“Radiate and shine – to light your path to glory…”
As far as new studio album releases go, the collaborative talents of the classic line-up of Ultravox, featuring Midge Ure, Billy Currie, Chris Cross and Warren Cann, have been somewhat buried for twenty-eight years. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case. They’re back, stepping boldly into the spotlight with Brilliant, their new studio album, recorded in Canada, Los Angeles and the UK.
As an album, Brilliant is a contemporary sound art for 2012, yet it’s etched with those deep, idiosyncratic electro sound pictures you’d expect – all contrasted with some moderately rocked-up guitar interchanges. It’s very much punctuated throughout with Chris’ familiar synthesized bass foundation; one that, in this instance, anchors the record to the band’s definitive roots. In addition, there are moments that show the lighter flashes of upbeat popular accessibility that we’ve witnessed on past commercial successes. Lyrically, it’s a poetic narrative, very much gesturing towards the emotional and most certainly reflected back within the musical elements – occasionally in the form of some chilling harmonic sweeps, but mainly with the monochrome cinematic moments of mood magic that Ultravox do so well. There’s an array of treated vocal experiments from Midge – as such giving the album its modern gloss.
‘Live’ is the powerfully outspoken opener, with a fiery mantra, bright melodic contours, interesting shifts in key and not least an intensely powerful drum sound. The piano runs very much mirror the lively motifs of ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’, and the track hosts a similar soaring chorus. The mood magic arrives with overdriven guitar riffs eventually dissolving beautifully to form a simple, yet moving atmospheric break, still underpinned by Warren’s drums; but crossing the map into a modern edged bright and intensely catchy synth hook. A potential tour anthem, very much setting the standard here on in; any pre-held misconceptions about a record that might be lacking some meat on the bones are instantly cast aside. ‘Flow’ outwardly pushes aspects that invade the perimeters of a regular Midge Ure solo effort, albeit with an Ultravox-styled charismatic instrumental break. But it’s the current single, and title track,’Brilliant’, that radiates a glow that’s so unmistakably Ultravox. It’s a luminous construction, articulated by those previous melodic concepts that were so prominent in the past; intensified with a euphoric synth tapestry that goes some way to create an intoxicating nostalgic touch.
But it doesn’t stop there. For the old-school fundamentalists, ‘Change’ is most likely to be one of the highlights of the album. It’s a lusty gathering of reflective imagery : a large-scale tone painting that not only resonates deeply, but filters through electro regions that range from Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’ to Visage’s ‘Fade To Grey’ – such clever orientation, guided by Billy’s provocative ARP Odyssey lines. Following the mid section, a gracious piano run loans its spine-tingling enchantment, giving way to gentle counter-melodic ripples that become enclosed within the existing deep waves of metallic synth back-story. Nocturnal and intensely European. An absolute classic.
Bringing about a bold rhythmic transformation is the anthemic ‘Rise’. A track that’s sure to become another staple within the newly invigorated Ultravox catalogue; an unbreakable structure consisting of an electro-centric haven, styled with an updated metrical drive that can still kick back to retro. There’s that immense percussive persuasion at work, decorated with one of Midge’s signature elevating vocal melodies. Animated movements slowly become draped in the virtuosity of a saw-tooth Odyssey break. Add to that even more characteristic layers and we have the scents of all those original outbursts, plus enough infectious charm to remind us how we all got here. In complete contrast, like black against white, the haunting reveries of ‘Remembering’ reveal themselves. Backtracking through the echoing corridors of life; later bringing with it some up to date, yet very average laid back pop overtones.
‘Hello’ hails a more traditional rhythmic drive, drenched with eastern-tinged guitar power that’s set against a delicate piano melody. The atmospheric breakout of futuristic vocal is bathed in chilly washes of synth before the elements later develop into an artful web of guitar and hard-edged Odyssey sounds – each taking a lead, pushing and steering towards the vision of a somewhat elegant masquerade. The meandering static of ‘One’ with its melancholy tones, edges it’s way forward and brings a gradual building of echo-like timeline around a strong percussive framework. There’s even a brief moment of chime-like lift.
