Howlin’ Foxx – John Foxx + The Maths Reclaim The Primeval Chaos Of The Now [part 1]

john foxx + the maths howl CD cover

Metamatic ‎| UK | CD | META67CD | 2020

John Foxx + The Maths: Howl – UK – CD [2020]

  1. My Ghost
  2. Howl
  3. Everything Is Happening At The Same Time
  4. Tarzan And Jane Regained
  5. The Dance
  6. New York Times
  7. Last Time I Saw You
  8. 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.

john foxx and the maths howl single coverThe 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

john foxx + the maths - tarzan and jane regained cover artA 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

About postpunkmonk

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12 Responses to Howlin’ Foxx – John Foxx + The Maths Reclaim The Primeval Chaos Of The Now [part 1]

  1. Steve Shafer says:

    It’s a fantastic album!


  2. SimonH says:

    I’ve been looking forward to hearing your take on Howl.
    Music like this is helping keep me moderately sane in these times.


  3. zoo says:

    This is a very good album. So happy Foxx is working with a guitarist again, and Simon in particular. And with the violin added to the mix, we have a return of the Ultravox instrumentation.

    But I have to take issue with one small comment: “…the guitar of Robin Simon with his trademark Post-Punk flanging…” I think McGeoch just rolled over in his grave. ;-)


  4. Excellent recco. Looking forward to getting into more John Foxx. Am only familiar with the first few Ultravox albums and his early solo stuff. thanks Monk!


  5. Echorich says:

    Music is my refuge in 2020. Music is keeping me feeling alive and in touch with my own psyche in 2020. Music is just so damn important to me in 2020.
    It started out well with the release of a fellow Ballardian, Steven Fellows of The Comsat Angels magnificent Slow Glass release which can be found on Bandcamp. In February Howl was teased and that was an event in itself. By March the Covid-19 writing was on the wall, and all over CNN. Before the end of the month I was on work and personal lockdown. My world began revolving around streaming services, Zoom links ups with friends and the sanity saving world of my fellow bloggers in our corner of the interweb.
    Six months on and not a whole lot has changed, but one giant event is the appearance of the full release of HOWL!
    I have listened to the album a dozen or more times now. It is so full of prescience! I reflects so many of my moods and concerns. It takes me back and pushes me forward. It has really gotten under my skin.

    The opening track My Ghost is a lesson in how a timeless synth song is made. It takes off at a running pace, beats at a heart rate that would exhaust an 18 year old, stabs and whips swirls around Foxx’s urgent, yet disembodied vocals which are equal parts filled with dread and admiration. The final instrumental coda is all the best of the past 45 years of electronic popular music gleaming and sharpened, still ready for action.
    In the context of the album, the title track Howl has the effect of bringing things back to earth with its more pedestrian pace, but heavy manners groove. There is so much that reminds me of Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) that I have this image in my mind of Foxx and Bowie sharing a stage with there chosen axemen at the ready as seconds in a wonderful musical duel. It’s Benge that is Foxx’s secret weapon here, laying down a thick, bouncing bed of synths for Robin Simon to play off of.
    But I have to agree with you Monk, it is the next track, Everything Is Happening At The Same Time that just blows the roof off these proceedings. Foxx writes of the world we have wrought and the paralysis we have attained as a society. Weaving that Beatlesque psychedelia with a brand of electronica that he pioneered and artists like Numan ran with, he manages to again create a sound that is both familiar and fresh. The first time I played EIHATST, I had to stop and hit repeat. It was as if I instantly knew the song and rediscovered a long lost track from 40 year ago. This is one that belongs at the heights of the Foxx Canon.
    Tarzan and Jane Regained is full of the aggression that Foxx’s earliest solo material traded on. But where there was more of an air of a Ballardian mirror universe in many of his earlier themes, here the themes seem somehow more stark and real, with an air of aquiecense rather than warning or foreboding.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Now that I have listened to it about 20 times, I’m getting hints of “This Jungle” affecting the melody of “Tarzan + Jane Regained.” Mashup time? Sounds possible in my head. What say you, Tim?

      The vitality of “Howl” has seen it immediately ingratiate itself to my mind with the songs playing from the moment of waking throughout the day. It’s a difficult slog fighting the paralysis you cite on “Everything Is Happening At The Same Time.” This song is such a reflection of our times that it’s going to join “No-One Driving” as a Foxx metaphor that I will be citing until my last breath. Being a world citizen right now is like being thrown naked into a pit of vipers, with dozens of fangs piercing our skin simultaneously and leaving us weaker and weaker, until the killing blow will inevitably land. B


  6. Karen Swan says:

    Love your reviews. Really enjoy the language you use and the incredible depth and empathy with
    the artist.
    I absolutely adore *Howl


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Karen Swan – Welcome to the comments! Thanks for the generous compliments. I like to think I’m trying to do a good job here. And yes indeed, “Howl” is a real powerful piece of work. Hopefully there will be at least one concert of the music when/if live music becomes viable again.


      • Karen Swan says:

        Oh my goodness yes! Haven’t seen John Foxx live since 1979 and was meant to go to the Rough Trade East audience with that got cancelled. I really hope there can be a live John Foxx and the Maths soon!


  7. Thanks for this. Brilliant and provocative. Surely we could discuss this album for ever. Its John’s diction that captures “Everything Is Happening” for me. A crisp, clean eloquent vocal that cuts through the noise.


  8. Pingback: 2020 – The Year In Buying Music [part 2] | Post-Punk Monk

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