Rock GPA: Ultravox – Brilliant [part 14]

Ultravox – Brilliant | 2012 – 1

[…continued from yesterday]

The album continues with the track “One,” but you’ll probably wish it hadn’t! It begins with an atmosphere so still, you’ll be checking your own pulse just to make sure you hadn’t expired by accident! Ure’s vocals are heavily filtered on a shortwave radio in the next room as after a full minute, the song’s plodding beat begins. It’s sheer Chinese-water torture to accompany The Gnome’s lead vocals. So leaden is the pace that you’ll never believe it only 4:43! Did I say that “Stranger Within” starts to drag around the five minute mark? Slap my wrists! What I wouldn’t give for an injection of that right about now! To hear this poor excuse for a song is to know what it’s like to slip into a coma.

Then with track nine, the killing blow was struck. The album, which had teetered at the precipice for over a half an hour, edging closer here, backing up there… finally fell gracelessly off of the cliff right then and there and hit the rocks below once “Fall” got underway. Not a pretty sight. This was without a doubt the most dire and tuneless thing that not only Ultravox but also Midge Ure under his own name, had ever conspired to release! You know you are in for a bad time when yet another plodding, lumbering track [enough reason for bruxism right there]  dared to feature a hook that was in the words of Eno “a dismal, pathetic chord sequence!”

It was a descending series of guitar chords, not unlike the one that had distinguished “Moon Madness” on “UVOX.” That it appeared once was a tragedy. That Ure had determined that it was hook worthy and as such, is repeated throughout the song, indicated a lack of intelligence and objectivity on his part. That the rest of the group let him get away with this was proof that this enterprise was doomed from the start.

The next cut, “Lie” is the single bright spot on side two. Like Ultravox you grew up with, it features good sounding, reasonable singing from Ure. The Gnome is nowhere to be heard this time. The tune wouldn’t make you forget the glory of “Vienna,” but amid the fiascos that surround it, it’s enough to make it seem like a “Systems Of Romance” outtake in comparison! Even still, it’s saddled with a dreadful, unimaginative middle eight, like virtually every song on this album, that really indicates large problems for this once capable band.

“Satellite” is the singular quick-paced cut on the second half of the album. It’s lively, yet still skirts mediocrity, due to Ure’s space-filling lyrics and the truckload of effects used on his vocals here. The band have gone on record as endorsers of the Melodyne system and while it had been abused, in my opinion, throughout the album, it really hit the brick wall here. Ure’s voice has been sculpted like silly putty on this track, creating a vast distance in the place of the immediacy that we listen to music for. Or I do at any rate. The standout element of this cut is definitely Currie’s vibrant viola solo. Listening here, you can almost imagine that you are hearing one of his fine solo albums. Better you had picked one of those up!

And then it all comes crashing to a pitiable end with the final cut, “Contact.” The Gnome is back for one more twist of the killing blade. While “One” and “Fall” are definitely the worst songs Ultravox have ever recorded, this track is number three in that list. Ure sings like he’s going to expire from the consumption. And if you were singing these lyrics, maybe you would too.

“What’s wrong, who’s right?
Sad machines won’t talk to me tonight
No questions looking for answers
No voices except inside my mind”

“Sad machines won’t talk to me tonight!” That’s a lyric on par with these from Simon LeBon in my Leonard Pinth-Garnelle Hall Of Fame for Bad Lyrics. The whole affair grinds the already faltering album to a merciless halt. It sounds like some horrifying cabaret parody with a ninety five year old man trying to sing over a heart lung machine burbling away in the background as twee synth loops form a gently chugging rhythm bed from hell. The first time I listened to the whole album and that was the ending, I have to say that I was incensed.

“That’s it??!!”

