When I saw the new Visage lineup included Steve Barnacle, who had done such good bass work on the previous album, that was encouraging. When I saw that the guitarist was Robin Simon, I then became extremely encouraged, to put it mildly. The first single that hit the web was the appropriately named “Shameless Fashion.” What I heard made me a believer. The toughness of the guitar harkened back to the first Visage album sound and I had no problem with that! After all, in a perfect world, Simon would have been the original Visage guitarist if fate hadn’t conspired to put Midge Ure at the epicenter of the group’s formation instead. Without Simon to show the way forward, Ure might have stayed in Thin Lizzy indefinitely. Ure definitely followed in his stylistic footsteps moving past the Rich Kids, so in a warped sort of way, you might say that Robin Simon was the original Visage guitarist.
The album opens with a brilliant statement of intent in “Never Enough” as Moroder Europulse is abetted by the dynamic guitar of Robin Simon to create a kind of bliss in this listener. When I heard the samples of this posted online in advance of the album’s release I went from “hopefully intrigued” to “confident pre-order of deluxe package” in a hot second. The resulting track is the my favorite Visage track I’ve heard since the title cut to their debut album. Barnacle’s fat synth bass is exactly the sort of power this tune needs to propel itself forward like a cheetah. The end result is sleek and awe inspiring. I thought they didn’t make music like this any more! It’s definitely an all-time best from this veteran group. Please let me hear a superfine extended version of this track in the immediate future!
“Shameless Fashion” opens with Roland System 100 bass and Simon’s slashing guitar chords in a stripped back arrangement of fiery intensity. The first instrumental break manages to rehabilitate the motor drive/shutter sound effect from the abuse it took from Duran Duran 32 years ago on “Girls On Film” for a perfect [and appropriate] Visage moment. As the tune progresses, the arrangement gets thicker until the Currie sauce is deliberately evoked on the middle eight where things come to a head in a thick soup of pitchbent sawtooth waveforms. It’s a cheeky wink backward with one of a handful of deliberate self-referential stylistic quotes here. Meanwhile, the Simon guitar hook drives the beast forward with great efficiency. Strange’s spoken word segment after the bridge adds an elegant touch to the coda.
The next cut, “She’s Electric,” begins with a throw of the loaded dice; it uses the exact same CR78 rhythm that once kicked off the iconic “Fade To Grey” but they wind up triumphing as the new song, more than compares to the best that the band had to offer in 1980. The bass synth is adroit and pulls my ears in immediately. The spectral Simon guitar is stratospheric and elegant. This song has a co-write credit from Mick MacNeil of Simple Minds, and it reeks of the lush Oberheim attributes of “New Gold Dream” in a sound that he never got to pursue again with his old band post 1982. Welcome back, Mike! The tune has a great backing vocal hook as well with one/two counts before each line in the chorus. It’s yet another potential single from this album; a glorious and languid creation. After this point I was wondering… the last Ultravox album started out good [but not this good]. Would Visage be able to maintain this level of quality?
Track four showed them definitely clearing the hurdles that befell that other band with ease. “Hidden Sign” is a song that is also embedding itself in my mental iPod® with alarming ease. Simon cooks on the intro with some delicious wah wah distortion shot into outer space before settling on a clean chorus tone that soars effectively. Lauren Thomas’ backing vocals are well harmonized with Strange on the choruses and they each swap out the spotlight on every other line nicely. Her rhythmic breathing hook is the rare example of sampling on this album, but it works like a charm. The tune marks out some new territory to Visage with a middle eight that sounds redolent of country/folk music… yes you heard that right. But it holds together like a real mutant concoction full of hybrid vigor. The psychedelic touches from the intro appear at various points throughout the song for a unique counterpoint. Simon brings it all home on the second bridge with an elegantly sustained solo. This is a weird one. On paper, not a Visage song, but have a listen and decide for yourself. It really adds new DNA to the idea of the band.
The debut Visage single [“Tar”] was released on Martin Rushent’s Genetic Records imprint and recorded in his studio as Rushent was eager to get his feet wet in the then burgeoning electronic music scene. When approached in 2010 about where a new Visage should go, Rushent suggested a tune in the vein of “I Am The Law” from “Dare.” That was a good idea as it was unexplored territory for the band and congruent with its style. “On We Go” is a ponderous and lurching electro beast that Simon co-wrote. It’s definitely redolent of the vibe that the Human League attained on “I Am The Law” without being derivative; a neat trick. It makes for a great change of pace in the program and rests as a great deep cut before side two begins.
