that if you have the album on repeat, it smoothly and naturally takes you right back to the first track.

An overall view of the album is that it most certainly is classic Ultravox, combining all the elements we grew to love "all those years ago". It's a polished piece of work that is a testament to the writing skills of all involved and the quality of Steve Lipson's production is amazing with it's crisp and balanced sound akin to the late great Teutonic production god, Conny Plank.

I now cannot wait to see Ultravox live on the 3rd October in Ipswich as I missed the "Return To Eden" in 2009 and a thought that's just come to me - if this were ever to be the last album that Ultravox made, then for me, it is the perfect swan-song.

To sum up, all my initial fears were unfounded, the first Ultravox (classic line-up) album in 28 years is quite simply "Brilliant".

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Vibrati Punk Container Update

Today I finally got round to adding a line-out to the Vibrati Punk Container which means I can now attach it to my mixing desk and, ultimately, into the GTK Studio Computer :-)

Had a quick recording session with it this afternoon, feeding it through a slow flanger and an analog-style delay - sounded great!!! Not sure my dear lady, Anne, agrees though......

Anyways, here's a pic :-D

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

New blog for the Impossible Men project

The time has come to start charting the Impossible Men project and what better way than with a blog-thing :-)

Social networking is absolutely the way forward to promote new ventures, no matter what they are, be they a business, an arts project or your mum's garden and this was what we'll be doing with this project. A website is under construction, we have a facebook page soon to be opened to the world at large and now a blog. The idea is to chart our progress from the outset and we plan to include news updates, video and sound clips of us recording the first album which will be called "Earthshock", and of course all done with the usual repartee. There's nothing much on there at the moment, but I have one or two bits to add shortly.

I've been looking forward to getting this project off the ground, and now the talking's stopped and it's finally starting to happen. There's a few months of work ahead as the songs are written, recorded and produced and a live show put together. There's no time-scale, it'll be ready when it's done and not before.

So, here we go, you can find the blog by clicking the link below:

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Vintage Valve Radio Fun

You may recall I acquired two vintage valve radios a couple of weeks back, well today I decided to get started on what it was I got them for - a bit of musical experimentation. Oh, and what fun I had :-)

I've come up with a 6 minute track which I've called "Radio-Fonika" (original huh?) and you can hear it below. I used a very simple set up, that being a single condenser microphone placed directly against the radio. I recorded approximately 3 minutes of the radio being tuned from one side of it's dial to the other, in long wave. I then looped and fed the recording through a Zoom 1201 multi-effects unit as well as a series of auto filters, harmonic filters, flangers, delays, tap delays and deep reverb on the computer. All the sounds are from the treated looped recording, with everything pre-fader and the only additions are the drums (kick and snare courtesy of EZDrummer).

You'll notice that once again it's under my own name and also there's no download, this is because I might just put this to one side for an album of experimental electronic music. No definite plans on that one as yet though.

Hope it's not too weird for you ;-)

Friday, 18 May 2012

Donna Summer

I really don't ever have the urge or find the need to get sentimental or overly sensitive to the news of a celebrity passing away. But, that most certainly hasn't applied to the very sad news of the untimely passing of the "Queen of Disco", Donna Summer.

I distinctly remember as an air-headed 12 year old in 1977 sitting listening to the stuff which had just been put onto the jukebox in my parent's public house (The First and Last as seen in my blog entry "Where I Grow'd Up") when this record came on that was prove to be a major turning point in my life, setting me on a new and long pathway. The sounds coming out of the jukebox were new to me and instantly registered something that has stayed with me until this day because it was the day I discovered electronic music. That record was "I Feel Love" by Donna Summer and it was through this incredible collaboration with producer Giorgio Moroder that I began, to date, a 35 year love affair with the synthesizer and all the wonderous and magical sounds it can create. I still recall with absolute clarity the pulsating bassline sequence bouncing from speaker to speaker, the sequenced synthesized clicks and the phased pads, the wonderfully divine voice of Donna Summer and the absolute thrill of discovery of something new. I remember asking everyone and anyone at the time how those sounds were created, what was used to make the record and if there was anything else like this about.

