Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Systems of romance - ultravox

After the spikiness and hyperactivity of 'Ha! Ha! Ha!', Ultravox's third album is palpably different. A collision of atmospheric guitar and clunky synthesisers, tinged with elements of dreamy psychedelia, it seems to suggest that they were heading towards a softer sound, whilst retaining the energy and spirit which defined their earlier offerings. However, Ultravox were pretty much unable to ignite much interest in the minds of the public in the late 70s, although moving into the next decade such a sound was to forge ahead as part of the 'New Pop' and 'New Romantic' movements. Instead they only found their visions slighted, so much so that the band were dropped by their record label, struggling on for a while until singer John Foxx left the group to retreat into studio seclusion (resulting in the entirely synthesiser-led 'Metamatics'). It was not until their second incarnation (via the adoption of Midge Ure) that Ultravox were able to find success. The world would finally catch up but by then, some might argue, their sound had been diluted as to become risible.

In the twenty-first century 'Systems of romance' sounds surprisingly less dated than I expected, considering the preponderance of now-dated electronica. Perhaps because of the recent resurgance of electro-pop and related detached musings on the human condition (okay, maybe there is less of that) it is not so alien. The opener 'Slow Motion' is frankly astounding, swooshing in on electronic waves and bravely setting the agenda for anyone who wants to effectively meld machines with guitars. 'I can't stay long' is my favourite, John Foxx's at times clinical, at times melodic, always bizarrely rational, singing style here is perfect, capturing evocative moments in the sparsest of poetical couplets. The theme of dissolving / disappearring is one which crops up repeatedly: like for those who are content to be under the radar ('The quiet men'); playing with identity ('Someone else's clothes'); changing states of being... throughout an underlying sense of unease pervades everything. Just what are we? Even the most energetic tracks such as 'Blue light' incur an anxiety in its disturbing almost-disco, though it is most evident in 'Dislocation' with its moody, echoy backing and distant, heavily altered vocals (setting the template for early Depeche Mode perhaps). There is nothing fixed here. However, despite the cleverness I can't help thinking Ultravox don't always take themselves too seriously, the playfulness demonstrated by 'Maximum acceleration' which features whistling! Furthermore, they haven't been completely devoured by technology as most of these songs retain the band's post-punk roots, the glides and swoops of (new guitarist) Robin Simon's guitar remaining prominent. And 'When you walk through me' reminds me of something like 'Arnold Layne' with its syrupy-sound and surreal narrative. Finishing just perfectly with the sublime 'Just for a moment', which loses none of its magic for being recorded in a barn of all places (one good thing about remastered albums are the extensive sleeve notes which offer up such nuggets of information), and it slides away, leaving dreamy thoughts of the 'long green light of a July afternoon / sliding down a vague conversation.'

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