Oh, I’ve been an Ultravox fan since I was in knee pants. I finally heard them when seeing their video for “Passing Strangers” in the Fall of 1980. I managed to track down a copy of “Vienna” painful weeks later and instantly had a new favorite band. I back tracked to the early albums that predated “Vienna” and was even more amazed at their insanely prescient origins They were always far ahead of the zeitgeist, but by 1981, it finally synchronized with their musical values and the band reaped the wild financial benefit. They were a consistently successful group until losing drummer Warren Cann in a fit of pique in 1985.
Following the loss of Cann, the rest of the band soldiered on with a singer who had just come off of a number one solo single with his sappy, tooth-grating hit “If I Was.”If saner heads had prevailed, the band would have called it quits right there. Instead, the albatross of the album “UVOX” was released to much gastric distress among Ultravox fans. The band called it a day following this anticlimax and Midge Ure pressed forward with his solo career of diminishing returns. By the new millennium, he was hitting the nostalgia festival circuit.
Billy Currie took a different path. He released solo albums, the first of which, was almost as good as an Ultravox album. Though instrumental, he teamed with ex-Yes guitarist Steve Howe and the godlike Derek Forbes [ex-Simple Minds] on bass to wonderful effect. He then lobbied for the rights to the Ultravox name. At first he was not successful, so he developed a group he called Humania. They released a single album decades after disbanding.
The band featured vocals by Marcus O’Higgins, who sounded not a million miles away from Marion Gold of Alphaville. Of special note was the presence of “Systems Of Romance” era guitarist Robin Simon on lead guitar. Not surprisingly, the album sounds great, and its only weakness is the fact that it was drawn from demos and live recordings and not a “proper” album. The band covered two Ultravox songs in their repertoire; “Lament” and “I Can’t Stay Long.” Never the less, for what it is, it still blows Midge Ure’s solo career out of the water for me.
By 1992, Currie managed to snag the name and formed two different Ultravox lineups. The first featured Currie with vocalist Tony Fenelle, resulting in the “Revelation” album of 1993.
Fenelle was a very slick singer who tended to overemote, resulting in a record that resembles Ultravox at their most grandiolquent. Of course, with Currie on synths, it still offers something.
No one was more shocked than I when the next year brought yet another new “Ultravox” record for yet another German record company with an all-new lineup! This time, Currie had a real band formed, which helped the vibe and vocalist Sam Blue reminded me of King Crimson’s John Wetton.
The resulting album is genuinely good with some material rubbing shoulders with Ultravox’s finest moments. Another live album featuring this lineup later, and Currie pressed on alone with solo keyboard/viola records of varying but largely fine quality. Of the other two members, nothing musical was heard. Warren Cann moved to Los Angeles and began an intermittent acting career. Chris Cross became a psychotherapist.
It was the band’s manager who rang them up in 2008 and suggested that the time was ripe to bury any hatchets and reform. At least they are candid about this! They convened for two successful tours in 2009 and 2010. They released a live 2xCD/DVD from the 2009 Roundhouse show that proved that, yes, they could still rock for old geezers. Their distinctive high-tech rock sound, of which they were definitely progenitors, still sounded great. Midge lost a few high notes but is a much smarter, more powerful singer than the youngster on those records. A subsequent live EP from the second tour holds some sort of record as the most elaborate packaging possible for a musical release. The elephant in the room began to assert itself. Would they record new material again? Do I really need to answer that?
The press release was sent to the Ultravox mailing list a week or so ago. The new album is called “Brilliant” and is due for release on EMI on May 28th. Here is the track listing:
- Live Again
- The Change
- This One
- Let It Lie
I have to admit that I’m non-plussed by the title. “Brilliant” seems a tad too close to hubris for comfort and all of the titles on view here seem like song titles that were on the Currie or Ure post-classic Ultravox albums. Nothing here sounds like it could sit on a shelf next to a loaded title like “[I Remember] Death In The Afternoon.” I’ve read scuttlebutt on various forums where people are expecting another “Rage In Eden.” I have to say: don’t hold your breath. Not only can that never happen again, but the band would never allow it to happen! The making of that album nearly did the band in! Plus, Conny Plank is sadly, long gone. They will never sound that good again.
I’m afraid of more music sounding like Midge Ure’s solo career. If we’re lucky, this album will be as good an outing as the last Simple Minds album. Solid material performed very well that hints tantalizingly at their former glories while not slavishly attempting to clone them. The high end of my expectation is something sounding somewhere between “Quartet” and “Lament” with some of “Ingenuity” factored into the mix. If we’re very lucky, it will be as good as most of the material on the last OMD album, worthy of approaching their best material, but like the last OMD album, I expect to hear digital simulations of their classic synths. They’re spoiled by digital convenience and probably won’t revert to analog synthesis. More’s the pity, because the last year’s yield of John Foxx + The Maths material can’t help but be a point of comparison with any new Ultravox material. And this is a fact; any new Ultravox will be judged wanting next to that benchmark! Ultravox can be very, very good indeed, but Foxx + The Maths are mystical and are blazing trails to be followed and explored for the next 30 years. Join us in two months to see where the cards lie.
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