“Vienna” Gets Ultrabox After 40 Years As Synth Rock Touchstone [part 4]

chris cross (c) 1980 brian griffin

Chris Cross always had that Bob Mitchum cool going on with the “Vienna” sleeve ©1980 Brian Griffin

[…continued from last post]

RARITIES + B-SIDES


Disc three was an update to the disc number two from the 2008 DLX RM. The earlier collected a few unissued tracks along with B-sides, 12″ single only tracks, and a few rehearsal live cuts. This edition added the two 7″ edits of the two A-sides that featured them,, and two more live performances, as taken from the pair of videos that Chrysalis filmed at the St. Albans show [more on that later] to promote the band.

It started off with the “early version” of “Sleepwalk.” I was surprised to hear this in 2008. Legend had it that the band recorded “Sleepwalk”‘ with Conny Plank to final standard instead of a trio of demos to cinch the Chrysalis deal. Except for that’s not really the case.As we hear here, they recorded a tight, professional version of “Sleepwalk” that was nevertheless a bit different from the version they ultimately released. To me it sounds like an early mix with the same performances just re-jigged for the album. One huge difference was in the distinct BVs that whispered “Sleepwalk!” in the most threatening way possible. The early version featured more robotic, unemotional vocals, treated with effects. It almost sounded like a Speak + Spell with a hint of voice synthesis. I’d swear 90% of the performances here were identical, albeit mixed and EQ’d differently.

ultravpx sleepwalk 2020 mix cover artThe B-side to “Sleepwalk” was the dense, and psychedelic “Waiting” which was quite a different vibe on this one to the mostly urgent rock of the “Vienna ” album. This one was more of an Eno-esque mood piece than a tight song, but the atmospherics went on for days here. The slow burning intro was dreamlike but tightened up once the militaristic tattoos of snare drums [quite atypical for Warren Cann] and wailing guitar licks weighed in. White noise crash pads made sure no one was nodding off. The varispeed effects in the long, almost psychedelic fade, sounded like music that probably should have happened under the aegis of noted psychedelia fan John Foxx, rather than under the new regime. Two years later Foxx would use some of that technique on his first version of the “Endlessly” single. Overall, this is just what we want from a B-side. An experiment that while of interest, would not really fit into the album, yet clearly deserved a listen.

ultravox - passing strangers cover art“face To Face” was a variant on a piece that the band had demoed called “Sound On Sound.” They had recorded it live at St. Albans and it’s a deep dive into the Krautrock influence on the band. The long piece had three distinct “movements” and the long 1:45 intro was pure Neu! The bulk of the song was very light on keyboards. Instead, Chris Cross’ bass guitar was to the fore for a change. Midge Ure joined the song as it moved forward to “movement 2.” Ure also played bass guitar here in a Spinal Tap moment, became more prominent in the arrangement and past the midpoint, Billy Currie landed for a full on solo on the ARP with his trademark pitch bending. Afterward, Currie’s keyboards were more prominent in the mix with various filigrees happening before the spectral “3rd movement” ended the song. Motorik drumming ended but clockwork rhythms and white noise percussion, like distant thunder carried the song to its solitary ending bereft of any guitars or vocals.

“King’s Lead Hat” was another live cut from their summer 1980 shows; this time from the next night at The Lyceum, though segued tightly into the applause at the end of “Face To Face.” This was a rollicking Brian Eno cover of the song whose anagrammatic title was Eno’s tribute to TVLKING HEVDS. From the sound of it, this was one of their encores as they were light on material as they only played a few songs from the Foxx era. The band stormed through it, with Ure’s vocals filtered throughout that let the heavy rhythm section fight it out with Ure’s guitar and Currie’s keys for dominance. And it was interesting to have two non-LP B-sides being live only tracks. Going forward, any live cuts on B-sides would be familiar material, so we were lucky to get this early on in the band’s new phase. An unexpected treat.

ultravox vienna cover artThe 7″ edit of “Vienna” merely shaved off the faded segue from “Western Promise” by about ten seconds. Having the UK hit 7″ edit here is thorough, and good thinking, but the brutal 3:56 edit that US Chrysalis made to the song [which I’ve never heard] only figured on the clear vinyl LP box version of “Vienna” and there’s no way I was paying $72 more to hear that! I can pick up the real thing for comparative chump change on Discogs.

The single’s B-side, “Passionate Reply,”was built on a rhythmic foundation that suggested the same mortar which “The Thin Wall” would soon be built from. The sequenced synth bass rhythm was punctuated by handclaps from a ClapTrap while the synth leads were slurred to offset the tight rhythms. Midge doubled his lead vocals on the chorus at split octaves [an old Bowie trick to fatten the sound] and Billy bent the pitch on his ARP solo as Midge joined in vocally on the melodically expansive middle eight, which featured wordless expression vocals. Marking this as a definite unfinished song, and thus a great B-side candidate for a quick one day session while on tour in America when Chrysalis says “we need a B-side for “Vienna.” They cut this one producing themselves at Criteria Studios in Miami; the Bee Gee’s platinum-plated studio. I liked the increase of tempo at the fade as the track entered the room delicately, but left urgently.

