The iconic musician takes us on a magical journey…
Balletic Transcend is the new studio album from Ultravox’s Billy Currie; the ninth installment from his notable instrumental solo catalogue and a mature work of multifaceted character that has found its way from the depths of the darkest, distant, yet most beautiful Isles. A seasonal storm of graceful vitality, with special emphasis on plenty of woody, traditional flavours, not least emerging from the spicy aroma of his rich violin tones.
Although the contrast is very evident, from lively beat drives, swirling wave formations to spacey trance, the themic essentials are very obvious throughout and go some way to bind this contemporary album of epic fantasy-meets-psychological thriller.
The title track, ‘Balletic Transcend’, flourishes with its beauty, but hauntingly so, given its stunning peaks and split personality. It breaks to an uncanny silence, marking the way to lots of piano decay – very carillons à musique and a perfect passage to the stark, eerie landscape of ‘Springboard Activist’, a subtle piece with earthy violin motifs and sparkly piano.
‘Grandiloquent’ is one of those hugely melodic tracks, not untypical of Ultravox and set against a more up-tempo contemporary sounding beat. The harmonious feel cuts to welcome more decorative aspects – reminiscent of Visage’s ‘Mind of a Toy’ intro. ‘Dip’, one of the key tracks here, is a hint as to what might have appeared had the Rage In Eden album been written today, and under the scrutiny of Conny Plank. The layering and atmospherics are all there, giving dramatic impulse with heavily weighted synths and accompanying piano that morphs with meditative strings of pure Celtic feel – delicate interludes allowing the dark watercolours of the music to build. In complete contrast, ‘Back To The Head’ exhibits a modern dance feel to begin with but its dazzling jump takes it from humble to the racy sensationalist.
‘Jump Spin’ has the listener lost in the depths of a mist-laden forest, with solo violin and viola layers creating an atmospheric ascent towards a twilight afterglow. It’s a very intimate piece that has such clarity of articulation, that you can almost visually witness the manipulation of the strings – a definite showpiece of the album in terms of sound and technique. Along the lines of the likes of ‘Stand Like A Balance’ and ‘Why Do You Hang On Me?’, which demonstrate similar feel and isolation in the moment, but differ in that ‘Jump Spin’ is curiously set inside its own dialect and gains lively excitement from the fast paced beat that takes over at given intervals. If Kurt Cobain had played a violin, he’d have done something bordering on the distorted feast of strings that we hear here, plenty of angst, blending the end of the track – eventually derailing and leaving just the echoes from within a dark tunnel.
Both ‘Unbounded’ – with its most expressive, tearful strings and ‘Pothole Pirouette’ present the attractiveness of styles heard on previous albums such as Still Movement and Stand Up & Walk; very serene and spacious with plenty of rolling soundscapes. A deeply matured, earthy toned viola creates the basic mood for ‘A Feint Idea’, followed by a tide of fast flowing notes on the piano, before the waves finally break and crash with more piano offering the basis of exploration. ‘Etoile’, along with ‘Dip’, is something special. Dark set against light, with intense, soundtrack like, heavy chords, lifted with light washes of swirly synths. Again, very Ultravox styled, with traces of the recent ‘7/8′, ‘Astradyne’ and also ‘Monument’. It’s essentially the perfect closing track; a grand finale that leaves the listener ready to seek out more.
Balletic Transcend in some ways takes a step beyond anything Billy has explored before in the solo context. A magical and pivotal collection of signature sound blends, although if it were a whiskey, it would be a fine single malt that has spent many years maturing in cask, and while it’s very shadowy and edgy in places, with remote and desolate expanse, it can be a bright little guiding journey; one that shall always reference back to the intricate virtuosity of the composer.
