Record Review: John Foxx – Metamatic DLX RM [part 6]

Metamatic | UK | CD2/3 | META63BX | 2018

John Foxx: Metamatic DLX RM – bonus material disc 2 [2018]

  1. Film One
  2. This City
  3. To Be With You
  4. Cinemascope
  5. Burning Car
  6. Glimmer
  7. Mr. No
  8. Young Love
  9. 20th Century
  10. My Face
  11. Underpass [radio edit]
  12. No-One Driving [single version]
  13. Like a Miracle [alternative version]
  14. A New Kind of Man [alternative version]
  15. He’s a Liquid [alternative version]
  16. Plaza [extended version]
  17. Underpass [extended version]
  18. Blurred Girl [longer fade version]

The second disc of the DLX “Metamatic” hewed close to what was last released when the 2007 2xCD DLX RM came out years earlier. The ten crucial non-LP A/B-sides were all accounted for and the alternate versions that had leaked out years after the fact were also here. As were the single mixes and longer edits that were trimmed for inclusion on the original album. There were ultimately five more tracks accounted for here but the crux of disc two had appeared earlier; and in the case of disc two of the 2001 “Metamatic” DLX RM; in exactly the same running order.

The second disc still made a 2-ton first impression with the unbearably heavy “Film One;” the B-side of “Underpass” and one of the all time great B-sides. The grindingly dense instrumental juxtaposed its methodically paced, insect-like CR-78 chitterings with poundingly heavy ocean liner steamwhistle synth bass that reverberated for days. It suggested the heavy [possibly early Moog Taurus?] bass from Bowie’s “Fame” rendered even more crushingly powerful here. There’s not much to the track save for a sense of dread and doom that made Black Sabbath sound like Pollyanna.

When the 2007 DLX RM debuted “To Be With You” and “Cinemascope” I was astonished that these songs, that were so substantial, had been under wraps for decades prior. It transpired that I never read the fine print in the booklet to that edition which stated: “sampled and re-assembled from ideas and fragments found on cassette using only analog gear.” Now, then I listen it leaps out at me; these half-finished ideas from ’79-’80 were actually finished nearly 30 years later! No wonder I commented many years ago that “Cinemascope” is a fully formed track that sounds astonishingly contemporary when heard next to his modern material with Louis Gordon.” That’s because it was utterly contemporary to that material!

Now I can hear the age in Foxx’s voice and the delivery of his on “To Be With You” was full of the arch, dry vibe he didn’t add to his vocal arsenal until 1997’s “Shifting City” album. “Cinemascope” was built on a rubbery, squelchy, lurching rhythm bed and the lyrics to this one positively exploded with cinematic metaphor, which was always just below the surface in Foxx’s songs of this time period.

The “Burning Car” single took his J.G. Ballard influence to its ultimate conclusion. After the crash comes the burn. The fat, velvety, divebombing synths showed Gary Numan how it was really done. “Glimmer” and “Mr. No” were both “No-One Driving” instrumental B-sides which were worlds away from what was going on on the “Metamatic” album, but we’re so glad they made it out of the sessions like the superb instrumental B-sides they were. The contemplative “Glimmer” and the crystal rhythms of “Mr. No,” complete with its impenetrable foghorn synth leads would manifest a quarter of a century later as Foxx’s “Tiny Colour Movies” project.

“Young Love” and “20th Century” play together like a winning hand. “Young Love” was a very early track that was probably among his earliest solo compositions. It doesn’t sound like he had the CR-78 yet. Like many other songs, it was mooted as his first single for Virgin before that role was taken by “Underpass.” Both tracks prefigure the 8-bit chiptune movement that would be happening a few decades later as Foxx generates tight, monosynth riffs punctuated by white noise explosions. “20th Century” has such a wide stereo separation it sounds binaural! It’s hard to believe that the song had been commissioned for the youth TV series “20th Century Box” with such a radical for its time theme.

