John Foxx + The Maths: Howl – UK – CD 
- My Ghost
- Everything Is Happening At The Same Time
- Tarzan And Jane Regained
- The Dance
- New York Times
- Last Time I Saw You
- Strange Beauty
It’s been a Hell of a year, and the John Foxx + The Maths album I’d been waiting over a year for was pushed back due to the Covid-19 bomb going off in the Spring. I’d lost the plot so thoroughly with potentially life-threatening stimuli to engage my brainstem with that when the week before the delayed release of “Howl” was heralded by an email from the Foxxlist, my spouse immediately stepped up to the plate and ordered it for me. Thankfully, the goods arrived at my house via the US Postal Service. But for how much longer?! Let’s dive in after a few days of regaining my footing with this new album.
“My Ghost” began with a drumbox ticking off and the distorted guitar of Robin Simon riffing at a low volume before the synths [also distorted] added a “Telstar” like wail to the energy levels. Then Foxx joined in the song in a chorused, distorted voice as he related how his ghost [or shadow figure] was threatening and undermining his life. The hook here was the grinding synth distortion skipping across the stereo spectrum as the synths built up a chord sequence similar to the one in Bauhaus’ “Lagartija Nick.” Benge injected the necessary back beats into this song to give it the teeth it needed.
“My ghost, with all the ragged rage
I have ever seen
With all the twisting things
I thought I was hiding” – My Ghost
At the coda Simon got in a guitar solo that had a twangier [yet still distorted] counterpoint to the now wailing [yet distorted] synths as the energy peaked up to a harsh drop off just shy of a cold ending. As it had been with the early pre-release singles, this was a darker, sexier incarnation of John Foxx + The Maths at work. There was none of the dispassionate restraint commonplace in Foxx’s music of the last 40 years. This was music in the red for the very times we’re living in today.
The title track was a bracing, chaotic glamrok dive back into the howling feedback of “Ha! Ha! Ha!” only allied this time with more Bauhaus DNA in the form of a sexy whipcrack beat courtesy of Benge, who also played the filthiest synth bass imaginable. The synthesizer quotient here was as low as it’s been for Foxx since that second Ultravox! album. It was primarily Simon’s show as the howling chaos of his playing was front and center here. Foxx hung back here, his voice run through a chorus and [better get used to it] further distortion for a distancing effect, proffering only the barest hint of guidance to the raging stallion of Robin Simon’s guitar. The lyric seemed to be purely a response to Simon’s playing.
“I see you stand in the middle of a storm
And all the traces are gone, gone, gone
Howl downtown, let the beast out
Let the beast out …now!” – Howl
It first blush, the tone of the playing struck me as being cut from the cloth of Gang Of 4’s Andy Gill [r.i.p.] as I immediately heard the kind of serrated, violent chording that Gill played on cuts like “To Hell With Poverty.” Further listening gave evidence of Fripptone® ca. “Scary Monsters [and super creeps…]” to also be found here. The guitar was in your face and down your throat from the get-go, but further listening revealed that Benge was playing valuable counterpoint here with all of the rhythm under his command.
The lurching synth tone only ever got a bit of spotlight on the middle eight, which was the only part of this that sounded remotely like what we expect from a John Foxx project. I also loved the aggressive mixing that Benge and Foxx oversaw here with Simon’s guitar cutting in and out of the mix with hard, percussive edits that were shocking in their abruptness. The final minute and a half of the album track was merely the guitars [which Foxx was also playing, in addition to Simon] and the synths having a love fest while handcuffed to each other with knives drawn.
Then came the centerpiece of “side one.” Will there be a more appropriate song for 2020 than “Everything Is Happening At The Same Time?” Doubtful. The [distorted] violin intro from Math Hannah Peel and the keystone drum pattern, so similar to “Tomorrow Never Knows” marked this song as the one touchstone of familiarity in the midst of this turbulent return to the aggression of “Ha! Ha! Ha!.”
Foxx has been inspired by the Beatles turn to psychedelia since his teenage years, and he’s not been shy about building a magnificent edifice on the foundations that the Beatles had built, but this time he’s not aiming for sense of possibly thrilling fusion/dislocation of self that “When You Walk Through Me” offered. Nor is he attempting to model the intoxicating swirl of attraction that “Endlessly” had done.
This time he was using psychedelia as a metaphor for the disjointed and troubling times of today. The feeling of not standing on solid ground any more as the very basis of reality was under attack. This time it was the violin, along with the rhythm that took the spotlight as Foxx distilled the confusion and despair that pressed him down on a daily basis.
“Scenes on the news
Stream in, confuse me
Things I can hardly believe
Things I wish I’d never seen
And everything is happening at the same time
Too many people
And so many lies
So much to deal with each day
Sometimes I’m too sad to try” – Everything Is Happening At The Same Time
A single beat dropped before the song began on the “two.” Right away the interplay was between the rhythm box and the minor key flute-like synths [that can’t help but make me think of The Specials “Ghost Town”] and Robin Simon’s guitar, which was more under control than on the last Maths outing. I suspect that what I thought were flute patches were actually Hannah Peel’s heavily mutated violin. They suggested the exotic air of snake charming. The biggest difference here was Foxx as he’s back in touch with his wilder, pre-Quiet Man artistic persona. Certainly this song of animal passion would have been out of place on any of his albums post-1977. But the subtext of animal attraction was just another way of parsing Foxx’s favorite Ballardian theme with the wild reclaiming the civilized. This time using a trope from the 20th century [“Me Tarzan – You Jane”] that’s even older than Foxx.
As was the guitar of Robin Simon with his trademark Post-Punk flanging driving a modal guitar line sweeping through the urban jungle environment of the song at rakish angles. The climax where Foxx’s synths duel on the outro with his sharp riffage while Benge kept the New Wave back beat was definitely my kind of throwback. The last two and a half minutes of the album version expanded the instrumental interplay between the synths and guitars; occasionally dropping out for the back beat to come to the fore before allowing the guitars and distorted violins to let the song ultimately dissipate its erotic energy with its forces now spent.
Next: …Back From The Shadows