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 Play.com (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".



15 comments:

  1. Excellent Review Neil :)

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  2. 'it's title indicates it's content'
    surely you mean its title indicates its contents

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    1. Nope, as written - true form English ;-)

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  3. good review...I'm all for the Odyssey work that Billy brought about, especially when you realise he tweaks the controls ALL the time as he plays...

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  4. Great review Neil, This was a great accompaning review as I listened to the album. Bang on ! Musti

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  5. Great review of a brilliant album!

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    1. Thanks for your comment - just followed your blog - very interesting stuff :-)

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  6. Nice review and very much along the same lines as I was thinking.

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  7. Fantastic, intelligent, balanced review - everything most of the popular press havent been. i have reviewed this greta album on "world through my specs" blog too...thanks for your great assessment of a very unique album...

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