It took another year before the petrol was thrown on the fire that had been lit by my first hearing of "I Feel Love". I had the single (which wasn't the full-length version) and from the off I played it to death. Then for Christmas 1978, I was given Donna Summer's "Live and More" double album (1978 means it vinyl, hence the "double" aspect) - it was a gift from the gods I can tell you. I loved everything on it, especially the stunning "MacArthur Park Suite" - in my view Donna Summer's finest recording - and this album, with it's synth solos and electronic drums, spurred me on to seek out more stuff by Donna Summer. A week after getting the "Live and More" album, I used my Christmas money to buy her "I Remember Yesterday" album which had another favourite Donna Summer track, "Love's Unkind" and yes, the full length version of "I Feel Love". I was made up. Totally.

By now, I was discovering more about electronic music through a group of students who used my parent's pub. They introduced me to Kraftwerk, Japan, Ultravox, Tangerine Dream and Jean-Michel Jarre amongst many others over the 1977 to 1978 period. It was in April 1979, whilst in Germany, I bought the Donna Summer album "Once Upon A Time", a fantastic disco concept double album (this was the days of vinyl don't forget) which had one side devoted to three synth tracks with Moroder driving everything with Moogs and electronics. From here I went and bought "Love To Love You baby" and once I got over the silly schoolboy giggles over the nature of the album (keep in mind I was 13 years old and we all know how 13 year old schoolboys are), I came to see the amazing depth of the music and cast-iron structure and arrangements. At this time I was sitting all my music exams and, of course, composition and arrangement were a strong part of what I was studying. I was in awe of the way in which albums had been constructed, the string arrangements and naturally the synthesizers. I spoke to my music tutor about this fabulous new music I had found, however he instantly dismissed all of it as trivial and told me it was a un-necessary distraction from what I should be concentrating on (I stopped having music lessons a year later - enough was enough). It didn't stop me listening or loving any of it though.

And with it being 1979, that meant the release of the album "Bad Girls", another brilliant concept double album which had the hit singles "Hot Stuff", "Bad Girls" and "Dim All The Lights". It also had the customary Summer/Moroder electronic side, now with a slightly rockier edge, the way in which Donna Summer wanted to go. The Summer of '79 was a great one for me musically as it was a defining year on a number levels because alongside acquiring Donna Summer albums, it saw the emergence of Gary Numan and I discovered Isao Tomita.

So there I was, in a joyful pit of fantastic music, rich new sounds and a defining pathway when Donna decided to go and release some little tune with Barbra Streisand called "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)". Again, completely blown away. It was pure and unashamed disco featuring two amazing talents giving it rockall over 11 gloriously camp minutes, and those string sections!!! To die for.

I enjoyed Donna's material over the next few years, but it did, for me, lack the fire and sparkle of the Moroder collabs. That was until 1989 and the release of "Another Place and Time" which Donna did with legendary 80's producers, Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Now say what you like about SAW (and believe me, I have!!!) but they did produce some seriously successful tracks with the likes of Kylie, Dead Or Alive and good old Rick Astley. So when you put their skills alongside those of Donna Summer, it's bound to good. In fact, it wasn't good. It was great. Well-written club-orientated songs backed with solid production and Donna's amazing vocal gift made the album a winner, the album tracks are all as strong of the chosen singles and it's not often you can say that about any album.

So, my 35 year love affair with Donna Summer remains strong and not even death can tear it asunder. Her music provided large elements of my life with it's required soundtrack (is that kind of statement getting a little overused now? Oh well, it suits what I'm trying to say at the moment), it provided me with musical inspiration, it gave me enjoyment and yeah, Donna was a tad foxy ;-)

You will be missed, so sing to the stars and the Universe Donna, the greatest stage you could play.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Work in progress

I got hit by a bit of spare time between "things to do" earlier today and so I thought I would start a guide track for a song that will be a part of the Neil Fellowes and the Impossible Men thingy I'm doing with my son Callum and my pal, Peter.

Here's a bit of video of me, looking like an old man practicing the verse and chorus parts of "The Edge of Nowhere" which will be on the debut album, "Earthshock". The video isn't great - the aspect ratio is wrong, the camera angle is not good, the sound quality is poor and it's totally self-indulgent.

Don't be mislead by the Ultravox sounding piano - it's only a guide track and I play piano :-D

I anticipate the finished product to be a bit better than what's here :-D

Saturday, 12 May 2012

The Impossible Men project

I've mentioned the Neil Fellowes and the Impossible Men project several times over the last few months but haven't actually gone into any detail about it. Well, I guess as the real work is soon to start, I thought I'd scribe (type) a few words about it.