“Herr X” took the obvious debt to Kraftwerk via the arrangement of the earlier “Touch + Go” to its ultimate conclusion. Warren Cann had the idea to get Plank and his wife, Christa Fast to help him translate the song to German for an added kick. The track was not remixed, just re-voiced.

ultravox - all stood still cover artThe 7″ edit of “All Stood Still” was a good 44 seconds shorter. It sounded like a slight remix to these ears as well. The B-side was “Alles Klar.” An atmospheric instrumental, made with Conny Plank co-production, so it’s actually from the “Vienna” sessions and not a later track recorded afterward for a B-side release. Warren Cann did the rhythmic breathing and said he had nearly hyperventilated by the end of the five minutes of recording. He goes up and down in the mix but he’s there all the way through, if you listen! It’s a mood piece; perhaps underdeveloped for its length and relative lack of complexity. The Philip Glassy repeated synth figure lent the track a sense of frozen stillness even as the other elements [guitar distortion, drum machine, synth leads] kept adding to the mix. So I think that aspect of the arrangement made this one seem longer than it was. I like the deep bass synth “foghorn” that periodically cropped up. Hence the title.

Added to the 12″ only single of “All Stood Still” as a bonus track, “Keep Talking” was a rehearsal cassette track which showed the band developing by jamming live. A peek “under the hood” as it were. One distinctive thing here was the repetitive bass sequencer line pointing the way to what was just around the corner for the band; the sound of their next single, “The Thin Wall.” In fact, one can sing the lyrics to “The Thin Wall” over this backing track quite easily. The other distinctive thing was the weird synth sound that they could not find the patch for again that sounded like strangulated articulation, or the “talking” of the title. Their reference to “Torque-ing” on one of the 12″ single sleeves in the UK [the other had “Keep Talking” as the title] was another veiled reference to the original title of the “Vienna Album” in the planning stages as “Torque Point.” Beyond that, there was not a whole lot to see here folks. A perfunctory 12″ bonus B-side that may have been better left unheard.

The band’s first 12″ remix was for “All Stood Still.” A bit late to the game by spring of 1981. But still ahead of the pack. The song added 44 more seconds in a intro buildup and the overall mix sounded like it was the source of the 7″ remix edit.

There were two soundcheck recordings that were from the Lyceum show that “King’s Lead Had” had been taken from. Chrysalis had recorded both the St. Albans and Lyceum shows on the band’s first tour. But these soundcheck performances were kind of perfunctory. “Sleepwalk” was close to being a decent quality recording. The whole band was in balance and it’s still a great song that wastes no time. I can’t say that for the soundcheck of “All Stood Still.” The cavernous sound barely had Ure’s vocals or guitar audible. But it did put the bass/drums.synth foundations of the song to the fore. At one point you can hear someone call for “more vocal.” Did we really need to hear this? But it was in the 2008 remaster so I have to agree that it should be here.

Fortunately, the new additions to this disc only of the video soundtracks for the live at St. Alban’s versions of “Vienna” and “Sleepwalk” [as seen on the DVD that came with “The Very Best Of Ultravox” CD+DVD in 2009, were much more interesting. as the songs in question were not yet stone cold classics; they were still feeling out how to perform them live, which is of interest to hear. “Sleepwalk” was the more interesting of the two, as it was about 45 seconds longer for some extra riffing.

Next: …Songwriting Workshop

 

 

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“Vienna” Gets Ultrabox After 40 Years As Synth Rock Touchstone [part 3]

uncropped Brian Griffin shot of vienna cover

The uncropped “Vienna” cover shot ©1980 Brian Griffin

[…continued from last post]

STEVEN WILSON 2.0 MIX


As a stepping stone to the 5.1 surround mix by Steven Wilson, first he had to make a 2.0 mix in his process to work from. Over time, these have been released to give old familiar albums an new spin since they had to be made in the first place on the way to a 5.1 mix. Why not put it out for added value?

Disc two had both the “Vienna” album and the B-sides as remixed by Wilson. We’ve heard three of the B-sides and an A-side earlier this year. And the early indicators have indeed played out in a remix that was largely sticking close to the original mark of the album, but taking slightly more liberties with the sometimes lesser known B-sides.

CD 2 –  Vienna [Steven Wilson Stereo Mix]

  1. Astradyne
  2. New Europeans
  3. Private Lives
  4. Passing Strangers
  5. Sleepwalk
  6. Mr. X
  7. Western Promise
  8. Vienna
  9. All Stood Still
  10. Waiting
  11. Passionate Reply
  12. Alles Klar
  13. Herr X

“Astradyne” has been very carefully re-created. The overall thrust of Wilson’s mixes tended to be a bit drier and flatter. He favored less reverb. Bass frequencies got a bit of a boost in his preferred EQ profile. Yet high frequency information was also lifted up from the mix. Given that Plank was recording with an eye towards vinyl, the Wilson mix sounded more capable to use the dynamic range of a CD. Stratified. Less squashed into the midrange bands.

