What a difference a year makes. When Visage released their debut album in the Fall of 1980, the New Romantic trend that they were at the epicenter of was quickly moving toward critical mass with The Blitz Club abandoned for The Club For Heroes and mainstream success. In 1981, the trend peaked and enlivened the UK charts with some moody, Eurosynth classics. By the end of 1981, where would the Blitz Kids be? Spandau Ballet had jumped on the funk bandwagon. Duran Duran were backpedaling towards disco with “My Own Way” before conquering pop with “RIO.” New-Ro harbingers Ultravox took up residence on the charts for a four year imperial period following years of banging their heads against the wall to no avail. Visage found themselves with a year full of chart hits and when the time came for album number two, against all odds [Ure and Currie must have been gobbling speed to maintain their twin careers with further side trips for Ure] it happened by the spring of 1982. By then, Barry Adamson was not in a writing capacity any longer but he nonetheless had no problem supplying his creative basslines for this material.
Listening to “The Anvil” points up the close, almost incestuous ties that mother band Ultravox had with the satellite group. Many of the cuts on “The Anvil” are but a hair’s breadth from the material that sat on the previous Fall’s “Rage In Eden” album for stylistic influence. Ure and Currie used to kid themselves back in interviews from the period that Visage was just a joke band for money [and the money was good] while implying that Ultravox was very serious art. Pardon me while I do a spit take! If anything, Ultravox were a simply a more pretentious version of Visage with a different singer! They both plowed very similar furrows. I dare the reader to drop in cuts like “Again We Love” or “What Have They Done To Me” into a mix featuring “Rage In Eden” and apart from the Visage-like segues ‘Vox were favoring at this time [with Visage having moved on from that gambit] one would be hard pressed to notice any stylistic or even lyrical shift at all.
Both albums were dark and moody advances on the lighter, more energetic [“rock”] album which preceded them. “The Thin Wall” played like a proving ground for over half of the tracks on “The Anvil” which relied highly on almost percussive, Moroder-esque sequencers for that all important effete Europulse. “Rage In Eden” had ended with a vocal tune redolent of “The Steps” [albeit with even higher melodrama] which had capped the first Visage album. The cross breeding occurring at this time was fevered and unapologetic. It was like getting two Ultravox albums per year, every year. I’m intensely curious to find out which was recorded first, since the tale of Ultravox holing up on Conny’s studio and writing “Rage In Eden” from scratch under emotional duress is well known. I suspect that “The Anvil” followed “Rage In Eden” and that the just recorded Ultravox album colored the proceedings here. But if it were the opposite case, it would be equally valid.
Visage led off with their strengths first with the exquisite single “The Damned Don’t Cry” in pole position. This is another high water mark for the band, along with “Visage” and “Fade To Grey.” It codified New Romanticism for me at exactly the moment of its apex; before the decay set in. The decadent, yet passive languor. The suggestion of disco, buried under legions of synths. No guitars. It also sounded as if Rusty Egan got his hands on pal Richard Burgess’s SDS drumkit for this track as it proudly features the warm, dry thud of those Simmons pads. The video as directed by Ure and Cross was a stunner. A delirious, almost monochrome trip aboard a decadent Trans-Europe Express that is simultaneously hedonistic and heartbreaking.
The dark Moroder of the title cut more than met the decadence factor of the infamous gay club that spawned it head on. It was almost a waste that the fiery John Hudson remix of this was relegated to the B-side of the non-LP single “Pleasure Boys” that was released after the album, but one would be hard pressed to imagine a more coherent thematic pairing of cuts, yes? Cognoscenti reveled in the German language version released on promo only and called “Der Amboss.” I can’t say I have the original vinyl in my Record Cell as it’s too rich for my blood. At least the A-side has been released on subsequent CDs that are in-house.
The one bright moment of pop on this somewhat somber disc is the second [successful] single “Night Train,” that closes side one. It features heavy sax from Gary Barnacle who fills in on this album for the sax stylings of the now-absent John McGeoch, who was successfully ensconced in The Banshees by the time of this recording. The tone here is ebullient and sophisticated where much of the album is content to deal in Teutonic sturm und drang.
Side two opened with the track that most seems like a rock holdover from the first album. “The Horseman” is a tip of the trilby to Bowie’s “Secret Life Of Arabia.” All of the people involved here certainly knew and loved it. I’d have been shocked if it never got play in The Blitz Club since it is a template for the New Romantic movement. That said, while it touches on subject matter on the Bowie classic, musically it resembles nothing as much as the debut Ultravox! single from 1977 “Dangerous Rhythm.” The baseline in particular is eerily similar and it’s entirely possible to sing the lyrics of the ‘Vox tune to the intro of “The Horseman” with great success. Keyboards are on the back burner for this cut, with only some string patches used for seasoning. The bass, drums, and guitar are right up front most unusually for this track. Bonus points for Midge Ure’s backing vox on the coda. Nice work. In a different world, this might have been single number three from this album to be followed by the darkly triumphant title cut as hit number four… but no one asked me.
This is a morose, introverted album that sits on a shelf with Ultravox’s “Rage In Eden.” It has a concentrated vibe of melancholy and paranoia, with less of the stylistic diversity that the band’s first album had. But the closing tune, “Whispers” is the one genuinely gorgeous Visage tune at this point, with an almost Enoesque feel. It’s certainly of a piece with a track like OMD’s “Souvenir” single in that it offered a lush, emotive atmosphere with a stately pace that was nonetheless constructed with synths and drum machines. Rhythmic interjections of deep bass synth at almost subliminal levels imbue the cut with an incubatory feel. The eponymous whispers of the title are backing vocalists Perri Lister and Lorraine Whitmarsh barely there as mischievous pixies watching a sleeping couple and pondering waking them up… I think.
While this is a more cohesive album than the debut, the narrow stylistic focus means that I have to be in the mood for the somewhat dour vibe ensconced within its thematically perfect, black Helmut Newton sleeve. In any case, it achieves what it does with an uncompromising languor. Truth be told, Visage probably passed their sell-by-date in terms of marketplace value while they were still recording this album. Former Blitz Club hat check Boy George was just around the corner with the next [really] big thing. Decadently dark anthems as offered here would look increasingly out of touch in the upcoming day-glow pop world. In any case, both singles almost made the UK top ten, and if there wasn’t a Euroanthem like “Fade To Grey” here, the ornate chiaroscuro of “The Damned Don’t Cry” didn’t mean that they weren’t still capable and succeeding, at least on their terms. I can see that for some, this is the ultimate Visage album, and I’d agree on the point that it exists solely within the New Romantic mindset as the band defined on their debut and refined here. But it’s true that this album represents a stylistic cul de sac that would be difficult to escape from, as would become apparent later.
Next: … A temporary stopgap measure