Metal Beat ‎| CAN | LP | 2981 | META 1101

The last of the core tunes from this eclectic alternative to the “Metamatic” we know and love was “My Face,” the motorik technopop number he initially gave to Smash Hits magazine for a flexidisc in their October 2, 1980 issue. He had just cut a trio of songs for his “Miles Away” single [judging by the appearance of drummer Edward Case and Jo Julian engineering this track] and this one was the odd one out. As it was less cold and foreboding as his album cuts, that made a kind of sense, but really, the song was perhaps more approachable as a single for the radio than anything on the album. Had he issued it as a single, it might have been the top 20 hit that never happened for him in the environment of the time. As it was, Virgin Canada plucked the number for the 1981 Canadian “John Foxx” album that cobbled together half of “Metamatic” along with various A/B-sides in lieu of an actual “Metamatic” release. I was happy to hear it at the time on relative high quality vinyl instead of a lo-fi flexidisc.

Next: …Filling Out The Margins

Posted in Core Collection, Record Review, The Great B-Sides | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Record Review: John Foxx – Metamatic DLX RM [part 5]

Jonathan Barnbrook’s design makes excellent use of metallic inks and screened knockouts

[continued from last post]
The slow Rumba beat from the CR-78 underpins “Blurred Girl.” The Theremin-like lead lines return to evoke retrograde science fiction eeriness, but the warm synth leads stand in stark opposition to this to create dissonance. Foxx’s vocal here adopts the Dopppler shift paradigm used elsewhere on the synths as he distorts his phrasing to create the sensation of sweeping movement. Elsewhere his backing vocals were treated to suggest he was far away in a different acoustic space as he sang paradoxically of “Standing so close…never quite touching” to emphasize the remote emotional distance that was the foundation for the whole album. This was an album of impersonal environments populated by a lone protagonist who was interested in keeping things that way.

The album returned to the reggae style [complete with real bass guitar] with the almost warm, upbeat skank of “030,” but any potential warmth was sorely denied with his most distant, clinical, and unemotional vocal yet to date. What other sound would have an opening lyric such as:

“Male caucasion…
Pattern scarring…
Domestic gestures just like mine” – “030”

It’s a lyric that reads like a particularly dispassionate police report after finding a dead body. Foxx was going out of his way to make sure what was already stereotyped as a cold brand of music push out as far towards the margins of cold as possible. Give him a ring modulator for his vocal, and you’d have a Dalek® singing. But there were other distancing tricks up Foxx’ sleeve that he had not tried yet.

“Tidal Wave” was distinguished by a squelching bass synth that might have been a harbinger of some of the trappings of acid house, but the beats here were slow and deliberate, in contrast. The Theremin leads were used again but the distancing approach for his vocals here was to simply sing the material deliberately flat. The anxiety that it provoked in hearing is was considerable.

Following a trio of slowly paced songs that deliberately pushed Brechtian distancing effect as far as he could in a number of ways, Foxx concluded the album with one of the oldest [and therefore, most conventional] songs he had written for the sessions even while still in Ultravox. “Touch + Go” was one of the three fast paced songs here that resembled pop more strongly.

It was metronomic, precise reggae; an utter paradox. The album’s sonic building blocks of CR-78, Arp Odyssey, and Elka synthetic strings seemed to have been abetted here with some clavinet. The lyric here was more expansive and sprawling, owing to its age. Having written it as an Ultravox song, meant that the “emotional space probe” style of “030” was still yet to come. The lyric here was sprawling and practically Dylanesque, but the essential core of the lyric still concerned itself with emotional distance and deliberate isolation. No permanent bonds, just brief encounters and withdrawal.