I've been beavering away at photo processing for a few days now and I'm close to being done. Will be good to get that out of the way. After that, I then need to finish off some vocal work I've been doing on a track written by Kev Oysten a.k.a. The Soulless Party. It's a groovy little piece that has the title of "I Died On Mars" and Kev asked me if I would sing on it - which was cool. I've also roped in Candice Wells who did some vocal stuff on my "Soundtrack For City Living" album. Been a few set backs through different things (dying computer was a major one!!!), but we're getting there.

In between the various bits and pieces, I'll be working on the IoTronica album - it's sounding good this far, but a long way to go yet. And it's fun working on someone else's material as well. More about that in another blog soon ;-)

Once the vocals have been done for the Soulless Party track, I'll be starting work proper on new material for the Neil Fellowes and the Impossible Men album "Earthshock", dedicating pretty much all my music time to that. My son, Callum Raeburn-Fellowes, will be playing drums and electronic percussion (using the D.I.Y. drum kit we're about to build) and my good friend Peter Dagg will be providing guitar. I've got a few sketchpad ideas down already and I've also dipped into some songs I wrote MANY years ago - okay, 25 years ago - that will benefit from modern sounds and all the new production bits and pieces I've learnt over the last 5 years.

I wanted the music that is being written for this to be presented in a form away from Geigertek as it won't be of the instrumental electronic music ilk. The songs of the Impossible Men project will be heavily focused in the electronica field with vocals and, as mentioned, drums and guitar. The bits and pieces that I've got at the moment are very much in the sway of John Foxx, Ultravox, Midge Ure and the like - inevitable I guess as these guys are a strong musical influence for me. What I'm hoping is that the music WON'T sound like the afore-mentioned people and have a style or sound of it's own.

I have three pieces that are ready to be taken to the recording process. Two of them are tracks I wrote in 1987 and they are called "Go On" and "The Edge Of Nowhere". The latter nearly became a track on both "The Timeless Mind" and "Soundtrack For City Living", but didn't quite fit into the overall feel of both albums, so third time lucky. The third track is a brand new one, something of a ballad, called "Some Other Day" and I'll be doing several vocal parts on this one, and possibly getting Candice to do some as well. I'm looking at using the Vibrati Punk Container for some nice screamy sound beds behind a punchy sequenced bass, some of Callum's top drawer drumming and Peter's power chord guitar. And of course, the vintage valve radios I recently obtained could prove useful, particularly if they were fed through an auto-filter or an harmonic filter with lashings of delay and compression. Indeed, we intend to explore every sonic possibility at our fingertips :-)

Our intention with this project is to get the album "Earthshock" ready as soon as we can and then get ourselves out playing live - and that's the main aim, live performance. As well as providing backing vocals, Callum and Peter are able to play elementary keyboard parts on top of their respective  instruments, so with a pre-programmed rhythm/bass backing track, we can hopefully put on a reasonable gig. We've made the decision not to have Callum playing a full acoustic drum kit as we want to make ourselves as flexible as possible, so he will be using the D.I.Y. drum pad unit I mentioned earlier on selected songs.

There won't be much more news on this project in the coming weeks until such time as the songs are written and being recorded. Fingers crossed we come up with something good. In the meantime, we've started work on the Neil Fellowes and the Impossible Men website - nothing much to see at the present time, but more stuff will be appearing over the coming months :-)

Thursday, 3 May 2012

KSR Workshop and Studio, Surrey, U.K.

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The full set of photographs from my visit to Kent Spong's amazing workshop and studio :-)

KSR Restoration Workshop and Studio Visit

The Fuji and I took a trip during the second week in April 2012 to the county of Surrey to visit something of a living legend in the shape of Kent Spong.

Kent is known throughout the music business for his amazing synthesizer restoration and servicing skills, so much so that his client list reads like something of a "who's who" of film, theatre and music professionals including Hans Zimmer, Mel Wesson, Ulrich Schnauss and Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins. He is also known as "Mr CS-80" because of his specialist expertise with the Yamaha CS-80 synthesizer, something that has earned him something of a well-earned reputation of excellence. He works in partnership with a specialist vintage analogue synthesizer dealer Richard Lawson who owns a company caled RL Music.

