Ultravox – Return To Eden | 2010 – 3.5
Following the ignominious end of Ultravox Mk II in 1988 after the disastrous “UVOX” album and tour, it was not seen as a given that the four members would ever work together again. After all, Warren Cann had been drummed out of the group by Ure with the complicit approval of Cross and Currie. Nevertheless, in Ure’s autobiography, “If I Was,” published in 2004, he expressed strong contrition over his handling of the issues that led to Cann’s sacking with no little amount of regret for the whole event. When the band resurfaced in 2009 at the behest of their manager, who suggested that the market was ripe for a burying of the hatchet, the idea was to do a retro tour, no doubt adding luster to the manager’s bottom line. Ure probably had to eat a king-sized stuffed crow in the presence of Cann, who had no contact with him in the intervening years.
But in 2009 they mounted the “Return To Eden” tour in the UK which looked like a success on its terms. The show at The Roundhouse was recorded for posterity and released as a deluxe CD/DVD package that was lots of fun for those fans not in the UK who didn’t attend but might have been interested. The set was the first full length Ultravox Mk II live album ever released, and when I say full-length, I mean just that. The whole concert is spread over two CDs. The program is heavily tilted in favor of the “Vienna” and “Rage In Eden” albums, which can’t be a bad thing, where Ultravox Mk II are concerned!
The show began with “Astradyne” and I was impressed to hear that the show had been recorded and mixed “warts and all” since keyboardist Billy Currie obviously lost the plot by the point of his piano solo and rescued the fluffed solo by repeating a bar to fill the measure! He may cringe now, but as I say, the blunt honesty of the record of performance I found to be endearing. Apart from Currie’s gaffe, the playing of all concerned was just fine. This was what most remember as Ultravox.
The biggest change that the band evidences, apart from the obvious reliance on soft synths, was that Ure’s vocals had gained immensely in power and control as compared to his youthful years. True, he lost some of his high end with age – that’s going to happen, but the manner in which he compensated made his singing better than ever, in my opinion. It’s not known whether he had professional training or it may have simply been the college of life experience; whatever the case, his vocals pretty much erased the memories of any previous live recordings that you may have heard.
One curious programming decision was made on disc one that had me scratching my head. “I Remember [Death In The Afternoon]” immediately precedes the song “Rage In Eden!” Anyone familiar with the album would never think to have the running order reversed like that, particularly since on record, the songs are linked by an elaborate segue, which should certainly be possible in this modern digital age. For whatever the reason, the end result is jarring, but if they were looking to shake up audience expectations, it worked.
A highlight of disc two is the always bracing “All Stood Still.” This is, after 32 years, creeping into the pole position of my favorite song from “Vienna.” The tune’s visceral, gutwrenching impact has never sounded as vehement as it does here, where it sounds like it could abrade concrete. The interplay between Ure’s guitar and Currie’s synths is simply full-on and Ure’s vocals blow the song wide open. He sounds like he really means it!
Following that track with the minimal “Your Name [Has Slipped My Mind Again]” represents almost too much of a whiplash of pacing and tempo, but when the percussive heartbeat of the latter resolves itself into the distinctive intro to “Vienna” all is forgiven. This is brilliant sequencing, arrangement and pacing.
That their biggest hit arrives at the 70% mark of the concert means that the rest of their best selling singles follow in rapid succession: “Reap The Wild Wind,” “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” and the kitschy “Hymn” close the show but there’s still the encore. “Sleepwalk” was wisely withheld to add velocity to the close of the show. This track was their “Judas Priest On Synths” Chrysalis debut single from 1980 and the pacing adds zest to the program’s close, but not as much as the real finale.
They close with their classic live arrangement of “The Voice” where Ure, Currie, and Cross join Cann on a drum movement coda to the number following Currie’s solo on the song’s outro. It’s the same thing they did on the “Quartet” tour and if they hadn’t resurrected that on these shows, there might have been rioting by the normally staid ‘Vox fans in attendance. By the show’s end, Ure’s voice is starting to get a little ragged, but the show did sound great. This band knows how to cook on their style of high-tech, rock music with a great blend of atmosphere and aggression by turns. That they had not played together for over twice as long as they had [apart from Ure – who joined in 1980] makes their achievement somewhat considerable. The end result is the definitive live Ultravox album with an added bonus of Ure’s best vocals ever. The DVD was icing on the cake, especially since it is the only way to hear Ultravox in 5.1 surround sound.
But the devil in the details would be any new music the group attempted going forward. In 2009, this was not a given, but when considering the success of these 2009 shows, in addition to the 2010 European tour the band undertook, it didn’t take a clairvoyant to see where this was heading. There would be a new Ultravox album at some point and when it was announced in Januray of 2011, it was all but a fait accompli. I took this news with gravity. It’s one thing to reunite and play the oldies. Even this well. Still, it’s quite another when you have a apparition like “UVOX” lingering on this mortal coil, repelling all with its stench. Whatever the band attempted, it would be the final brick in their lasting legacy, and should not be undertaken lightly.
Finally: …They dared to call it ‘Brilliant”