Billy Currie delivers dark edged experimental work…
Billy Currie’s prime association has always been as one of the main men of the synthesizer. Think strikingly cutting solos that could carve effortlessly into the strongest of rock formations; fiery, distinguished and beyond the conventional. Being no stranger to individual output, Accidental Poetry Of The Structure is Billy’s seventh studio album and to mirror Billy’s vast body of solo work, is the flip-side to that golden Ultravox coin. Still drawing upon the many refinements in his playing, this time we’re driven to a more diverse area on his creative map
The flag to mark that transition was first raised back in 1988, with the release of Billy’s solo debut, Transportation. A long time had since passed and the themes contained throughout Accidental Poetry Of The Structure effortlessly draw upon those bygone decades, progressing his sound signature towards that of beautiful music and manifesting as an avant-garde collection of instrumentals, with a strong sense of free-flowing melodic transitions.
When Accidental Poetry Of The Structure first appeared in 2006, it would be a physical CD release on Billy’s Puzzle label, with an accompanying eight-page booklet staging a classy collection of moody black and white photography. As sufficiently absorbing in its design was the package, the cleverly constructed title itself was enough to instill a veritable amount of silent intrigue. Of the title, Billy quotes on his website: “The title Accidental Poetry Of The Structure is about the creative process of composing the music. When I write I usually have two or three ideas on the go. Differing colours and emotions. It is only when I work on the structure that the sparks start to fly and accidental to this process of structuralizing the piece, the musical ideas come to life and speak! The poetry of music is accidental to this creative structural activity”.
The journey into the articulate minimalism of this release begins with delicate piano sounds introducing the title track, with a subtle addition to the round, shortly followed by an immediate sensation of drama, courtesy of a familiar Apple loop, before lively beats are introduced. Later we would hear this to become the structural framework for the omnipotent ‘Satellite’ – a track that appears on the latest (2012) Ultravox album, Brilliant.
Throughout the whole album, the top end piano notes are a prominent stylistic feature; one that gently engages plenty of haunting ambience, particularly evident during ‘Williams Mix’ – a track that Billy had quoted to be quite German in influence with a nod to the legendary producer Conny Plank, ‘Skips Of A Chopped Head’, and also ‘Krakow’. The unsettling and dramatically tense pathway to ‘Skips Of A Chopped Head’ is a cousin to the high-pitched strings that initiate ‘Empty Stage Mantra’ from ‘Refine’, before it takes on a dub step feel that is encased in paranoia. ‘Krakow’ duly manages to preserve a mysterious context with a strong essence of searching.
Edging away from some of the more foreboding exhibits and towards compositions containing basic characters of gaiety, are ‘Idee Fixe Movement Three’ and ‘Matsang River’. The former contains passages of lively and lustful runs, while the latter is wonderfully buoyant and flows as nicely as the title suggests. ‘Matsang River’ was actually borne out of those final notes completing the famed ARP Odyssey solo from ‘On Broadway’, the live version that Billy performed with Gary Numan.
‘Folly Brook’ is consistent with its delicate violin sounds; a tentative magical charm building during its onward course. Compassion’ is a blanket of idyllic peace, if not slightly solitary, while the similarly-paced ‘Listening To Strength’ concludes the work and generates a very open and spacious feeling, populated yet again with those highly emotive strings that induce melancholic overtones
Not surprisingly, the ever-evolving sound textures that blend into Accidental Poetry Of The Structure would expand upon the delicate theme of 2005’s Still Movement – another of Mr Currie’s signature albums. Additionally, we could say it was the calm before the storm; Billy’s last solo album before the high-octane adrenalin of the Ultravox reunion. Such a reunion by no means closed any creative channels however, and in August 2009, Billy’s eigth studio album Refine was a joy to behold.
What makes the potential great for future compositions is the wide sampling of ideas, coupled with the development of specific areas that Billy has previously explored in the solo context. There’s the expressive strength of ‘Unearthed’, where the contemporary symphonic reigns, and then there’s the electro-charged ‘Push’; whose touches, in part, sound more aligned with various Ultravox styles (see ‘Theremin’, ‘Step Forward’ or ‘Kissing The Shame’.)
Accidental Poetry Of The Structure is a mature effort that employs simplicity as virtuosity and hybrids of dark edged experimentation, contrasted against sublimely tranquil melodic fibres. A superbly accurate title, representing an equally impressive collection of sensual and evocative compositions.
