[…continued from last post]
John Foxx has spoken about the influence of Hank Marvin’s guitar playing on him as a music fan growing up, but apart from the Beatles/Shadows synthesis of “When You Walk Through Me” from “Systems Of Romance,” there’s not too much you could point to in his CV to reveal that. Apart from Foxx playing acoustic guitar on B.E.F.’s Billy MacKenzie cover of “It’s Over” with Hank himself taking the lead guitar. Now that’s all changed. “The Dance” began with a modular rhythm echoing in an empty space while Robin Simon added incongruously buttery guitar twang straight from the Hank Marvin playbook for a dreamy, early 60’s romantic pop sound.
Meanwhile, the synths began encroaching on this sound, adding minor key shading that upped the beautiful melancholy of the song as the upward spiral of the lead melody made its way to the spotlight. On first listen I thought that this was going to be an instrumental, but Foxx’s dramatic entry into the song at the 1:20 point came as an unexpected surprise as he whispered into our ears, stepping out of the shadows where he’d been the whole time. Meanwhile the song continued to build in low key grandeur until by its end we were swimming in cathedrals flooded with glorious sound. The lyric was as minimal as the music itself was maximal. Making for a stunningly emotive song.
Foxx had assumed that there had been more of The Velvet Underground’s DNA in his body of work than there had been upon review, which was part of the genesis of how this album developed. To allow him to make up the missed chances he thought he’d covered earlier. “New York Times” was a track that was predicated on writing further about the titular character of Sister Ray.
“She used to dream, about perfection
She had a love of distaste and rejection…
And in her room, she kept no light
So she could hold on to the darkness, every night…
That sailor’s hat, those stolen clothes
That torn out chain, that remained, across her door
She loved the marks, and what they’d leave
She said they tore all the wings from her dreams” – New York Times
The rhythmic scrape of synth noise that trilled like an insect syncopated with the white noise hi-hats drumbox tom tom right out of “Enola Gay.” Robin Simon’s guitar added distorted riffs to give the clean groove a bit of noise and muscle. Benge’s evil bass synth sound echoed the desperation of the streets that this Sister walked, but there’s no tricks or murder here. Just the hint of escape and redemption.
I loved how the next track began immediately on following the last note of “New York Times” fading. “Last Time I Saw You” was the dark heart of the album. All queasy, lurching mechanical rhythm loops of sickening inevitability. The hint of horror movie theremin was buried deep in the mix but this was not a supernatural horror being sung about. This song dealt with the monsters in our midst who casually kicked their humanity to the curb for power and empire.
“Last time I saw you
I had to look away
Some kind of presence
Making me feel ashamed
Last time I saw you
I tried to reconcile
All those, shellshock visions
With the mystery crimes
If you’re the prophet
Then we must be the loss
If you’re the cut and style
Then we must be the cloth” – Last Time I Saw You
The final song opened with a deceptive synth drone until the Simmons drums of Benge immediately let us know that Foxx was revisiting the romantic melancholy of a song like “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” from “The Golden Section.” But where those earlier ballads were suffused with longing and possibilities, this one is written from the perspective of the older man Foxx is now and the poignancy is devastating as he examines the traces left of love long lost. The synth solos in the middle eight and climax are heartbreaking in their intensity. Another difference to the songs of old in this vein were that we could have had at least seven minutes to let them play out in their grandiosity. This time the closing solo is brief and with Simon adding his guitar to the sound for a melancholic undertow that was more clear-eyed for its lack of grandiloquence. Listen and believe, below.
This was a fantastic album for John Foxx +The Maths. There’s something to be said for eight strong songs in 40 minutes with no filler. It worked for Simple Minds’ last album and they didn’t have the enormous asset to their sound that is Benge. His sound design is always peerless. He’s relying heavily on modular synths for rhythm as he’s a demon of the patch cord. Hannah Peel’s violin was almost never played straight here, opting usually for sonic mutation of some kind.
I treasure any of Robin Simon’s projects and having him once again playing along with Foxx made this a long awaited chapter to their history. It’s a far cry from the seamless fusion of guitar and synth that Conny Plank brought to the table 42 years ago on “Systems Of Romance!” There’s no smoothness desired here. That time has passed. It’s also a far cry from any of the other Maths albums; which have tended to mutate – sometimes wildly – between releases. Foxx had said in his Electronic Sound interview that in reviewing his past he was drawn to “The Man Who Dies Every Day” from “Ha! Ha! Ha!” as being something he’d like to dive into and explore further. I can only concur that Foxx has taste similar to mine, since that’s a pivotal Ultravox! song for me and if I had to pick only one that encapsulated the gist of the band, it’s the single track I’d choose.
But this album mutates the genome of the song in various radical ways. Maybe only “New York Times” [what a great title!] traffics in precisely that sort of vibe. The rest is darker or more melancholic. Foxx has correctly responded to the zeitgeist and has made an album that reflects the punishing now in an adult fashion. And that’s what I respect from the artists that I like. That’s he’s done it with a support crew like The Maths gives me hope that one day; maybe next year, we can have a concert or two that we would want to attend. Wherever it may be.
– 30 –
The Dance is a haunting track. I have an image of being on a “mystery” train in a long dark tunnel with the sound of Foxx’s echoey whisper both narrating and cautioning me on my journey. It’s darkly beautiful.
New York Times is probably the closest thing to a fun track that Howl has to offer. The themes of VU, Warhol, the Super Stars, give the song a sort of soundtrack to a Factory film sort of feel. But where Reed + Co may have had a more nihiistic view of the life of Sister Ray, Foxx paints a more artistic picture.
The NYC themes continues with Last Time I Saw You, but now a darkness has fallen over the Lower West Side and the shadows of the city are revealed. Simon’s guitar is like a concrete grinding saw, laying waste to the city pavements and exposing its black hard underbelly. LTISY feels the most like a track that could have grown from an idea on Metamatic.
Upon hearing Strange Beauty, a second link to Bowie seemed to come over me. The song has so much in common with Bowies Blackstar. Not musically, but thematically. It’s a portrait of an artist laid bare, offering a denouement to the work he has produced.
Echorich – Damn! I forgot to mention the abrasive chord that Simon laid down in the intro, in my haste. That was very much the metaphor that came to mind. And your “Blackstar” comparison is spot on, I think. Very good call, sir. It is heartbreaking, but honest, to hear.