Moreover, the more that I listen to this album, the act of doing so only makes me angry as the horror unfolds. I am incredulous that Ultravox had the poor judgement to let this one out of the closet, especially after the career-killing “UVOX” debacle. What’s ultimately even more annoying about this album is that while the lows are even worse than that album, the three tracks here that I actually like annoy me all the more for their presence! It’s the sense of squandered opportunity that this album delivers in spades. While objectively, this is a slightly better album than “UVOX,” it actually feels worse to listen to because the numerous low points are cataclysmically bad in ways that leave the “UVOX” material very much in the shade.

To make a point of comparison, the last time I heard an album with a comparable blend of good points to bad by an artist who had really needed to overcome the enormous badwill generated by two stinker albums in a row to rekindle my fandom, it was “Never Let Me Down” by David Bowie. For every good idea there were a dozen bad ones to simultaneously remind you that you were a fool to think he could pull his artistic fat out of the fire as well as why you may have ever liked his work to begin with! This is definitely that kind of shattering artistic failure. One that, frankly, puts a headstone on my Ultravox fandom. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice; shame on me. As with Midge Ure’s solo career, I have reached the point of no return and will no longer be buying any new recordings of Ultravox. There’s only so much abuse these ears [and mind] can take.

Sonic horror rendered in pixels. Click to enlarge… if you dare!

Speaking of ear abuse, it is my displeasure to report that the brickwall mastering on this CD is the very worst I have ever heard. It has snatched the dreaded Tin Ears Cup from Duran Duran for their “Red Carpet Massacre” album. Click on that wave image to wonder in awe at the max volume of -0.1 dB. There is almost no dynamic range at all here. This album sounds absolutely ghastly. The drums in particular sound painful to hear; like firecrackers exploding and the cymbal crashes are unbelievably harsh to the ear. Headphone listening was like a form of torture. It adds a level of injury to insult in the playing of this disc. Ultimately, one is saddled with an album by a band you used to like filled with poor songwriting [for the most part], even worse singing, a life-sapping production that’s over reliant on gimmicks in the face of no ideas or anything to say, and ultimately given just the sort of mastering that, frankly, it deserves. But we deserved better.

Finally, the Rock G.P.A. for Ultravox is thus: a 2.73 or B-. A bit higher than I was expecting but three 4.0 discs in a row manage to average out a lot of failure.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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9 Responses to Rock GPA: Ultravox – Brilliant [part 14]

  1. Echorich says:

    Your disappointment with side two caused me to re-evaluate Brilliant as a whole. More on that in a moment.
    One and Fail – are thoroughly Midge Ure casting his spell on the others once again. I can not figure out what it is that he has that lets him get away with this. Both songs seem like outtakes from some early 70’s Weber/Rice musical – like JC Superstar Part II – which never made if off the studio floor. Even at their most minimal, Ultravox has never been minimal, not in this manner. Ultravox minimal is Dislocation or even Lament. Open spaces don’t need to be devoid of rhythm or feeling.
    I’ll agree that Lie has a number of elements that remind you that this is Ultravox, but it’s weak and repetitious in a sort of going no where way. Actually the ending of Lie feels like there could have been an idea there that go quashed…
    Satellite is my favorite track on side two. Yes it’s dense with effects, but Currie’s solo and the coda hook me in. It’s Lament era Ultravox, but I’m happy to take that here.
    Finally Contact sounds like a song that David Gilmour wrote in his bedroom while having naughty thoughts about an underage Kate Bush and then Kate refused to sing, so it was once again sitting on the studio floor waiting for Midge Ure to obscond with it. Dreck…
    So…four songs…I think it would have been better to take those and spend another few months in studio finding 4 more to build around them; but maybe the band was pushing the amount of time they could spend together to get Brilliant recorded.
    As for the recording, it isn’t lost on me how poorly this is recorded/mastered. It is really muddy in many areas and is just sits in a midrange. I wonder how much that is down to this Melodyne system…seems like it could be musical crack in some musicians hands. You would think that a program with a name that sounds like Ultravox could have thought it up would be a bonus but I think it may have brought everything down more than a notch or two.
    I don’t know what took this project so off the rails, but if the adage “you can’t make a leopard change its spots” ever applies, I think it does to Midge Ure. He is the ultimate rock control freak/compensator and I think carries a lot of the blame for Brilliant’s failure, but it is a group and 3 votes should carry a majority, but those 3 votes need to be united, or at least have some of their own ideas to put forward. Four old men who used to rock my world got back together and did not rock my world.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Like I said, if you’ve ever popped for a Currie solo album, his solo on “Satellite” seems ripped straight from one of those. They are fine records. Not of Ultravox caliber, but they are definitely him! Actually, I felt that his first solo album was of Ultravox caliber! “Transportation” ended up being my favorite album of 1988! The blend of him and Steve Howe [!] was really good, but when Mr. Derek Forbes was added to the mix, as on the incredible “India,” the result was mystical. That track was the one thing Forbes had done, post-Simple Minds, that was up to his old standard.

