Some years ago a thirteen year old Robin Catling signed up for a fan club: Ultravox, a band that rose out of the New Romantics and synth-pop pioneers to write mature and complex music, blending electro and classical.
I followed, from the Vienna album, with it’s noir cinema, art-school pretensions; through Quartet, Rage in Eden and Lament; the stunning live album Monument; the faintly ridiculous U-Vox; right through to the single Loves’ Great Adventure, a kitsch, middle-aged mistake. News of the original lineup reforming – Midge Ure, Billy Currie, Chris Cross, Warren Cann – arrived with some trepidation on my part.
On one level this is a brilliant return to form, turning back the clock almost thirty years to the classic Ultravox sound. The opener, Live, drops you right back into the Vienna album, almost as if you’ve never been away. Subsequent tracks Flow, Brilliant, Rise, have all the familiar layers and textures. Almost too familiar. In fact, it seems every track references an older song; clippings from We Came to Dance, Sleepwalk, The New Europeans.
Picking your way through them, there’s Ure’s distinctive guitar, Currie’s signature piano and synths’, Cann’s familiar drum breaks (is it the same drum kit?) and Cross providing the backbone bass lines. It’s like going back to your parents house and wrapping yourself in your old comforter.
As the initial warm glow fades, the next level reveals something disturbing. This is an identi-kit assemblage from Vienna, Rage in Eden and Quartet. This is Ultravox imitating themselves as young men. Beneath the veneer, this is is an Ikea flat-pack album of tracks directing ‘insert tab A into Slot B,’ made up of parts left over in producer Conny Plank’s garage, circa 1985.
Ure has taped together some flat-pack lyrics, too. The Ultravox obsessions of religion and memory (or was it always nostalgia and we were too young to recognise it?), loss and regret, hammered over and over, centre stage, but without any new or original take; the cliched sacred imagery, unaltered by three decades of wisdom or experience. The Old Romantic angst and introspection gets a bit wearing, a bit like listening to your grandad repeating the same handful of ‘when I was in the camel-corps’ war-stories.
Then, in the middle, a couple of industrial dirges, One and Fall, some kind of Cathlic confessionals to purge the thought that somewhere, some Ultravox fans might be having a good time. There’s thirty years of guilt and regret to catch up on, you know. Death begins to appeal as a more cheerful option. Meant to be reprises of Rage in Eden and I Remember, they miss the mark horribly.
But it seems somebody medicated the old boys’ tea during the break, as the closing handful of songs pick up the tempo again and we get a couple of of encore tracks retreading familiar ground, Lie, Satellite, only to finish on the mournfully sad and soporific lullaby, Contact.
This is all a bit bizarre, given that Ure has been producing radio documentaries on the likes of David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and the tour-bus life-style of the never-retiring rock-star (a subject he knows well from endless 80’s nostalgia tours with T’Pau, Belinda Carlysle, Tony Hadley, Adam Ant); he knows the lifecycle of the average pop-act and he’s acknowledged the noticeable decline of his remarkable voice as he enters his fifties.
I’m too much of a fan to dismiss this album, but much as I like the new up-tempo material, all it made me want to do was load up those first three albums on the MP3 and revel in my youth again. So where does that leave us? As an Ultravox tribute band, these guys would be, erm, brilliant. Honestly, chaps, if you want an excuse to go back out on tour, just release a CD box-set with the dates on the back and load up the van. I’ll be there. RC