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Billy Currie: Push (2002) September 23, 2009

Posted by sjroby in Music.
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Billy Currie: Push

Billy Currie: Push

Continuing my posts about albums I downloaded from eMusic and never seem to listen to, here’s one in a series of instrumental solo albums from Billy Currie, the keyboardist/violinist/viola player from Ultravox. Currie’s synths, especially his ARP Odyssey, and string playing were a distinctive part of the Ultravox sound, both in the John Foxx era and the Midge Ure era. So how does he fare on his own?

Currie’s first solo album, Transportation (1988), featured Yes guitarist Steve Howe on several tracks. It struck me at the time as kind of Vangelis-lite, floating somewhere between progressive rock and new age music, so I was disappointed with it. I’ve revisited it a couple of times over the years without changing my opinion. In fact, I’ve had similar impressions from a lot of Currie’s solo work, which is why I don’t listen to it much (I’ve downloaded a lot of it from eMusic because of the Ultravox connection and because hope springs eternal).

Push, according to Currie’s website, is about two things: using something called Granular Synthesis to allow him to play his viola and interact with samples being played back in real time, and to record some dance-oriented tracks with a bit of a rock edge. Sounds promising enough. Currie’s solo stuff has tended to feel too pretty and sedate by comparison to his Ultravox work.

The album begins promisingly. “Stand Like a Balance” is a viola piece, a nice bit of austere and atmospheric ambience. “Step Forward” is a change of pace, a track with dance beats, modern synths, a subtle piano line, and a trademark Billy Currie ARP Odyssey playing through the whole song, instead of soloing when no one’s singing. (This is instrumental music, after all.)

“Swimming in Air” is built on pulsing synths and, eventually, more ARP Odyssey pitchbending. By the standards of an album like Transportation this would seem like just the first sketch of a track that would then need a whole lot of other stuff slathered on top of it, but this stays minimally electronic, like something from an obscure early ’70s synth album.

“Kissing the Shame” has a brief pompous intro that has me fearing the worst, and though it’s not all that bad, it would have worked with a little more restraint. The quieter passages are pleasant, the alternating big dance passages are a bit over the top with their big, dramatic keyboard and piano lines. Still, not a million miles removed from a few later Ultravox songs. Maybe lose the piano and swap in a bit of electric guitar…

“High Climb” is a slow, quiet piece that sounds like something from a film soundtrack. It’s simple enough to avoid Currie’s occasional lapses into mere prettiness.

“Into the Space” sounds like a big ’80s synth movie soundtrack title theme, and I am finding it a bit cheesy. It feels dated . The occasional moments of something discordant — viola, perhaps? — sound good, but they’re in the wrong track. They don’t work well with the rest of the piece.

It’s a relief, then, that “Why Do You Hang on Me” is another viola piece, and a long one (just over ten minutes). I could probably go for an album in this vein; heck, it’s not all that far removed from cellist Hildur Gudnadottir’s album Without Sinking.

“The True Transmission” is back to the “dance” side of things, a piano melody riding a dance beat, a layer of gauzy synth chords, and a bass synth line. An improvement over “Into the Space,” but it’s not until a passage halfway through, in which most of the instruments drop away to leave a changed piano line and beat, that the melody and beat seem to belong together. Then back to the way the song began, with the main development being some changes in the drum programming. It’s not bad, and not cheesy, but it still feels kind of unfinished and overdone at the same time.

“Theremin” has a somewhat ominous cloud of synth chords for an intro, followed by a fast simple dance beat, a piano line, and something that sounds like a sampled theremin playing a simple melody line. More keyboard lines clutter the piece and the drum programming gets a bit more complex but nothing drops out, making this a very busy-sounding track. The piano and theremin-a-like lines give this more of a soundtrack feel than a dance feel. I don’t know how Currie feels about remixes, but it’d be interesting to see what a remixer could do with this track, to make a more modern electronic dance track out of it.

“Cross Hands” is an odd track, an almost Philip Glass-like minimal piano line supplemented by occasional wispy synths and a bit of goofy-sounding sampled or synthesized voice. Quirkiest track so far, and without the voice and maybe a layer of synth, this would be a lovely piece.

More piano and slathered-on synth lines and sampled female choral “aah” sounds before we get back to that imaginary movie “Into the Space” came from. It’s another bombastic dance-ish track, not the worst one on the album, but though I like some elements of it, overall it doesn’t really work for me.

The album as a whole is an odd mix of elements that don’t really fit together, which is the impression I’ve had from cursory listens to some other Currie albums. It gives the impression that this synth pioneer has kept up with the technology of electronic music, but hasn’t been listening to much modern electronic music. There seem to be warring impulses between doing something avant garde classical and doing something big and dramatic and ’80s. I’d like to hear the former win. Or, alternatively, I’d like to hear what Currie might do with a young collaborator coming from a different kind of electronic music background.

Well, I won’t be making an effort to put this into more regular rotation, but maybe I’ll do something like this with his other albums, and see if I can find enough tracks that I like and that would work well together to make a compilation.



1. micah stupak - September 27, 2009

hey there —

i’ve been reading your blog for two months-ish now, and every other post i think to myself “oh yeah, good call, i should comment” but i never got any further than agreeing with you so i felt like i didn’t have enough to comment. 😉

anyways, i’m a big fan of early midge-era ultravox, so i definitely felt i should check this out. whoops: not on emusic usa. shame. i’ll keep an eye open for it otherwise…

2. sjroby - September 27, 2009

Emusic used to be the cheapest and easiest way to check out a lot of stuff like this, but with the Sony thing and the price increase, I don’t know that I’d recommened anyone sign up for it now. But apparently Billy’s stuff is on itunes, and some albums ca be bought directly from his website.

Hey, I just figured out why your name seemed familiar: Nervenet.

3. micah stupak - September 27, 2009

yeah, i’m unsure whether or not i will stick around with emusic. i’ve been a subscriber since 2001, and this was the first change they ever made that made me say “wait, hold on”. they’ve tried a lot of incentives over the past two months to get people to stick around, so i’m going to wait and see what happens in october. maybe things will change. if not, i’ll mothball my account for three months, and wait it out. if no changes are made in that time period, i’ll sayonara emusic. they’re just not with me anymore. i’ve been reading the 17dots blog since it launched as well, and they’re not writing about any kind of music i care about these days.

ah, nervenet! the lowest traffic list on the planet. 🙂

sjroby - September 27, 2009

Maybe the thing with Nervenet is that Eno’s not putting out any albums. He’s just doing a lot of stuff that I can’t afford to go see in person. And I’m not interested enough in him to buy albums just because he coproduced them.

I was excited when I discovered enoshop.co.uk and found some of the installation CDs reasonably priced, and then they added a few more neat things, and then nothing for the last few years. There’s a lot more they could be doing that might generate some interest and some chatter. Maybe Eno should let Robert Fripp’s people or David Sylvian’s people take over his web operations.

micah stupak - September 27, 2009

yeah, good points, he hasn’t done as much. he is getting old, though, and his focus has shifted. i will (sheepishly) admit, however, that the coldplay album wasn’t too bad. i would enjoy a wah wah-type album coming from those sessions.

i bought a few of those enoshop cds, but i got cdrs. that’s ok, i suppose, but it is kind of a letdown for the prices they are in dollars.

sylvian’s web presence is excellent. haven’t heard his new one yet, though…

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