On “New Europeans,” the EQ has tamed the aggression of Ure’s guitar skank. The echoes are no longer on a long delay, but his vocal has been pulled out of the mix to gain a little more spotlight. The vocal effects on Ure in the middle eight have more distinctly different treatments for each of the lyrical couplets he sings. The effect on the Plank mix were almost barely noticeable in comparison.

Details like the distorted  scream that was mixed into the fake cold ending on “Private Lives” were separated out of the mix with a slight hesitation that made them stand out slightly more in relief. It also sounded like noise reduction had been applied to the multi track masters as the slight tape hiss as heard on the Plank mix was now gone.

My Ultravox vector of infection had a few noticeable changes. The drums were slightly less prominent in the soundstage. The bass guitar of Chris Cross was given more spotlight. Midge Ure pick scrape in the intro ended more coldly. I could hear the rhythmic cello-like synths in the chorus much more prominently. I’d never really noticed them in all of the earlier listening to this album I’ve heard at least a thousand times, but they were there. Buried in the mix. The most dramatic difference here was that the delayed sequencer riff in the godlike middle eight now entered a half-beat early in the mix. Making for a dramatic shift of energy.

We’ve already covered the differences in “Sleepwalk.” Paradoxically, there seems to be more reverb on Billy Currie’s lead violin in the long intro to “Western Promise.” The berserk drum rhythm in lockstep with the sequencer  has been accentuated. More critically, Ure’s interjection of “Hai!” is now flash panned from right to left channel for a wider dispersion. As with vocals in general, Ure has more spotlight in the mix.

The bass synth drone at the segue between “Western Promise” and “Vienna” has been lengthened. The depth of reverb on the famous white noise beats on “Vienna” have been decreased. Midge Ure didn’t enter the song for another six seconds. but his vocal sounded less strident. Small timing differences like these are the biggest changes that a listener might pick out.

The lack of reverb on the delayed synth sequencer on “All Stood Still” ultimately served to strip the song of its sense of enervated urgency. It’s the most problematic mix here for the album. Wilson’s penchant for a dry mix had not alienated me in listening until now. Of the B-sides, I have already spoke of how I enjoyed the trippier mix of “Waiting” and have also covered “Alles Klar.” Inasmuch as Wilson’s traits of dryness and clarity worked to the detriment of “All Stood Still,” I thought they enhanced the clinical “Passionate Reply.”

As a whole, the Wilson 2.0 mix of this material was more spacious and less compressed into a midrange package. The frequency range of the music was aired out, and stratified, with enhancements to both the low and high end. The use of NR here was something that one could quibble with. I think it’s part of the “grain” of the recording, and as such, was an intrinsic component of the sound, but I’ve heard worse abuse of the technology. The end result wasn’t as airless as what I usually hear from Jon Astley, who usually makes the album sound lifeless.

As seen through an overall lens, this CD was about 90-93% of the “Vienna” that you would remember, and took few liberties that would cause an eyebrow to raise in alarm. Was it necessary? Well, as a means of making a 5.1 mix, yes. But in the overall scheme of things, it remains a curio and at the very least, not an abomination. You could play it and but for the occasional timing adjustment, one might not even know that it was a different mix as background music. I will admit that the mastering here was the most pleasing to my ear as it’s the one mix/mastering of the music that was made specifically for CD. It had a full dynamic range and was designed to be easy and pleasurable to listen to with no compromises made in the chain of production at any time. And I appreciate that all of the B-sides were also accounted for here. This was shaping up to be a thorough and well thought through project. And with none of the technical and production errors which are depressingly common in this modern era of  egregious quality control.

Next: …Rarities…Well Done

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“Vienna” Gets Ultrabox After 40 Years As Synth Rock Touchstone [part 2]

ultravox vienna box cover art

six discs is a lot of ground to cover

[…continued from last post]

Let’s continue our examination by delving into disc one of the set; the 2020 remastering of “Vienna” from the original Conny Plank 2-track mixdown. We have already discussed what we think of the music. It’s a classic in our personal canon.What we want to know here is how the mastering of the disc stacks up against the history of the title. Fortunately, I have [as far as I know] every mastering of the title over the last 40 years. At the very least I have six, very differently mastered CDs that we’ll look at in some detail, with all important wave forms and spectral analysis graphs. Starting with the very first CD of the title.

