Ultravox – Brilliant | 2012 – 1
To quote Han Solo from Star Wars, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Ultravox Mk II reforming for a tour? Fine! Sign me up. Make a new album after not just water, but practically oceans under the bridge? Uh, not so fast. The fly in the ointment was the evidence on hand from the solo career of singer Midge Ure. His first solo album, released before Ultravox even broke up was a hit or miss affair consisting of faux-vox at best and pure sap at worst. His second [“Answers To Nothing”] was a thematically coherent piece that unfortunately, didn’t amount to much. The third [“Pure”] was a severe embarrassment of faux-Irish drivel. “Breathe,” the fourth album was an improvement on the third, but still, nothing to write home about. Even taking into account a rare-by-this-time Robert Fripp guest guitar. I only bothered with getting his fifth [“Move Me”] years after it was released, and it was pretty lackluster. Only the surprisingly vital instrumental “Monster” was up to snuff.
Around 1985 I realized that Midge Ure was not going to be the shining light that he was in my musical universe from 1980 to roughly 1984. The cold light of day began to color my view of his talents and really, his last quarter century of work meant very little to me. So he called the old gang together. What reason would I have to believe that the result of their labors would be worth my $16.00 when his solo work had so clearly not been? Thus the nagging apprehension that this new album, when it materialized would be a big letdown. When the title and cover were unveiled, the clouds on the horizon darkened a little more. It took a lot of hubris to call an album “Brilliant,” especially when the last time these guys [minus Cann] wrote an album, the results were catastrophic. When the CD arrived two weeks ago I put it in my CD player and drove to the gym.
The opening cut, “Live” came one and I was surprised to hear a track that would have made the cut on “Quartet.” Not their strongest album, but its weaknesses lie more in the area of production than songwriting. Truth be told, I was optimistically hoping that this album might reach the quality level of “Quartet” or perhaps “Ingenuity,” and this song was almost exceeding my highest level of expectation. The middle eight, however was clumsy and leaden. Still, it didn’t diminish the strength of the rest of the song too much. This was clearly an Ultravox song, not a Midge Ure solo track, thankfully.
The second song was “Flow” and it had some nice synth flourishes in the intro that touched [however lightly] on EBM sounds. Ure was in fine voice here even if the lyrics were his typical dish of self-analytical balderdash. The tremolo effects on the guitar solo in the middle eight were a new sound for Ultravox and I liked the end result quite a bit, actually. One of the highlights of this track is Billy Currie’s solo on the fadeout. I always love it when a hot solo is located in a fadeout groove. It speaks of the band’s confidence that they consider it a throwaway, implying greater thrills ahead. I was shocked by this point of the album. Would it shatter my admittedly low level of expectation?
I’d read reactions online to the first single, “Brilliant,” and scuttlebutt had been mixed on the results, largely down to people scratching their heads over Ure’s delivery on this number. Let’s see. It begins with a peppy, syncopated pop bounce alien to Ultravox, but catchy enough on its own. Then, Ure begins singing. This is not your father’s Midge Ure, to put it mildly! He sings in a thin, emaciated voice I’ve never heard from him before. He sounds like his vocal was recorded curled up in a shipping crate… in the next room… while he was nursing a hernia!! What in the hell was he thinking? Why was he singing in this horribly new vocal style?! His vocal performance scuttles the entire number with its distancing effect. It’s a catchy enough tune but I really didn’t want to hear this singing. This is the last thing I would have imagined hearing following his triumphant vocals on their 2009 concerts as evidenced on “Return To Eden.”
The fourth track was “Change.” I was shocked to hear something this dull, methodical, and plodding after the first three, decently paced numbers. Worse still, Ure chose to deliver his poor lyrics, again, as if he were curled up in a fetal position whilst passing a kidney stone. The monotonous rhythm track sounded like a drum machine hitting 72 BPM in a 4/4 beat with while slathered with lots of wet reverb. The song seemed far longer than its 4:31 running time.
In the nick of time the next song, “Rise” is segued into “Change’s” outro. The song actually has a spark of life that has been missing for the last two songs, surprisingly. The sequenced synths reveal a bit of a Giorgio Moroder influence for the first time with this band and the result is the beginnings of a new branch on the Ultravox tree. The arrangement alone is good enough to overcome Ure’s mediocre lyrics. Unfortunately, he persists on ruining this song on the middle eight with the return of what I’m going to call “The Gnome” from here on out. The way he’s overusing this vocal delivery suggests that he thinks this is his ace in the hole, vocally. He couldn’t be more wrong. Fortunately, Billy Currie tries to save the day afterward with a vintage Vox synth solo on the ARP [or its digital equivalent], but it’s almost too late to overcome the bad feelings that Ure’s vocals are casting over this album like a pall of industrial smog.
Another segue [well, they worked on “Vienna” and “Rage In Eden”] brings the turgid piano ballad “Remembering.” It’s the shortest track on the album, but you won’t notice that. It’s followed by “Hello,” a dreaded mid-tempo number wherin Ure’s vocals are in his normal range for a change. But his vocals are so heavily processed they begin to reek of American cheese. The album, by this time, is falling fatally, on the weakness of both Ure’s vocal stylings and the recording/mixing of same.
The production applied to his singing by the band with co-producer Stephen Lipson, apparently suggests that they haven’t run across a plug-in effect that they didn’t like! This same thing had happened on the last of his solo albums I’d heard [“Move Me”] with all of his vocals being covered with various filters that have an emotionally distancing effect that renders the end result sterile and ineffectual. In the last decade, I’ve come to usually dislike reliance on such tools. I find them to be creative crutches. The project seemed to be crashing and burning. Could the band manage to salvage this album in its second half?
…To Be Continued…and hopefully concluded!