Next: …Bonus Level One

 

Posted in Record Collecting, Record Review | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Record Review: John Foxx – Metamatic DLX RM [part 4]

The Roland CR-78 not only played every rhythm on “Metamatic;” it also gave one track its name…

[continued from last post]

The next track on the album took its name cheekily from a setting on the iconic Roland CR-78 rhythm box that gave the album its metallic heart. The “Metallic Beat” setting added a clanking metallic tone to the rhythms which Foxx sought to use in extreme for the song “Metal Beat.” The dubspace utilized here was as sonically wide as possible with the widest possible channel separation with a stream-of-consciousness lyric across the top complete with ping ponging vocal panning for maximum stimulation. This was Foxx being as playful as he got on this album. The Doppler shifted bass synth was right at home here. The bending of pitch in Doppler shift to suggest an even larger acoustic space and movement was a gambit that appeared throughout the record, as we will see.

The second single released from “Metamatic” was “No-One Driving.” It almost matched the chart placing of “Underpass” with a #32 peak and the single made a lot of sense with the Moroder motorik pulse of the song being far more lively and fast paced than anything on side one of the album thus far. The song’s precise gridlike patterns, punctuated by some seriously filtered synthetic claps which I am guessing had their origins in the Arp Odyssey MK III that was the primary lead instrument here. I have to admit, that the sharp lyrical metaphor of the title is one that I have used with tedious frequency in the disturbing horrorshow that has been the 21st century thus far. It is a fitting excuse for so much of what ails us.

Side two, predictably, began with Virgin’s initial choice for the lead single from the album, but “A New Kind Of Man” was not completed in time for the projected album launch before Christmas [there would have been some jolly fun during the holidays with this album as the soundtrack, eh?]. And by the time the album was ready for January 1980, they had changed their mind and had put out “Underpass.” That didn’t stop rare copies with the same cover as “Underpass” [except for the type] from getting loose in the wilds. Or Italy from going with this as the single as shown at above left.

“A New Kind Of Man” had a fast-paced rhythm that plays like a close cousin to Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn Theme!” This was juxtaposed with more Theremin-like synth leads for two touchstones of the 1950s to make their presence felt here. Appropriate, since the lyric even references 1958, but alas, Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” soundtrack dates from 1959. The verses references cinematic technique; not the first time it will happen in this period for Foxx:

A voice-over through scenes of sunrise
“It feels like someone is using my eyes”

and

“Don’t forget me” fades in static
Another scene began…

Foxx seems to have referenced film noir detective tropes [so Peter Gunn was a very appropriate source to reference] to extend his thematic vision. It should also be said that the “Metamatic” cover was a depiction of the first couplet of this song and it looked far more futuristic than anything Blake Edwards would have filmed in the late 50s.

Next: …A Slower Pace Returns

 

Posted in Core Collection, Record Review | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Record Review: John Foxx – Metamatic DLX RM [part 3]

Metamatic | UK | CD1/3 | META63BX | 2018

John Foxx: Metamatic DLX RM – remastered album disc 1 [2018]

  1. Plaza
  2. He’s A Liquid
  3. Underpass
  4. Metal Beat
  5. No-One Driving
  6. A New Kind Of Man
  7. Blurred Girl
  8. 030
  9. Tidal Wave
  10. Touch + Go

Reggae has never been a favorite genre of mine. The fact that roots reggae is so bound up in Rastafarianism is probably a big reason why I listen to so little of it. I grew to prefer dub by the 90s, where the vibe was emphasized over the message, and when the message was Rastafarianism, I had no interest. So that is probably the reason why it took me embarrassing decades to notice that the elephant in the room regarding “Metamatic” is the fact that dub reggae informs so much of its vibe.  If we wanted to get cute about it, I suppose that the album could be described in a flippant two word fashion as Kraftwerk Reggae.