      Your comment regarding the three votes hits on my up front trepidation regarding this project. It is exactly like what I feared it would be! Billy Currie brings demos in for melodies and Midge Ure finished them off! Finished them off is exactly right!! What had Cann and Cross done musically for the last 25 years? Nothing. I noticed the writing credits excluded Cann before hearing it; another bad protent that turned out to be all so true. I lay this blame at the feet of Chris Morrison. I was at his urging that the band reconvened. If your old manager says “guys, the time is ripe in the marketplace for a reunion,” that, in my opinion, is absolutely no reason to follow through with one!

      The worst part is, that if tomorrow, Ultravox were doing a show in NYC, I’d still make every effort to be there for it, knowing full well that they can play the old material very well. Frankly, I can’t imagine most of the new album ever making it to the live setting. The material is simply too poor. Ultimately, this causes me massive cognitive dissonance because even though I still respect the band’s early achievements, and having never seen them live still gets in my craw, I feel that in some way that seeing them right now would be enabling them. This album is so awful that the band really need to be snuffed out before they can do further damage to their now puny legacy. Knowing Midge, it is inevitable. This album is the worst thing he’s ever done, and that in a career of clearly diminishing returns, post-1984.

      Perhaps it’s not fair, but having this album crawl out of the studio following the latest John Foxx work only paints its many failures in vivid, sharp relief. Hmmm. Fail Ure. The answer was staring me right in the face the whole time!

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      • Echorich says:

        Well stated Monk. All through my most recent listen to the album I thought about what Currie and Cross could have created with Foxx if that would have been and option. It doesn’t beg much wondering as I know this would never happen. Foxx has no reason to return to something he put his final efforts into. The fact that he can perform anything from any of the first 3 albums is to his credit and something he should never stop doing.
        I thought when I heard Midge sing at the BEF concert late last year that his voice was just not there. Yes I know he lost his high end years ago, but it was almost as if he had forgotten how to project live during his two performances that night. The use of so many effects on his vocals and his vocalizing is one of the greatest flaws to Brilliant. His lyrics are at an all time low as well.
        But where is the rest of the band in all this. Did they throw up their hands and say “let Midge and Lipson control the recording” right from the start? Where in hell is Warren Cann’s backbone here? This should have been his chance to prove himself back in the band. Where is Currie’s artistry? Why is he so mixed out of almost every song. As for Cross, I suppose he had nothing to lose. Well they all actually have lost a lot here.

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Echorich – They definitely lost me! Currie’s viola solo on “Satellite” is definitely the goods on this album. The fade out solo on “Flow” also sounds tasty. The way Currie was backbiting with Midge on his old website suggests to me that in the spirit of “getting along” they might have bent backwards too far, Warren included. And we all pay the price.