MASTERING


1983

vienna 1983 mastering

The 1983 mastering is not very loud, but has a full dynamic range. Also, the master tape was only three years old. >click for detail<

The baseline 1983 1st remastering for CD is pretty tepid like any other title at the dawn on the CD era when engineers were flying by the seat of their pants and had not worked out just how best to master for this new and very different medium. The dynamic range is all there, but you must really be aggressive with the volume on your playback to get any impact out of it. It sounds thin and a bit brittle. But the album peaks at around -14 dB! So it doesn’t sound bad, just weak. There’s almost sibilance on the vocals…it’s right on the line.

1994

vienna 1994 mastering

The sound had new EQ and compression applied here for more kick. >click for detail<

chrysalis 25 edition of ViennaIn 1994 Chrysalis UK released a special series of 25 significant albums to celebrate the label’s 25th anniversary. These albums came in a unique and sturdy, Chrysalis blue longbox that was sealed with a silver sticker showing the album cover. The Chrysalis logo was embossed into the lid of the longbox. As an Ultravox geek with a policy of buying any Ultravox record that I saw [whether I needed it or not] I knew I had to mail order one of these. I was interested in hearing if the title had been remastered. The original I had for 9 years was really thin, as we saw earlier. The jewel box was solid blue plastic with a small sticker of the cover art on the front cover.

This edition had enhanced bass at the expense of some scant high frequency information that, if you’re my age, you weren’t hearing anyway! Overall, an improved and more balanced mastering. The drums sounded better and the EQ and moderate compression made for a more pleasing overall sound, more vibrant without being uncomfortable to listen to.  It peaks at around -9 dB. I heard what sounded like “cello” synths in the chorus for the first time of listening to “Passing Strangers” [the text track] with phones on. But there were still near-sibilant “esses” in the vocal.

2000

vienna 2000 mastering

The 1st DLX RM with bonus tracks had some hard hard limiting applied. >click for detail<

vienna 20th anniversary CDOuch! The first DLX RM of “Vienna” with B-sides [and the “Vienna” video in QuickTime format] was a budget line release in 2000 and the 20th Anniversary edition with a clear hype sticker. It was the best looking edition of “Vienna” yet. Extreme Voice designed the booklet with photos and full lyrics for the first time. But it’s not the best sounding edition of “Vienna!” Hard limiting has been applied to the sound and those drums are starting to sound like firecrackers. It is too harsh for headphone listening. The sound levels peak here at around -0.5dB. Vocals still showing signs of sibilance.

2008

vienna 2008 mastering

2xCD version with less compression but just as loud at 0 dB. >click for detail<

vienna 2008 mastering

In 2008 the “Definitive Editions” of the Ultravox canon were released in 2xCD sets in O-cards. These had the original album plus a bonus disc of supplemental material. Thorough. But ultimately even louder than the 2000 version, with peaks at 0 dB. Another harsh listen. The EQ here eliminated some of the low end that made the 2000 version more palatable. Mastering was by Steve Rooke @ Abbey Road. The first mastering engineer credited for the work here. I disrespect it when I end up buying DLX RMs for the previously unavailable material and the original album sounds like junk, which is why it’s good to keep your early mastered CDs. Especially in the last 20 years.

2020

vienna 2020 mastering

The Conny Plank mix in its latest mastering was an improvement. >click for detail<

Alchemy Mastering have finally given the music some room to breathe in 2020. Peak average hangs around -6dB and at no point do any peaks come remotely near clipping. More low end has been returned to the music, which for analog, electronic rock music, sounds right to me. The EQ selected had tamed the worst excesses of the sibilance on vocals. A glance at the spectral graph reveals that the high frequency info has been rolled off above 15K, but this was a step back in the right direction for this album. This or the 1994 mastering were the best you can hear of Conny Plank’s production of “Vienna.” But we aren’t finished yet.

2020 [Steven Wilson mix]

vienna stev wilson mix 2020

Steven Wilson’s mix has the best mastering you’ll probably hear for this album. >click for detail<

The Steven Wilson 2.0 mix had the most enjoyable mastering of the “Vienna” album out of all of the ones in my Record Cell. It was a warm, rich sounding mix with compression applied with the lightest of touches. Notice that the waveforms peak at about -6 dB, with even the highest peaks just at -3 dB. The wave as shown here has as much dynamic range as the first mastering, but with the added power that the 1983 mastering lacked. A look at the spectral analysis shows that all of the high frequency information that was lost to EQ settings on other masterings was fully present here. And since he had the multitrack to work with, Wilson has [thankfully] de-essed the sibilance. No longer to those consonants cut my ears like a digital knife.


So the history of “Vienna” in mastering for CD closely follows the overall history of mastering for CD at large. The initial, tentative steps to digital were unnecessarily meek at the hands of technicians who had spent their lives mastering for the very different beast of vinyl. The next wave of mastering hit an early peak while pretty much any mastering in the last 25 years could get very harsh as the dynamic range of digital music on CD was compressed down to a fraction of what the medium was capable of holding. And now, in 2020 the tide has turned back to sensible mastering techniques for the first time in a generation. Just in time for CDs to go away!