It was right there in your face as the opening track, ”Plaza” began. A synthetic skank as bold as life kicked the track off as the minor key lead lines evoked the eerie science fiction horror of Dr. Quatermass, which the young Dennis Leigh probably watched [from behind the couch] as a boy. But the concrete brutalism of the lyric and vibe spoke ultimately to science fiction of another kind; the monolithic impersonal landscapes of J.G. Ballard which contrasted with the fractured interiors of his protagonists. In this plaza, death hovered close by. Omnipresent in the faces remembered from shattered windscreens. Crash. It happens.

The thing about this song that struck me as being backward looking and wrong, when I first heard it in 1981, is now one of the aspects of the album which lend it a patina of timelessness that serve it well to this day. The only non-synthetic instrument on the album was Jake Durant’s precise, surgical fills of actual bass guitar. I looked him up on Discogs and this was the only album he ever played on. The extremes of sound that Foxx hybridized to make this music have insured that not only did it stand outside of the environment of 1980, it still sounds outside of any conventional pigeonholes today.

Fluidity of self has been a John Foxx trope for 40 years going and its flashpoint was “He’s A Liquid;” a song he wrote before leaving Ultravox. Foxx has talked about the experience of body surfing in the ocean and the resultant feeling of dispersal as being very impactful. As he described a couple whose masculine half was undergoing fluid transmutation the dryly descriptive lyric resulted in an odd AABCC rhyming scheme on the verses. I’ve never heard such a symmetrical rhyming scheme like that one before. The dry, metallic “kick drum” that this song pulsates to was a hard and unforgiving use of the CR-78 that formed the basis of this album’s rhythms.

The lead single was next, although Virgin had gone as far as pressing up “A New Kind Of Man” instead with some of these escaping out into the wild. “Underpass” built its sound on baleful, aerosol synths advancing with the resultant Doppler shift in pitch that would come to typify much of the music on this album. Foxx was going places, creatively, and this was mirrored in the panning in space of the sounds, and even vocals that would be deployed here. As the hum approaches the foreground in the intro, the relentless, but measured beats move the song forward at a methodical pace. The lead Arp lines have an almost Ennio Morricone feel to them as they seesaw to and fro melodically.

The song was once again ensnared in a dub reggae foundation accentuated periodically by ticking “hi-hats” followed by slamming beats. The dystopic feel of the lyric suggests a place out of the timeline where even disasters are only half-remembered, and perhaps it’s better that way.

“Well I used to remember
Now it’s all gone…
World War soooooooomething…
We were somebody’s sons” – “Underpass”

I couldn’t help but notice that after this verse that referenced The War that another Doppler shifted synth was in the middle of the mix, this time sounding for all the world like air raid sirens from The Blitz. We can’t forget that Foxx was born into the immediate post-war era and has spoken about growing up and playing in the bombed out debris of the Northern English landscape. The landscape not to mention the post-war austerity that gripped Britain for nearly a decade had to have colored his worldview going forward. The song’s chorus managed to take abstraction into heretofore unseen climes with its brilliantly reductive lyric:

“Click-click drone.”

It’s hard to imagine how a song this clinical and dispassionate managed to find an audience, even in an environment primed by the Foxx influenced Gary Numan, but “Underpass” managed to get as high as #31 in the UK pop charts. The acme of Foxx’s dalliance with popularity.

Next: …Ode To a CR-78

Posted in Core Collection, Record Review | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Record Review: John Foxx – Metamatic DLX RM [part 2]

Jean Tinguley’s “Metamatic no. 8”

[continued from last post]

Here’s a little art history to set the stage before we go any further. I bought “Metamatic” in February of 1981; a little over a year after it had been released. “Metamatic” was just a word to me then, but within a year, I was in art college and came across the word in an art history book and the penny dropped, as it were.