A few people had told me about Kent and everyone had nothing but positive things to say about him. For me, meeting Kent was an absolute delight and I found him to be an unassuming and modest man who has time for everything and everybody. Even though he is the "go to guy" for the stars, he still has a large client base of amateur enthusiasts who he looks after in exactly the same way as his more well-known customers. What you see is most definitely what you get, and hurrah for that says I. I also met Kent's wife Sue (also known as "Chemical Sue"), a very engaging and funny lady, who works with Kent on wood preparation and finishing as well as deep cleaning on the instruments, disassembling and rebuild work and tolexing (replacing/refitting of vinyl-type coverings). I have to say that both made me feel very welcome in their home and workplace.

We sat for a good time in their kitchen, chatting, laughing, drinking coffee and eating fig rolls - always a pleasure. Their home is a synth-lovers paradise and it is nothing to see an Oberheim OB-Xa synthesiser nonchalantly leaning against a dresser in the living room or a ARP 2600 synthesiser awaiting collection quietly reading the paper in the lobby. I had to use their bathroom and leaning on a wall outside the "small room" was a Yamaha CS-80 keyboard assembly!!! Synth bliss I can tell you :-D

And then you get introduced to the workshop and Kent's personal studio. As with the visit to Ben Edwards' insanely brilliant Benge Studios in London last year, it took my breath away as it was a literal goldmine of synths, parts, circuit boards, cables, tools and other bits and pieces. My visit was timed with a particular set up that Kent had in at that time for servicing - a Moog/PPG modular synthesizer owned by ambient music designer, Mel Wesson. Also in for a bit of a service was a Yamaha CS-80 previously owned and used by Roxy Music and now owned by Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins.

I looked around the workshop and was delighted by the sight of bits and pieces of all sorts of different synthesisers, vintage and otherwise, work tools and electrical component spares. Standing on end, back to back, were a white-faced ARP Odyssey (a rare Mk1 version of the classic mono synth, also known as the Model 2800) and a Roland Juno 106. In cases under one of the workbenches were Yamaha CS-80's that had been repaired or serviced and were awaiting collection. Alongside the Moog/PPG system was an opened-up Yamaha CS-80 - Kent gleefully told me that it used to belong to Roxy Music (OMG - one of my favourite groups!!!) and now belongs to Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins (register another OMG please). I took a number of pictures of the Moog/PPG system and the opened-up Yamaha CS-80 as they're not things you see everyday, but also a load of photos of different areas of the workshop. It was fascinating and I could have spent hours in there just taking pictures and chatting with Kent and Sue.

Kent has a great sense of humour, and so I asked if he would mind if I did a "gag shot" of my alter-ego, The Urbexing Stylophone Player, in the workshop. He said yes!!! But not only did he say yes, but he also suggested a set up shot with him in it!!! What a guy!!!

I was then asked if I would like to see Kent's studio. I said "yes" of course and tried not to sound too excited, because I knew what was in that studio and I couldn't wait to see it. As I said above, Kent is known as "Mr CS80" because of his specialist skills with that particular instrument, and this was more than amply demonstrated with his own Yamaha CS-80 which he had rebuilt with a new facia and case and some rather tasty "under-the-bonnet" modifications, which unless you're a synth person wouldn't make much sense, but suffice to say, those modifications dramatically increased the instrument's already significant expressive capabilities. It is a work of art and it sounds too incredible for words. Can you imagine how I felt when Kent uttered those magical words - "would you like to have a go"? Naturally I accepted the offer and now basically, I want one. Also on hand was my favourite looking synthesiser. The Polymoog. Now I know that Polymoogs aren't known for their reliability and that they can be extremely temperamental, but I don't care, to me, they just look the business. I first clapped eyes on them when watching Gary Numan on Top of the Pops back in 1979, and it was love at first sight. I don't expect to ever own one, and many people have told me that they can be more trouble than their worth, but again, I don't care, after playing Kent's Polymoog, I want one more than ever. Also on hand was an Elka Synthex, a synthesizer famously used by Jean-Michel Jarre and not something you see everyday. Another piece of wonderful synth engineering and damn fine to look at as well.

And so this part of the day was over. I had enjoyed my morning explore of the derelict B.B.C. receiving station and I had thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon with Kent and Sue - I still can't get over how quick the time went!!! And the day stall wasn't over, as I was yet to visit the studio of, in my opinion, the best New Age artist in the U.K. at this time, Kevin Kendle - more on that soon :-)

So a huge thanks to Kent and Sue for a very entertaining and enjoyable afternoon, and also for allowing The Fuji and I to run rampant in their home.