One thing I found very fascinating about the 1983 through 2008 masterings was that at the end of the track “Passing Strangers” there was strange noise at the end of the track after the music faded out with about noise and hum for about two seconds on each of the versions of that track. Some more pronounced than others, but none bereft of it. It came after the music faded out completely, so there’s no intrinsic reason why it had not been removed until Steven Wilson finally did it on his mix of “Passing Strangers.” I wonder if it was down to the gear/techniques that Plank had used on his mix of the album. And I wonder if it’s there on every track? To be found only with careful headphone listening?

Next: …Steven Wilson 2.0 Mix

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“Vienna” Gets Ultrabox After 40 Years As Synth Rock Touchstone [part 1]

ultravox vienna box cover art

six discs in a slipcase folio

This summer word spread that the fourth album by Ultravox; the one that made their fortune after years of being out of step with the commercial zeitgeist in their first incarnation with John Foxx leading the band, was reaching us in a six disc box which included the album reconfigured in 5.1 surround by Steven Wilson. I have a few SDLX boxes of cherished albums, but this album was one that I encountered in real time for an impact that was catalytic in my formation of musical taste. I loved synthesizers, but I also loved Rock Music. Here was the band that stood at the forefront of both things and had few peers at excelling on both ends of the sometimes mutually exclusive spectrum. After “Vienna” hit the stores in the summer of 1980, there was no shortage of bands dabbling in synthesizers. I maintain that many were already influenced by the previous Ultravox album, which was nothing less than a blueprint for the future development of rock. But many of them had nothing to do with rock music as they were content to plow the synthpop furrow.

PACKAGING


ultravox return to eden 10" cover artThe box was pre-ordered for a change and arrived a week ago. I’ve finally gotten a chance to examine the contents and did my first bit of headphone listening  [rare in my world] and am here to report on my findings. The packaging is sturdy and attractive. Rian Hughes, who designed the actually mind-boggling “Moments From Eden” CD/10″ from the band’s 2nd live tour of Europe in 2011 did the honors here. Hewing closely to the style already established for the album campaign.

The packaging was designed to be similar for the CD or LP packages of the title. Thankfully, This was not one of those “kitchen sink” boxes that made the fans buy both formats at once for max profit. The 4x LP on clear wax was separate from the CD/DVD package. Each version came in a 12′ x 12″ sturdy slipcase folio with room inside for two gatefold sleeves that held vinyl or CDs. In the case of CDs, the first gatefold featured the classic “Vienna” cover art and held the large 12″ x 12″ booklet of liner notes as well as an A4 sized envelope with facsimile contact sheets of photographer Brian Griffin’s proof sheets of the photos of the band members from his photo shoot.

brian griffin photos of ultravox

The photos were printed on glossy card stock to better approximate real contact sheets

The other side of the gate fold folio held the liner notes booklet. The booklet was 20 pages and had input from all of the band members, save for Chris [Allen] Cross, who was unavailable. As a therapist, he may have had other things on his plate this year! Midge Ure wrote the introduction page and in it he recognizes how much that Ultravox were, for all of their synthesizers, a rock band. This was certainly true. The booklet had comments from the band about the recording of many of the songs and I managed to get some new insights even after 40 years of fandom. For example, did you know that the false ending to “Private Lives” with a screeching fake ending was cribbed from a Steppenwolf record? Thus spake Billy Currie!

vienna box booklet

Why not click on this image to zoom in and read these pages?

The booklet also has full credits for the project, along with photos of the archival tape boxes and mixing notes from the album sessions showing the allotment of instrumentation to the channels. Photos from the Ure and Cross archives figured heavily here. The band were all heavily into photography, though Ure can’t remember ever seeing Currie with a camera in the notes.

foloi 2 gatefold outer cover vienna box

This gatefold held the 6 discs inside

The second gatefold folio had an alternate image to the original cover shot and opened to have a photo grid of the cover shot blown up to a matrix that was randomly in negative form, with six slots to accept the covers of the six discs that had been printed to make them blend into the photo image. Not what I was expecting from seeing the covers of the LP box with variations of the “Vienna” cover for each of the albums.

Vienna disc folio gatefold

Hmm… this sort of recalls the “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” grid look and feel

It’s interesting seeing the “Vienna” cover as a full sized gatefold piece after so many years having only the simple LP sleeve on the racks. The design made common use of the gatefold sleeves and hard slipcase no matter what the format; an efficient design. But this sort of precious keepsake packaging is not really compatible with my lifestyle. I can see myself making a fat 6xCD box for the discs on my racks with the packaging remaining on the racks where the 12″ vinyl lives. I’ve done that for things like the “English Electric” album by OMD and it makes the discs more easily at hand for me. But it is another thing to compulsively design; as if I don’t already have too many things that need my attention.