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  2. jt says:

    Was wondering what your pick for best tune [relatively speaking] on this record would be. Your most recent reply answered that for me, and I concur: “Satellite” is the one going on the mix CD I’ve been putting together called “Old Timers”! It’s post-2008 trax from Ultravox, DD, Foxx, Blancmange, Peter Murphy, Devo, Echo, Kate Bush, The Cars, Magazine, and a few others. Mix seemed like a fun idea on paper, but I’m having a hard time coming up with a really great track from some of these people…

    Also, Echorich, in response to this:
    “As for the recording, it isn’t lost on me how poorly this is recorded/mastered. It is really muddy in many areas and is just sits in a midrange. I wonder how much that is down to this Melodyne system”

    None of your complaints have to do with Melodyne at all. All Melodyne does is correct bad tuning on voices and instruments, precisely the same way that the dreaded Autotune does. It’s a competing product that has the same applications. In both cases the software, wen used subtly, can fine-tune minimal tuning issues and polish an already-good vocal/instrument performance. The listener will never suspect it has been used [95% of all records made in the last fifteen years use wither Autotune or Melodyne somewhere in the production chain]. When used poorly, amateurishly, or in a purposely exaggerated manner, that annoying and played out “T-Pain”/Cher effect is produced.

    No, the problems you mention are due to sloppy engineering in cheap studios, and nothing else.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      jt – If you can’t come up with a really great post-2008 Foxx track [try John Foxx + The Maths] you are NOT trying! “Satellite” is too heavy with effects for me. I like “Live,” “Flow,” or “Lie” if I had to pick a single cut. Satellite has some great Currie viola but just loses me. It’s probably my 4th fave on the album.

      Thanks for the engineer’s perspective on the “Brilliant” conundrum! This was Ultravox [or 3/4th of them] sitting in Midge’s cabin with laptops so caveat emptor. Then they gave it to Stephen Lipson to try to salvage it. And he failed. I think what Echorich and I gripe about Melodyne is that they seem to have spent too much time putzing around tweaking bum notes or combining sounds rather than writing solid material or maybe singing properly! There is perhaps a “micro focus” on the album that let its creators get completely off the beam in the all important “macro focus” areas. Macro first, then micro. But never “over micro.” Sadly, this is an “over micro” album.

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  3. jt says:

    Oh, I said I was having a hard time with “SOME” of them!
    Foxx’s “Evergreen” has been lodged in my head for months.
    Some of the othes are doing good things too.
    There’s some nice stuff on the new Blancmange disc; that was a pleasant surprise.

    Agreed on all counts re: engineering/song writing/macro/micro on Brilliant.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      jt – I have not heard the new Blancmange, but I have read some less than kind words about it. Bear in mind, I only ever had “Mange Tout” on CD – and found it to be a sterling album, full of diverse moods and sounds. I owned it on LP and when I saw the CD, didn’t hesitate to buy it in Toronto about 20 years ago. I would certainly have an interest in their fourth album. Especially with your recommendation. Did you get the ltd. 2xCD inversion of “The Shape Of Things?” The “Analogue Circuit” DVD + CD from the legendary all analog Roundhouse show of 2010 is finally getting released in September. Can’t wait! By that time I’ll have quite a stack of PAL DVDs to convert for e-z watching on the old [and I do mean old] tv. What with the new Gary Numan and Claudia Brucken sets due in soon. Not to mention the Icehouse discs I have, as well as the Pulp Hits DVD that’s been on shelf for ages!

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      • Echorich says:

        Monk -The new Blancmange is pretty interesting…sort of picks up where they left off.

        JT – As for Echo post 2008, althought they are nearer and dearer to my hear than any other band, The Fountain WAS NOT the next Ocean Rain as Mac had prepared me… Think I Need It Too and Drivetime are the standouts. I do wish the Mac would stop trying to reinvent Nothing Lasts Forever from Evergreen. It seems every album has to end with an “epic”, introspective song. I listen to the Magazine album at least once a week! – it’s that good in my mind. Kate Bush’s album was one of last year’s surprises for me. I was really happy with it.

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