People like me, old enough to have a too large record collection knows how a sudden impulse can make you listen to a certain record, inspiring a foray into similar territory that can take days to complete. While mostly a joyous experience it can be taxing on significant others with different musical tastes. Last week´s return to the art-new-wave-rock of Ultravox! was one of those departures leading to repeated listenings to the music made by John Foxx between 1977 and 1981.
After leaving Ultravox! he started a solo career by releasing “Metamatic” in 1980. Based on synthesizers and drum machines, this was an album that today is considered an early electro-pop classic. At the time, Foxx was cited in interviews talking about the use of synthesizers, early on employed to try to sound like other instruments, very much like plastic initially tried to look like wood and other natural materials. Foxx´s thoughts on synths was to use them as the unique instruments they were, and make new sounds never heard before. Which is exactly what he did on this now over 30 years old album.
Opener “On the Plaza” very much sets the tone with its icy sweeping synths and rudimentary ticking drum machine track. “He´s a liquid” and “Underpass” has slightly more dramatic soundscapes and the clanging rhythms on “Metal beat” heralds later adventures in sheet metal drumming like for example Australian band SPK. “No-one driving” goes into pop territory, while the sound of “Blurred girl” looks back at “Hiroshima mon amour” off the “Ha! Ha! Ha!” album. That said, “Touch and go” (which was performed in concert with Ultravox!) is perhaps the song most reminiscent of his old group.
The overall sound of the record is clean, clinical and without the least hint of the dirtiness of regular rock, something that felt really refreshing at the time. The lyrics are arty and distanced, Foxx later confessing to having read a bit too much Ballard (how is that even possible?!?). I think the songs are still holding up, and the album as such one of the embryos of a whole new direction for musicians tired of the usual guitar-driven music that had dominated the previous 30 years.
It´s sometimes interesting to think about what others were doing at the same time. In 1980 Bob Dylan released “Saved”, Judas Priest “British steel”, The Rolling Stones “Emotional rescue”, AC/DC “Back in black” and Bruce Springsteen “The river”. On the other hand the year also saw the release of “Closer”, “Organisation” and “Empires and dance”. Not a bad year, when you think about it.