Next: …Remastering Roulette

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Record Review: The Vapors “Together” UK CD Melts Away The Years Between Albums Two And Three

vapors together cover art

Manmade Soul Ltd and The Vapors Own Records ‎| UK | CD | 2020 | VAPCD3

The Vapors: Together – UK – CD [2020]

  1. Together
  2. Crazy
  3. Sundown River
  4. Real Time
  5. Girl From The Factory
  6. I Don’t Remember
  7. In Babylon
  8. Letter to Hiro [no. 11]
  9. Wonderland
  10. Those Tears
  11. King L
  12. Nuclear Nights

We just reviewed an album by a band that had not released anything since 1990, but there are some bands with even longer legacies apart. I got a delightful surprise regarding The Vapors twice this year. First, when we got news of their new album; their first since 1981 and the demise that year of the band. Then, on my birthday, one of my presents from the stalwart Mr. Ware was a signed CD of said album! Playing this album immediately showed that the band had not let any of their skills atrophy during their years pursuing paths other than that of The Vapors.

As the jaunty title cut immediately made apparent. “Together” was a snappy confection of New Wave pop that took the long view on a lifetime together with a partner from the perspective of …right now. The kids are grown and the times have not been easy but at the end of it all they were still a pair. The lurching stop/start riff that moved this one along was abetted by the bass of Steve Smith and the poppy BVs.

The pre-release track, “Crazy” we’ve talked about before. It’s a driving bit of pop/rock built around a tight, repetitive guitar riff from Ed Bazalgette that was strongly redolent of The Flaming Groovies approach to power pop. Not surprisingly Bazalgette cited that band as one of his big influences on the band bio page on The Vapors website. It fairly leaps off of the track and I’d say that they nailed the feel of that band expertly here.

For a slower tempo change of pace, the sumptuous “Real Time” could hardly be bettered. The gently strummed rhythm guitars pulled us immediately into the song where David Fenton’s measured, low key vocal revealed the paradoxical power of restraint.  He’s barely singing here; practically reciting the lyric, but it all sounded like a smooth riding car in low gear moving effortlessly forward.

While the songs so far had touched upon real life concerns from a definitely adult perspective, the relationships depicted thus far were not as fatalistic as on the haunting “Girl From The Factory.” As Fenton recounted his last meeting with the subject of the song, the constant refrain of “she seemed all right” only served to undercut the terrible loss that had occurred since that fateful time. The details on the lyric were knowing and personal, as if they had been intimate experiences. The Bowie reference had the ring of truth.

“So I walked her home, we counted stars
And she said something ’bout life on Mars
But I didn’t know if she meant Bowie or not
Cos she really loved him a lot” – “Girl From The Factory”

The backing vocals and acoustic guitars lent it all an aura of folk music, which is what it was as it reported on a tragedy in song form. At the song’s end Fenton was even breaking down in sobs and they used that in the song.

The guitars this album had been all over the stylistic map. From the punky riffs of “Crazy” to acoustics on “Girl From The Factory” and now “I Don’t Remember” was drenched in wah-wah effects that were all new to The Vapors palette. There was a willingness to do whatever it took to get the songs across here, and while some staked out new territories others were call-backs to the early New Wave of their past.

“In Babylon” featured subtle synth percussion effects of the sorts that were used lightly on “Magnets” as opposed to the more orthodox “New Clear Days.” The lyrics were built for today with pithy proclamations like this one.

“But it’s the same old story
Someone’s singing our song
Land of hope and glory
For the rich and the strong” – “In Babylon”

It was certainly apparent that all of those years spent in law had not atrophied Fenton’s songwriting muscles any. He was always a thoughtful, mature songwriter for his age back then and time has not chipped away at his abilities any for the years spent away from music. “Those Tears” was as dignified and vulnerable a song of breakup and the hope of reconciliation as one could ever hope to hear. The driving rocker “King L” was on closer inspection, a fascinating [and surprising] tribute to the great Leonard Cohen; a now absent inspiration to songwriters everywhere. The Hank Marvin inspired solo from Bazalgette in the middle eight was quite tasty and a creative counterpoint to the otherwise urgent number. Fascinatingly, none of it sounded a whit like any Leonard Cohen song; making this a vivid and cliché-free tribute as well as a fantastic injection of adrenaline near the album’s end.


What a pleasure it was to hear The Vapors reconvene nearly 40 years later to make such engaging music that felt of a successful piece with their early work. And fans of “New Clear Days” and “Magnets” would find much to enjoy here. It helped that Fenton was always a strong songwriter with a mature outlook, as songs like “News At Ten” clearly showed ages ago. They had tried to reunite almost twenty years earlier, but the members were scattered far and wide back then. So it was second time lucky, with Steve Smith, Ed Bazalgette, and David Fenton able to pick up their instruments in 2016. Original drummer Howard Smith was a new father in 2016, so drums were the province of Michael Bowes this time. Fenton’s son Daniel also contributed [and fills in live when Bazalgette is off directing]. The production was by Steve Levine and almost all I’d ever heard from him were the tepid Culture Club hits, but a look at his CV on Discogs revealed that he produced a couple of tracks on The Creatures brilliant “Anima Animus!”  The sound here was warm, simple and direct, with scant technological filigree getting in the way of the songs and performances. It sounded like music, not software. The mastering by Tony Cousins was excellent with light compression giving a little punch while keeping the dynamic range open.