Jean Tinguely

Output from Metamatic no. 20

“Metamatics” were first the given name of kinetic sculptures made by Swiss artist Jean Tinguley in the 1955-1959 period. Tinguley was influenced by both the industrial era of the time as well as the Dada movement in art. In seeking to demystify and deconstruct the notion of artistic genius, Tinguley built machines that would make drawings that looked for all the world as if they were the product of Abstract Expressionism; which was a movement that had immediately preceded the development of Tinguley’s machines. The mechanisms he constructed would move in a prescribed path, but their construction was not rigid; therefore no two pieces of art made by the machines looked alike due to random variations. He was making machines that made art in a self-generating capacity. Generative art akin to the generative music that has captured Brian Eno’s attentions for so long. Tinguely’s Metamatics were a cybernetic approach to generating art; machines that made art.


Given that background, it’s not surprising that Foxx chose to pick up on that name. After all, he was making a schismatic break from the run-of-the-mill world of rock bands and was attempting to adopt a Bauhaus perspective on how machines were used in the context of popular music. Germany’s Bauhaus movement of the 1920s coined the design philosophy of “form follows function” whereby the synthetic modern emulation of old-fashioned ways of building objects; applying woodgrain images to surfaces which were modern steel, for example – was eschewed as being intellectually fraudulent and decadent to boot.

Similarly, Foxx had decided that he would strip away all of the conventions of rock music that had applied to music made prior to 1979 and throw it into the dumper. Synthesizers would not emulate acoustic instruments or pipe organs. Rhythms would be made by machines which were metronomic in their timing. The American tradition of rhythm and blues; simmered in high-key emotionalism, was avoided. Foxx instead sought to make a music informed by European sensibilities; re-imagined as if America were not the point of origin for modern pop music.

The studio would be used to capture the raw essence of these machines and their traits. In the end, Foxx chose Pathway Studios, a modest 8-track facility in Islington where seminal music by Lene Lovich, Elvis Costello, and The Damned had been recorded. One would imagine that Stiff Records leaned heavily on the facility. Foxx wanted to avoid the baroque 48 track approach of rock excess and its commensurate artificiality. Perversely, he sought to highlight the traits of machines by stripping away production artifice and bringing their qualities into sharp relief in ways that had not yet been done in rock.

While still on Island Records, Foxx had gotten a glimpse of famed dub reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry at work in the studio and the amount of space and separation in the dub mixes he achieved stuck with Foxx. When the time came to set out on his own, he would revisit the sensibilities at work there and point them in the very different direction that he wanted to head off in.

Next: …But What About The Music?

 

 

Posted in Core Collection, Record Review | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Record Review: John Foxx – Metamatic DLX RM [part 1]

Three discs – just like I predicted, but not when I predicted

Eight years ago, I predicted a 3xCD DLX RM of John Foxx’s “Metamatic” but in my naïveté, I had imagined that it was going to manifest by 2013. It’s taken five more years, but it has been out for about a month now, and I have had sufficient time to digest its stories for a suitable period, so now we are going to dive in.

Deep.

You have been duly warned.


Ultravox ca. 1979: [L-R] Warren Cann, John Foxx, Robin Simon

Following the breakthrough [artistically, at least] of “Systems Of Romance” by Ultravox in 1978, the band found themselves dropped by Island Records at the end of the year. Three strikes you’re out. Except that the band stuck together for another few months. Long enough for Ian Copeland to book the band on a US tour with no label support that criss-crossed America on the cheap – like he did to break The Police a year or two prior. Band jammed into a van with instruments and they used the house PA at each gig. Not how it is run in the UK where the band must bring their own PA to play.

The band were able to sell out the famed L.A. venue The Whiskey-A-Go-Go for a run of several nights. Obviously, there was a market for this forward looking band in America at the time. I suspect that the members of Berlin were all there taking notes. The tour was deemed successful to the point where the band returned home to England with a few Pounds in their pockets; which rarely happened. But the successful tour was not without its price. Namely, the split of John Foxx and guitarist Robin Simon from the band.

