John Foxx: Metamatic DLX RM – remastered album disc 1 
- He’s A Liquid
- Metal Beat
- No-One Driving
- A New Kind Of Man
- Blurred Girl
- Tidal Wave
- Touch + Go
Reggae has never been a favorite genre of mine. The fact that roots reggae is so bound up in Rastafarianism is probably a big reason why I listen to so little of it. I grew to prefer dub by the 90s, where the vibe was emphasized over the message, and when the message was Rastafarianism, I had no interest. So that is probably the reason why it took me embarrassing decades to notice that the elephant in the room regarding “Metamatic” is the fact that dub reggae informs so much of its vibe. If we wanted to get cute about it, I suppose that the album could be described in a flippant two word fashion as Kraftwerk Reggae.
It was right there in your face as the opening track, ”Plaza” began. A synthetic skank as bold as life kicked the track off as the minor key lead lines evoked the eerie science fiction horror of Dr. Quatermass, which the young Dennis Leigh probably watched [from behind the couch] as a boy. But the concrete brutalism of the lyric and vibe spoke ultimately to science fiction of another kind; the monolithic impersonal landscapes of J.G. Ballard which contrasted with the fractured interiors of his protagonists. In this plaza, death hovered close by. Omnipresent in the faces remembered from shattered windscreens. Crash. It happens.
The thing about this song that struck me as being backward looking and wrong, when I first heard it in 1981, is now one of the aspects of the album which lend it a patina of timelessness that serve it well to this day. The only non-synthetic instrument on the album was Jake Durant’s precise, surgical fills of actual bass guitar. I looked him up on Discogs and this was the only album he ever played on. The extremes of sound that Foxx hybridized to make this music have insured that not only did it stand outside of the environment of 1980, it still sounds outside of any conventional pigeonholes today.
Fluidity of self has been a John Foxx trope for 40 years going and its flashpoint was “He’s A Liquid;” a song he wrote before leaving Ultravox. Foxx has talked about the experience of body surfing in the ocean and the resultant feeling of dispersal as being very impactful. As he described a couple whose masculine half was undergoing fluid transmutation the dryly descriptive lyric resulted in an odd AABCC rhyming scheme on the verses. I’ve never heard such a symmetrical rhyming scheme like that one before. The dry, metallic “kick drum” that this song pulsates to was a hard and unforgiving use of the CR-78 that formed the basis of this album’s rhythms.
The lead single was next, although Virgin had gone as far as pressing up “A New Kind Of Man” instead with some of these escaping out into the wild. “Underpass” built its sound on baleful, aerosol synths advancing with the resultant Doppler shift in pitch that would come to typify much of the music on this album. Foxx was going places, creatively, and this was mirrored in the panning in space of the sounds, and even vocals that would be deployed here. As the hum approaches the foreground in the intro, the relentless, but measured beats move the song forward at a methodical pace. The lead Arp lines have an almost Ennio Morricone feel to them as they seesaw to and fro melodically.
The song was once again ensnared in a dub reggae foundation accentuated periodically by ticking “hi-hats” followed by slamming beats. The dystopic feel of the lyric suggests a place out of the timeline where even disasters are only half-remembered, and perhaps it’s better that way.
“Well I used to remember
Now it’s all gone…
World War soooooooomething…
We were somebody’s sons” – “Underpass”
I couldn’t help but notice that after this verse that referenced The War that another Doppler shifted synth was in the middle of the mix, this time sounding for all the world like air raid sirens from The Blitz. We can’t forget that Foxx was born into the immediate post-war era and has spoken about growing up and playing in the bombed out debris of the Northern English landscape. The landscape not to mention the post-war austerity that gripped Britain for nearly a decade had to have colored his worldview going forward. The song’s chorus managed to take abstraction into heretofore unseen climes with its brilliantly reductive lyric:
It’s hard to imagine how a song this clinical and dispassionate managed to find an audience, even in an environment primed by the Foxx influenced Gary Numan, but “Underpass” managed to get as high as #31 in the UK pop charts. The acme of Foxx’s dalliance with popularity.
Next: …Ode To a CR-78