The Vapors were poised to continue on their live promotion when the album was released and the band had set up a 40th anniversary tour for “New Clear Days” but that’s pushed out until next year at this time; which feels a bit optimistic at this point, in all candor.

‘New Clear Days’ 40th 41st Anniversary Tour | UK | 2021

1 Oct | Club Academy, Manchester
2 Oct | Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
15 Oct | Under The Bridge, London
16 Oct | Patterns, Brighton
21 Oct | The Cluny, Newcastle
22 Oct | Oran Mor, Glasgow
23 Oct | Liquid Room, Edinburgh
29 Oct | Thekla, Bristol

Given that 2020 has not seen the band caught up in a whirlwind of touring and promotion, we can take solace in the news that David Fenton has instead found the time ideal for writing some more songs. We can hope that there might be an album #4 one day.

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Record Review: It’s Immaterial Album Shimmers After Almost 30 Years Tucked Away In A Closet [part 3]

whitehead + campbell

L-R: Whitehead + Campbell ©2020 Moira Kenney

[…continued from last post]

We just reviewed an album with a song titled “Tell Me Why” and here’s another one already in our queue. The songs could not be more different. Only the ubiquitous early 90s shuffle beat points back to this song’s origins. The abstract synths gently pulling us into the song were out of the Callum Malcolm playbook and redolent of the sound he brought as producer to The Blue Nile. But the matter-of-fact, conversational tone of John Campbell was always a very different kettle of fish to the more heart wrenching approach of Paul Buchanan. But a listen to the lyrics here showed that though his manner and delivery differed from Buchanan, his words were recounting a time when “you heart stays out all night” and aiming to repair the damage from a straying. The big difference came down to the reserve that Campbell brought to the mic.

“Up On The Roof” was a heartfelt song of remembrance with a rare hint of electric guitar on an album that was primarily acoustic among the delicate washes of synths. The band made a rare call back to their signature song with “The Gift Of Rain” sporting the most urgent and mototik beat here, as Campbell recounted a car journey of a fundamentally different kind to the one in “Driving Away From Home.” The chorus here even paid heed to the differences between the songs.

“Sweet journey home
Along the northern highways
Sweet memories carry me home” – “The Gift Of Rain”

The tentative piano notes that began “I Can’t Sleep” were a perfect evocation of tapping your partner on the shoulder as Campbell said “wake up… wake up, Francine.” Relating how the heat in that night put the notion of a night’s sleep off the table. No, this was the time for a swim to cool down. The sustained string patches suspended time as the ambient harmonics took the song off of the pop path to something a little more abstract. Sounding much like the acoustics beneath the pier at the song’s Jackson Sound. The song was as much an environmental as an emotional portrait and the breakdown in the coda seemed to want to go on forever… until the song surprised with a quick fade.

More motorik  rhythmic urgency was found on “In My Dreams” along with subtle, jazzy, acoustic guitar licks. The swelling sustained string chords were a perfect evocation of the rising sun of the song’s chorus. The shimmering synths leading into the chorus added just the right amount of necessary tension to the ultimately languid vibe of the song.

The closing “How Can I Tell You” presented a scenario that seemed like an admission of guilt for a wrong committed that the French woman [Moira Kenney] on the phone with the singer had no knowledge of yet. She interjected “what have you done?” in French throughout the song as a spoken interlude and rhythmic device. As the song progressed, the mention of a promise broken by the call itself advanced to protestations of innocence and a de-escalation of the unnamed action to something less than a sin. Ultimately, the singer rationalized their action by repeating that they only ever did it once on the outro. Having sought confession, they were ready to move on as the french horn synths in the outro brought the gentle song to its closure.


I found it interesting that these songs from the early 90s were unfinished, which leads me to suspect that all of the vocals here were recent for a consistent tone. The band had their work cut out to find a way to get the [obsolete] tapes from almost 30 years ago read successfully. I suspect that had this been finished by 1993, the result would have been closer to a seamless continuation of the vibe the band was exploring on “Song.” By linking up with original producer Callum Malcolm [who accompanied Whitehead and Campbell] and recording in Castlesound Studio, that meant that the sonic footprint of the album adhered close to the imperial Blue Nile sound.

