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Ultravox!: Ultravox! (1977, reissued 2006) August 16, 2009

Posted by sjroby in Music.
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Ultravox!: Ultravox!

Ultravox!: Ultravox!

Punk imagery, an exclamation point swiped from krautrockers Neu!, the presence of ’80s superproducer Steve Lillywhite and experimental/electronic music legend Brian Eno, and, for listeners now, the knowledge that they were to become pioneers of electronic new wave… this should be the sound of yesterday’s tomorrow.

So it’s kind of surprising just how futuristic-sounding this album isn’t.

There’s not a lot of punk energy in the mix yet (though it’s present on their next album, Ha! Ha! Ha! and their single “Young Savage”); instead, there’s a mix of mid-’70s sounds. A bit of prog , some glam, a little funk and disco, and some basic rock and roll. There’s barely a synth to be heard. The opening track, the rocker “Satday Night in the City of the Dead” is just bass, drums, electric guitar, harmonica, and John Foxx’s fast talk-sing vocals.  “Life at Rainbow’s End” and “Wide Boys” vary things a little, but they’re still recognizably rock.

So where are the hints of everything to come? Well, key influence Roxy Music is certainly evident, in the dramatic “Slip Away,” the first song to make use of keyboards on the album, the elegant light funk of “Dangerous Rhythm” (Foxx even imitates Bryan Ferry’s delivery occasionally), and the funk/disco of “Lonely Hunter,” which may also owe a little to David Bowie’s plastic soul period. The sense of drama, the gradual building up of tension, and the prominent use of Billy Currie’s violin in “The Wild, the Beautiful, and the Damned” mark it as something of a precursor to the next lineup’s first big hit, “Vienna.”

The two standout tracks, though, are the songs that close out each side of the original LP. “I Want to Be a Machine” is a suitably Kraftwerkish concept, but ironically, it starts out sounding like an early Bowie song, with acoustic guitar and violin for the verses and the first chorus, before bass, drums, and electric guitar kick in for the second chorus, three minutes into the song. With the changes of style that happen throughout the seven minute long song, and the violin-led crescendo ending that makes up the last minute and a half, it sounds a lot more prog than punk, and musically nothing else they did sounds much like it. But the sense of alienation, and the imagery of the lyrics, have plenty of echoes in later Ultravox and in solo John Foxx music as well.

The last song on side two is the much shorter, quieter rumination “My Sex,” in which Foxx speaks over a sparse backing of piano and synth, with an Enoesque keyboard melody for a chorus. Unlike “I Want to Be a Machine,” this does anticipate a lot of later Ultravox and Foxx music. It retains the former’s alienation and distinctive lyrics, but strips the emotion from the vocals and adds a much more electronic, less rock sound.

The CD reissue adds four bonus tracks: live versions of “Slip Away” and “The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned” that add a little more energy, a live version of “My Sex” that’s a little less sparse, and the appropriately named non-album track “Modern Love,” which starts out with a chugging guitar/bass/drums/keyboard sound similar to the more upbeat tracks on the first Modern Lovers album. By the chorus it sounds a bit more like a fairly generic new wave song, but it’s entertaining to hear a band that later became influential itself pay tribute to another band. (I really can’t imagine it’s just a coincidence.)

It may be hard to hear a lot of connections between this album and, say, Vienna (the first Ultravox album with Midge Ure replacing Foxx) or Metamatic (the first Foxx solo album), but you can hear the progression leading to those albums happen in songs like “My Sex” and in the changes in the Ultravox sound on their next two albums. It’s like comparing William Hartnell’s Doctor Who with David Tennant’s — at first glance they may as well be completely separate entities, but the second wouldn’t have happened without the first, and a lot happened in between that shows evolution in action.

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