Wednesday, 26 May 2010

15. Quartet - Ultravox

Acquired : 23 December 1982

Tracks : Reap The Wild Wind / Serenade / Mine For Life / Hymn / Visions In Blue / When The Scream Subsides / We Came To Dance / Cut And Run / The Song

We're back to synthpop with this year's 18th birthday/Christmas gift from Helen. It would be churlish to say that playing this was the highlight of the day since an old friend from the Travelling Society (in fact the co-founder) did drop by unexpectedly on his motorbike. However the halting conversation just emphasised how much our worlds had grown apart in the 18 months since I'd last seen him and the rest of the day was just a mooch at reaching this landmark at a time when I'd no friends with whom to celebrate it.

This was the Midge Ure-led version of Ultravox's third LP and the most determinedly commercial after the icy, challenging "Rage In Eden" had stalled their post-Vienna momentum. To that end they teamed up with George Martin and the album's title might be a sly reference to their producer's most illustrious clients. It is in fact the only Ultravox LP to sport four Top 20 singles so in that respect it was mission accomplished.

There are no obvious George Martin signifiers on the record. There is a very clean, pin - sharp quality to the sound in contrast to the murky sonics of its predecessor which was overseen by Conny Plank. This doesn't always serve the songs well ; the more epic tracks sound rather brittle and you start thinking of what Trevor Horn could have done with them.

We kick off with the recent single "Reap The Wild Wind" which I was never particularly fond of and is a good example of Ultravox's recurring tendency to pick a weak track as the lead off single. This may partly explain their perennial struggle to breach the Top 10 of the singles chart.

It starts with a chatter of electronic cymbals then Warren Cann hits a real drum and Billy Currie plays the main melody on a string synthesiser shortly followed by Midge Ure intoning the titular mantra. Chris Cross prods the others along with an insistent bassline and Currie also chips in some piano lines. The song itself borrows its lyrical ideas from Abba's "Knowing Me Knowing You" with Ure returning to a scene from his past "A footprint haunts an empty floor". The verses are fine ; it's just that bland chorus that fails to satisfy me.

"Serenade" is a paean to the power of song though unlike, say , Abba's "Thank You For The Music" there's a recognition of the potentially sinister forces at work. The chorus , prefiguring Donna Tartt, alludes to "The Bacchae" - "youth runs wild with the beat in their heart. Dance a wild dance, be torn apart". It starts with a phased keyboard effect resembling an oncoming train on sleepers before Ure barks the title as a command then a bass synth pulse drives the song forward Cross adding some deep bass splurges for emphasis while Currie plays classical piano lines.

"Mine For Life" is darker still starting as a rock song with Ure's guitar at the forefront and a pounding bass line from Cross. The song itself concerns the "forbidden desires" of a guilt-ridden priest in his "stained glass shelter". This leads nicely into "Hymn" one of Ure's best vocal performances. The chorus melody was apparently recycled from The Zones's "Mourning Star". It starts with the chorus lines sung as a hymn before the band kick in. The lyrics express the agnostic's desire for a sign as proof of "all the storybook told me" . Currie compliments the crunchy bassline and wailing guitar with a two-note motif reminiscent of "Enola Gay" before unleashing his big chords in the final chorus. It's here where Martin holds them back a bit; it doesn't quite soar as it should.

"Visions In Blue" is the track that most recalls "Vienna" with its portentous piano lines. spartan drums and speeded up section. The song covers similar territory to Talk Talk's "The Party's Over " though seemingly resigned rather than desperate about the ageing process. Like many of their songs there's a reference to "youth" ; it seems like they were very conscious that as thirtysomethings they were older than their peers. There's a long instrumental passage giving Currie a chance to show his chops with multi-layered synth lines.

"When The Scream Subsides " reasserts the rock element of their sound with its power chords and hard flat drumming from Cann (who also chips in with backing vocals). The song seems to cover similar territory to "Love Will Tear Us Apart" reviewing a relationship in the past tense. The middle eight, dominated by Currie's synths seems to offer an elegy for the good times.

The final single from the album was "We Came To Dance" interpreted by many as being a comment on the New Romantic scene but I think it covers darker matters, the lengths people will go to under the influence of a charismatic leader. One thinks of the girls of Biskupia (which of course gives the title a macabre resonance) particularly when Cann's sombre tones warn that "The penalty fits the crime and it deals no softened blow". There's also a line about "The piper" which recalls Abba's most sinister song. There's a nice irony that the sequencer chugging away like an outboard motor throughout the song makes it thoroughly undanceable.

"Cut And Run " brings all the dark themes to a head with its tale of a man preparing to commit suicide. The second verse sees it as an act not just of desperation but of vengeance - "Something spiteful and true" as he commits his last words to tape. Currie and Ure share the honours here as synths and guitar intertwine as the song descends to its inevitable end.

"The Song (We Go)" is ironically titled since it is less a song than a contrived soundtrack for their end of gig routine when the three standing members would start playing small drums at the front of stage. The slight verses revisit the idea of "Serenade" before the track is given over to Cann for an extended drum solo. As light relief it's a surprisingly effective way to end the album but not one for the ipod.

Listening to it again I'm surprised I haven't played this consistently good album more. I suppose their subsequent decline and negligible afterlife (radio effectively treats them as one hit wonders ) played their part. This exercise helps remedy such things.

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