Of course, feel is one thing. It’s Immaterial approached the emotional content of their music in a very different way to The Blue Nile. The band proffered a more dryly dispassionate, conversational tone to their music that was intimate without the more grandiose tone that Paul Buchanan aimed for. But the overriding factor that I feel had the biggest effect on this album, was the fact that it was re-worked and finished contemporaneously. This allowed the band to reflect their current headspace, and it made for an album that was ultimately a half-step away from the vibe on “Song.”

“House For Sale” was a slightly poppier, less abstract album, where the gentle, mid tempo songs and performances could nestle close to the sort of vibe that China Crisis also explored. In that context, especially with Gary Daly inviting Mr. Campbell to perform on his recent solo album, and with the appearance here of CC’s engineer Mark Pythian,  any similarities to that other Liverpudlian band were heightened here,  but ultimately, the emotional tone here was more shadowy and nuanced. Lacking the winsome quality that Mr. Daly usually brought to the music of China Crisis.

The new sessions recorded contemporaneously in Liverpool at Elevator Studios and engineered by Tom Roach were ultimately produced by the band. Bringing a 90s state of mind into the present for a mixed approach. I wonder if the lyrics were even written 30 years ago. Even if they were, I can imagine the accumulated weight of half a lifetime lived since then would inevitably lead to changes. Possibly drastic ones.

If you’ve ever been captured by the gentle, introverted pull of this band then I strongly recommend bringing any ardor for their unique musical presence up to date with a purchase of their third album, which has taken a long, and circuitous path to reach our grateful, 2020 ears. I can hope that there might be another album in the offering in less than half a lifetime from this compelling duo.

post-punk monk buy button

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Record Review: It’s Immaterial Album Shimmers After Almost 30 Years Tucked Away In A Closet [part 2]

it's immaterial - house for salew cover art

It’s Immaterial | UK | CD | 2020 | IICD001

It’s Immaterial: House For Sale – UK – CD [2020]

  1. Summer Rain
  2. Kind Words
  3. Just North of here
  4. Downriver
  5. Tell Me Why
  6. Up On The Roof
  7. The Gift Of Rain
  8. I Can’t Sleep
  9. In My Dreams
  10. How Can I Tell You

[…continued from last post]
The evanescent beauty of “Summer Rain” started the album on a wistful note with a rising string patch under which the crystalline synth loops replicated the feel of rain itself. The spacious vibe that Callum Malcolm dealt in was present in all of these songs. With airy arrangements that never overpowered, except through subtlety. Almost below the threshold of perception were curiously funky synth figures if we listened carefully. Long time China Crisis stalwart Mark Pythian guested here on keys and the vibe would not be out of place for those of a China Crisis persuasion. The subtle acoustic guitar got a chance to have some spotlight in the middle eight on this song of delicate remembrance.

“Kind Words” was a sly samba that proffered vocalist John Campbell in a surprising Lothario role singing a duet of embittered romantic fallout with Eva Peterson as the wronged woman [left with two kids] who upbraids the evasive Campbell role as he swings by [probably not in the best of intentions] to see what he can get away with as the lady sends him packing in spite of his perfunctory overtures of recompense. A surprising “too little, too late” scenario of a heel’s comeuppance for this normally prosaic band.

jarvis whtehead + john campbell

Jarvis Whtehead + John Campbell

Then the album delivered a quintessential It’s Immaterial moment for the third song. “Just North of Here” began with scintillating strings and a tentative piano before the gentle rhythms began and Mr. Campbell dropped the listeners into a potentially dangerous scenario with agitated strangers [possibly given to fits] in a restaurant asking unanswerable, metaphysical questions. Specifically, “where’s heaven?”

Campbells’ classic matter-of-fact delivery was the sort of conversational, intimate performance that no one did better than this band. I loved how the narrator’s relating of this surprising event led to his extended reverie about a fishing trip where, indeed, he  found as close to heaven as he’d ever known; the possible street person he had encountered in the restaurant now forgotten. A red herring of a song opening gambit as he waxed further eloquent on the wonder of that fishing trip that had, in retrospect, made such an impression on the narrator.

The gentle rhythm under the sustained strings and a three note sampled string hook. The song formed was a Mobius loop of longing and beauty that gently pulled the listener in to calm and reassure them that heaven was indeed attainable, if we opened ourselves to the possibilities. By the song’s end, the narrator was ready to leave the restaurant, put his boots on, and go north of town and just disappear…with the last word repeated twice on the fade out.

The abstract synth that sounded like a sampled horn, given an envelope that altered it’s attack and decay considerably, was a continual presence in the epic “Downriver.” The subtle beat of a tom hit and finger snaps grounded the verse structure of the song. The chorus had the tempo matched by a completely different rhythm programming as the song seemed to be woven from two different takes of the same song. The EQ and vibe of the verse being more spacious and abstract, with the chorus structure sounding more compressed. The deep synth bass that occasionally figured in the deep end of this river was eventually outlasted by that almost random sampled horn synth pulling us through the song gently.

Next: …Sleepless Nights + Yet More Rain

 

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