Visage had said that they wanted an “old-school” vibe on this record, and while they used primarily traditional methods in making “Hearts + Knives,” [vintage synths, real drums] that even extended to the time honored technique of toploading of the first track on side two with an obvious single. “Dreamer I Know” is the second single and another real stretch for this formerly decadent band. The song is based on a perky 4/4 disco foundation, but MacNeil injects some of the glorious sunshine he added to “Glittering Prize” here and the vibe is not just cheerful but positively sunny. Thomas’ harmony vocals are a real pleasure as is Barnacle’s fretless bass. It’s another one for repeat in the cranium, in spite of its light as air touch.
After that all of that light, it was time for a little shadow and nuance. “Lost In Static” is perhaps the most accomplished song on the album. Simon’s solo in the intro follows some highly evocative synth shading that sounds at first a little ambiguous. He adds to the tension before the song gets underway with some real compassion and pathos as Strange takes a hard look at his life in this lush piece of self-examination. Barnacle contributes a pulsing synth baseline that undulates throughout the remainder of the tune. Co-writer Simon contributes elegiac e-bow guitar that attains a Frippian vibe it’s been too long since I’ve last heard. This one’s a stunner and my jaw drops at the reality that Visage have made a mature, introspective album with only scant hints of their former arrogance and hauteur… and it sounds wonderful!
Dave Formula co-wrote a song here with Strange and if “Lost In Static” was introspective and nuanced, “Diaries Of A Madman” is blunt and forthright. This is the most aggressive tune here as Strange reflects on his tumultuous life with more than a little bite. It almost harkens back to the vibe on the previous album’s “Casualty” albeit with far more success and none of that tune’s cringeworthy moments. Steve may have learned from his mistakes in more ways than one. The final tune is the almost jazzy “Breathe Life” which is the most atypical song here; sounding as it does, very much like the a-ha track “October,” from “Scoundrel Days!” Steve ends the album in a reflective mood but this is the one tune here that sounds half-formed and tentative. I question its placement as the final track. Sure, it’s redemptive following “Diary Of A Madman,” but I could say the same about the cut that precedes it, “I Am Watching.” I think “Breathe Life” has grown on me with the plays I’ve [compulsively] given this album, and the only change I’d have made to it is moving “I Am Watching” from track eight to track ten. But I’m talking of the UK copy which I pre-ordered from the Visage store.
Here in America, the band have a distribution deal with Pylon Records and one may not only order the album in white, black or clear vinyl [the latter a web store exclusive and at a super price] but the domestic CD of “Hearts + Knives” addresses my sole gripe with this album by including a bonus track after “Breathe Life,” thereby making it the penultimate track, which works well for the vibe it offers. What buyers of the US CD copy get is the kickin’ extended remix of “Shameless Fashion” to end the album on a superb note. This is an old school extended remix and it’s a particularly glorious one at that! And it doesn’t hurt that Pylon is selling the CD the price of a download, so choosy shoppers should make a bee line for the Pylon Webstore and grab this puppy on affordable domestic CD at popular prices. I have the “Shameless Fashion” CD single so I’ve already partaken of the extended remix and can confirm its righteousness.
So this album has worked very well for me as it shows evidence of growth and change for Visage that reflects what I’d hope to hear from someone with as many regrets as Steve probably has. That it manages to smoke the band’s patchy last effort by advancing on that album’s strengths, while avoiding all of its weaknesses… after a 29 year layoff… is frankly astounding! What “Hearts + Knives” achieves is a successful new beginning for Visage. It’s almost a reboot into a parallel universe where the energy that launched this band in 1979 has coalesced anew with Simon instead of Ure on guitar giving the group the sound it was aiming for from the hands of the original Ultravox fretmaster. Missing, almost entirely, is the decadent, dark side that culminated in “The Anvil,” so if that’s your preferred Visage album, you may wish to give this one a pass.
It has to be said that much of the music here would not exist if not for the flames that Strange had to pass through before he could make this album today. That gives it an emotional heft missing from all previous albums of the band. That it does so with Robin Simon frankly going nuts doing what he does best on the tracks is icing on the delightful cake. Nine of the cuts here are best of breed Visage reiterating strengths while mapping out new territory that’s actually appropriate to a Visage largely made up of guys in their mid 50s. While they may lack some of the go-for-the-throat viciousness that accompanied the band 33 years ago, they make up for it with with maturity, compassion and wisdom from a team that can steer Visage towards a bright future if this album is anything to judge by.
So when we tally up the Rock G.P.A. we find that Visage manage a 3.4 average, making their carer hit a solid B+. Better than I would have guessed in 1986, but we all change.
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