During this time, Foxx and the band had been writing and new tracks like “He’s A Liquid” and “Touch + Go” were unleashed on US audiences from coast to coast. Of course these songs [but not the unrecorded “Radio Beach”] ended up on the “Metamatic” album to follow, and the melody to “Touch + Go” was kept by the next incarnation of Ultravox to form the backbone of their own composition, “Mr. X.” But apart from writing and playing new tunes, all was not well within Ultravox.

Warren Cann reported that the band were held together by a thread of gig responsibility during this time and nothing else as the relations between the band and Foxx had completely broken down. No one was surprised when at the end of it Foxx walked, though Simon leaving as well was a unexpected. Simon had found a girlfriend in New York, but Foxx had his fill of the rock + roll lifestyle. Touring didn’t hold much allure for this introspective man who once sang “I Want To Be A Machine.” While cyborgs were still pretty far out, the cost of synths were dropping as the market was getting invaded by players other than Moog which brought the prices downward. For his part, Foxx was thrilled to see if he could do it all on this new, inexpensive gear without needing to have a band to get it onto tape. The Fripp-defined era of the small, mobile, intelligent unit was now deemed possible and Foxx was eager to give it a try.

Next:  …Machines That Make Art

Posted in Core Collection, Record Review | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Record Review: Berlin’s Pigeon Effectively Strike At The Heart Of Post-Punk

Bandcamp | GER | DL/LP | 2018

Pigeon: Pigeon DL/LP [2018]

  1. /
  2. Gaping
  3. Couches
  4. Ex Pressure
  5. Step
  6. Nizza
  7. Tiny
  8. Rail
  9. Lower
  10. Kinn
  11. Plunge

This turned up in my inbox a little while back and anyone who enjoys the bold Post-Punk sound we love will find a lot to love here. The band lob grenades at us right from the beginning with the harsh burst of noise that was “/.” The pummeling backwards noise track throws a challenging gauntlet, but before we know what hit us, the 0:23 track exits and the stage was set for “Gaping” to establish that while the band is not afraid of noise, they are about so much more.

The metronomic beat and hard textures of the guitars set sail for the stormy seas of Killing Joke territory. Then “Couches” painted a portrait of widescreen speed noise with its stuttering rhythms and thrilling propulsive qualities. The vocals were in English but the voice was set deep within the layers of music, not atop it like some hood ornament. The voice here was an overall part of the monolithic gestalt; not an end in itself.

“Ex Pressure” turned up the heat with its lurching rhythms echoing a darker, early Psychedelic Furs vibe but as the song played out, it reached a pummeling climax that left The Furs far behind. Then with “Nizza” the background levels of abrasion throttled back to allow the melodic sensibilities of the band a chance to leave the shade. Through it all, the band kept the tension slowly increasing vis the open chords and simple, steady beat. The middle eight found tendrils of aggression bursting through the soil as the dub inflected vocal treatment. The lovely feedback of the guitar took center stage in the outro here.

The band dipped deeper into the Krautrock pool with the motorik drums of “Tiny.” The band really end the album on a similar high point as they had reached earlier on “Couches.” “Kinn” strikes an impressive balancing act between the tripartite influences of Killing Joke, PiL, and Gang of Four – forging a striking Dub/Punk/Krautrock alliance that let the bass pull out of the cloud of sound to come to the forefront here. The sound was glorious, then with another of the brief noise interludes that flit through the album, it was all over.

Pigeon have crafted an impressive excursion into the heart of Post-Punk that shows they have learned much from the masters. The guitars and drums lead the way here with voice just another layer in the dense sound. The band have a great grasp of dynamics and instinctively know when to pull back and luxuriate in their melodic sense, or to push the pedal of intense noise that is always present for direct impact. I liked the brief interludes of noise and voice over [“Step”] that shook up the vibe and kept the listener alert for the shifts of tone that happened throughout. Pigeon have a debut album to be proud of and you may add it to your personal Record Cell with the DL or LP pressing at their Bandcamp page.

– 30 –

Posted in Record Review | Tagged , , | 2 Comments