For huge dramatic tension however, it has to be ‘Fall’, delivering a scene setting prelude before velvet like vocals align themselves against the abstract backdrop. It’s also decorated with bell like chimes; such gentler moments echoing a close cousin to ‘Lament’. Intrepid weighty synths suddenly swing into action, creating unrelenting depths of cathedral-esque chords. There’s a moment as it edges back to the subdued with an unforgettable Celtic twist of violin melody, but in the main, it’s a multilayered sound, building like thunderclouds; think strength, and a depth of atmospherics laden with textured guitars and fluttering piano motifs – all of which leave in its wake the swirling mists of the ‘Vienna’ video. Keeping the progression dark, despite its upbeat tempo, is ‘Lie’ – another standout track, given that it’s not only drenched in pure synth richness, but completed with emotional guitar work. A shimmering uplift that is simple in concept.
The quick ‘I Remember (Death In The Afternoon)’ style step of ‘Satellite’ has superb vocal/guitar interplay; a subtle layering of vocal that drives depth on the verses and meets the sinister guitar crossfire by way of answer – very evocative. The dazzling, yet subtle swift keyboard movements lift the choruses and there’s a sprightly bridge to the most impressive string break. If an instrument could have an example of a particularly striking moment in its lifetime then this would most definitely be it. So alive, the strings draw breath. Smouldering longingly with thickening timbres, before the organic tone of its smoky lows slip back to mirror the melodic line of the track – now reaching sweet heights. A dramatic closure, fleshed out with guitars – an atmosphere that undoubtedly delivers moments from eden. Another showstopper.
For Ultravox, Brilliant marks out a fundamentally structured pathway to an enriched repertoire, flaunting at times the tonal residue and decay of Rage In Eden. But it’s ‘Contact’ that heralds the pianissimo ending, if you like, and completes the work; in much the same way as ‘Your Name (Has Slipped My Mind Again)’ affects the contours of Rage In Eden. It’s got that intimate vocal. The expressive bass guides the immense sense of loneliness here, while the violin and guitar weep gently within their own space. It almost certainly swings the compass back towards the starting point, which in this case isn’t ‘The Voice’. But ‘Live’, just as uplifting, holds the same portion of contrast. And while some may not consider the band to be breaking new territory, that isn’t strictly speaking the case.
Brilliant presents a re-invigorated Ultravox; a band that are happy to tread familiar boards, yet are self-assured enough to step forwards onto additional floor space in terms of tapping into modernistic post-production tweaks. You’ll hear it all here. The result: not just Brilliant, but both a brilliant and new beginning.
Brilliant is released by EMI Records on 28th May 2012.
Special thanks to Rusty Egan and Ingrid Heckl.
Ultravox tour the UK and Europe in Autumn 2012. Dates include:
Bristol Colston Hall (21st September), Oxford New Theatre (22nd September), Portsmouth Guildhall (23rd September), Nottingham Royal Concert Hall (25th September), Birmingham Symphony Hall (26th September), London Hammersmith Apollo (27th September), Guildford G-Live (29th September), Manchester Palace Theatre (30th September), Southend Cliffs Pavillion (2nd October), Ipswich Regent (3rd October), Sheffield City Hall (4th October), Blackpool Opera House (6th October), Glasgow Clyde Audiotorium (7th October), Gateshead The Sage (8th October), Hamburg Docks (14th October), Oslo Rockefeller (21st October), Berlin Columbiahalle (25th October), Mainz Phoenixhalle (26th October), Leipzig Haus Auensee (27th October), München Kesselhaus (29th October), Memmingen Stadthalle (3rd November), Milan Alcatraz (5th Novermber), Köln E-Werk (7th November), Bielefeld Ringlokschuppen (8th November)