Ultravox – Quartet | 1982 – 3
The next Ultravox album was slotted into Chrysalis UK’s Christmas season schedule; the band had hit the big time. I picked up my import copy of “Quartet” in December of 1982 and was surprised to see a new name in the producer’s chair. George Martin and his crack engineer Geoff Emerick were drafted in to perhaps do something about America’s resistance to the charms of Ultravox. When the band signed with Chrysalis back in 1980, the reason why they were intrigued by Chrysalis, was that the label had a US division and they saw that as a foot in the door to possibly selling nice numbers of records to the larger American marketplace. When this had not happened in spite of their cracking other markets around the world, one gets the impression that men in suits behind closed doors might have been responsible for bringing in Martin, who couldn’t have been cheap.
As the album opens, one is immediately struck by huge sonic changes in the program. First of all, “Quartet” was the first of the band’s albums to be digitally mastered, according to its liner notes. But the mastering suite was not the only place where digital technology reared its shiny head. This album saw a huge sea change in the band’s synthesizers as newly emergent digital synths displaced much of their analog gear. All of this digital gear plus the new MIDI standard made their performing lives a bit easier but the toll taken on their sound is considerable, as we shall hear.
Artistically, this album is a half-step away from the now-traditional Ultravox high-tech, atmospheric New Romantic sound. This is apparent with the album’s opener, the congenial single “Reap The Wild Wind.” It’s refrain of “you take my hand and give me your friendship, I’ll take my time and sell you my slow reply” is a worlds lighter and more approachable than the band who had just released something called “I Remember [Death In The Afternoon]” a year earlier. The general feeling of airiness is compounded by the more brightly regimented production which seeks to strive for a crisp clarity that does this band no favors. The thin sound strips away the melodrama that was this lineup of Ultravox’s stock in trade.
For all of the experiments towards a new paradigm forward, as represented by “Reap The Wild Wind,” there are three half-steps away from the old dark intensity that came to a head on their last album. “Serenade,” “Mine For Life,” Visions In Blue,” “When The Scream Subsides,” and “Cut And Run” could have been songs left over from the “Rage In Eden” sessions, if there had been any [we know this to not be the case]. They fit the overall Ultravox style of darkly, introverted Eurosynth anthems that deal with anxious emotional states; New Romanticism, in other words.
“Mine For Life” comes off well for having some emotionally charged Ure guitar licks to give it some heft among all of the cotton candy synths. For his part, Warren Cann’s drums are the most reliable signifier of Ultravox on this album. He’s working acoustic as well as Simmons drums here but he’s still on his motorik kick and offers up intensely propulsive rhythms that get no help from the usually reliable synths in this program.
The single “Hymn” is a stab at the overblown melodrama of a “Vienna” but with the sonic palette having had almost all shadow removed, it fights a losing battle. Much better is the third single and opener of side two, “Visions In Blue.” This is the one track here that actually sounds like Ultravox. The pretentious grandeur of the lyrics are for once matched by the depth of sound emanating from the speakers. The result is a track that sounds almost good enough to have been slotted into the preceding “Rage In Eden.”
It’s telling that the only, unrestrained, honest-to-goodness Billy Currie pitch-bending solo is relegated to a single track, “When The Scream Subsides.” The digital synths he’s using here are far too restrictive in their 12 bit complexity. And one must strain tremendously to hear the spartan appliance of Currie’s viola skills to the album. I’ve been listening to this album for 30 years now and I just heard the viola pop up in one track today after careful fiddling without the EQ to see if I could make this album sound any better!
The fourth single, “We Came To Dance” sounds for all the world like a Visage track that got out of its cage and wandered over to Ultravox’s studio by mistake. The pastel washes of digital synths would never be mistaken for anything on the first two Visage albums, though! Much better is the album’s closer, which sees the band moving into a newer upbeat territory, albeit with all of their Art Deco pretensions intact. “The Song [We Go]” is carried on a relentless drumbeat pattern and rhythm bed that when mated to the wistful Midge Ure “da-da, da-da, da-da-da-da-da-da-dum” intro vocal melody, which sounds so good, I’m always cranking the intro up to hear it better. It has an exhilarating and expansive feel which harkens back to “I Can’t Stay Long” from the Mark I period as well as presages the similarly upbeat “Love’s Great Adventure” single of 1984. It brings the tepid album to something approximating a rousing finish.
This was a problematic release for the band in that they lost a lot of their sound due to production choices made to follow the new digital gear forward even if much of it was first generation and not much up to snuff against the mature, analog gear they previously used. And then George Martin certainly produced with an ear for precision and clarity that did this band no favors. The one factor here that more or less maintains the now established Ultravox standard is the songwriting, which, as I stated, isn’t too far removed from that which appeared on their previous record. If the move to Martin were made with an eye towards The States, it’s telling that “Reap The Wild Wind” might be the only song the band were known for here. Their one single that actually managed to climb to #71 on the US Billboard charts. The ploy worked, just not well enough to ultimately matter very much.
In closing, “Quartet” brings a close the New Romantic chapter of the band, which by now, was looking a little long in tooth. Just about all of that ennui and angst had been wrung out of the tea towel by now, leaving very little sauce left for future waxings. In 1980 heavily synthesized rock with coolly cinematic lyrics, ripe for posing in chic clubs playing European-sounding dance music was cutting edge. By 1982 it was rapidly reaching its sell-by date. For better or worse, the “big music” trend of U2 was the up and coming sound and guitars and “rocking out” would be seen as a good thing for the first time in over five years as the pendulum of music fashion was preparing to swing back. Where would that leave Ultravox, who predicated the swing away in the first place?
Next: A temporary stopgap measure…