Rock GPA: Ultravox – Brilliant [part 13]

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. “Pure,” the fourth album was an improvement on the third, but still, nothing to write home about. 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 wherein 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!

About postpunkmonk

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7 Responses to Rock GPA: Ultravox – Brilliant [part 13]

  1. zoo says:

    Monk, I noticed you lowered your score from 1.5 earlier to day to the current 1. That’s a bad sign.

    Well, I heard the “Brilliant” track before I heard anything from the Return to Eden live album, and concerning Midge’s vocals, I thought that’s just how he sounds no (i.e., no power). Having read your review of the live album, I listened to it on Spotify and heard what you’re talking about…he sounds great. So, I concur with you…the singing on “Brillant” is pretty bad. I would probably rate the album a 2 overall. It sounds great, even if many of the songs are lacking.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      zoo – Yes, as I have been listening repeatedly to “Brilliant” I had to downgrade it since it actually makes me angry to hear it. That’s the worst sign of all. And Midge can sing, very well these days. Like Bartelby, “he’d prefer not to.”

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Zoo – Your guess is as good as mine why he thought that his straining voice performance was so good that he employed throughout the album.

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  2. Echorich says:

    I’m gonna stick with ya through to “side two” here… As far as the first half of the album I agree that Rise is the stand out – I am amazed at your Moroder cue! I thought the same thing!! And I have ALWAYS thought Ultravox missed out on working with the maestro…He even made some magic with Heaven 17 back in 97 with their Designing Heaven single. German Disco is the bastard child of Krautrock (please hold back the stick and stones…) I actually like Live quite a lot. Warren Cann batters away at the drums and everyone sounds ready to get things underway…I just wish the rest of the first half was just as energetic. Where Live bring back some Quartet feel, Flow is reminicent of Lament in feeling and Ure’s delivery. Currie excels on Flow.
    I honestly thought that someone else was singing on the opening of Brilliant, and then “If I Was” Midge showed up…ugh. I think they need to release an instrumental version of Brilliant so I can enjoy the music with out the failed vocal. Change is a bit sad. I hear a really good idea in the repitition, but it’s not fleshed out and Midge’s thin vocals, which I think might be tripled for effect on the end of some lines of verse, let the side down. Finally Remembering soundslike Ultravox trying too hard to recapture their prior emotional strength rather than finding some better, age informed strength.
    I know they used some new recording process on this album…there are all sorts of vids out there with the band discussing it. I think this helped them get some of the more retro sounds from the synth lines, but it may have been used with a heavier hand than necessary in other areas.
    Another issue I have is with the choice of Stephen Lipson…or as I like to call him, Faux Horn. This goes back to my personal issues with the disemboweling of ABC on Beauty Stab, but I think Lipson is the guy you get when Trevor Horn has said no. Problem is he just isn’t Trevor Horn.
    Side One… I’d give it 2.0 for “side one” only because anything less means they shouldn’t have even “sat for the test” and I can’t say I would have wanted that either.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – You are absolutely correct that Münich Disco is the bastard child of Krautrock. Total agreement! It’s all motorik, baby!

      Re, instrumental version of the album. I wouldn’t be adverse to a really good remixer making it over. Perhaps using discarded vocal takes [hint, hint]. It could take this up to a 3-star album. The potential is there. Rusty Egan to the rescue!!!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Great commentary! I agree with your 2.0 for side one, idea. Fair enough with two, decent tracks and two partially decent cuts. Only the interminable “Change” and the dreary “Remembering” are write offs.

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  3. Thanks for the heads up on this Herr Monk. I didn’t even know a new record was out there and looks like being in Oz sometimes has its benefits LOL.

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