Accidental Poetry Of The Structure is still available as a download from the usual digital outlets such as Amazon and iTunes.
Ultravox play the following dates opening for Simple Minds in 2013:
Glasgow Hydro (27th November), Manchester Arena (28th November), Birmigham National Indoor Arena (29th November), London O2 Arena (30th November)
Now in the fourth year of their widely documented reunion, Ultravox know no boundaries. When it came to the next jigsaw sequence in Ultravox history, the unveiling of their 2012 studio album Brilliant, with a European tour to follow, was an impressive gesture of intent. With input from both Billy Currie and Warren Cann, The Electricity Club discusses the European electronic tradition, the heart of which was beating in Cologne at the beginning of the 1960s. We look at the German pioneers, and how they would potentially impact on the creative nucleus of classic-era Ultravox
Ultravox were amongst the innovators of British electropop that started to edge their way into the mainstream just over three decades ago. However, some aspects of their unique brand of British New Wave would sit more comfortably alongside the dark shadows of an imposing location, somewhere in Germany. And, considering the new electro Europeans had already been unleashing offerings that were born out of that very hotbed for heavy industry (take the likes of Neu! and Kraftwerk as fine examples), it would appear that Ultravox would follow them nicely, complete with abstract lyrics and a graphic stance.
Germany is, of course, where the first seeds were planted with regard to experimental electronic music. For the German main-players, styled expression was the soundtrack – one that would elicit freedom and present music in different forms. A hit back at the social problems and a diverse contrast to what was considered the norm. It started as early as 1968 with a band known as Organisation, who would later change their name to Kraftwerk in 1970. Subsequently, towards the back end of the 1970s, many artists in the UK were taking their cue and experimenting with the synthewsizer and thus, citing bands such as Kraftwerk as their primary influence when it came to manipulating their new found signatures. The German pioneers could almost be a Power Station full of raw materials that would get broken down and used later – and in many varied forms.
Shortly over thirty years later, the rise of the album Brilliant – and subsequent tour – proved that Ultravox never lost their way musically. They would eventually shift direction, but the impact of those early German influences (particularly throughout their former years) was more than just a mere paperweight.
Uncovering Brilliance – Europe 2012
Ultravox never did things by halves. Although their initial UK show consisted of two sets, the band announced that they would be foregoing a support act in favour of playing for longer. They did just that, their full show consisting of a twenty seven song set divided by a twenty-minute interval. Playing live is what they do best – “Ultravox never came across on record,” states Warren Cann.
The set would go through its natural evolution process that encompassed a couple of minor tweaks, including some re-ordering of encores. “It was actually the merchandising guy that pointed it out,” Warren Cann tells The Electricity Club, referring to when original encore ‘Contact’ swapped places with ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’. “He said people were less likely to buy a tee-shirt on the way out if they were leaving on a low.” It was later omitted from the set completely by the time the show got to Europe. And there lies the challenge in putting together a set: “Imagine four guys with a paint brush”.
Warren explained that they would list all their songs and then each member would go through them to determine those out of the question and those that they’d like to do. He expounded additional factors, such as the need to consider the key of the song or whether Midge played too much keyboards or guitar in particular sections of the set . Therefore there was a need to judge the whole look and feel, in addition to enabling it to work musically.
Forging a set list from Brilliant was obviously new territory for the band this time around: “I think there are songs that we are not playing that we should be playing,” stated Warren when speaking of the tracks from Brilliant. But his preferences regarding the set didn’t stop there: “I’d like to play ‘Passionate Reply’, as well as a couple of Foxx-era tracks including ‘Slow Motion’,” he reveals, following the Leipzig gig (which saw the band return to a traditional one set show). “Playing two sets was weird,” adds Billy Currie. “I was glad to get back to the one set again in Germany”.
Dropping ‘Visions In Blue’, ‘Change’, and ‘White China’, they would apply a serious re-think about the running order; which saw new encores ‘The Thin Wall’ and ‘The Voice’ installed within a single set. It worked to the best of advantages, providing a refreshing experience, given the changes were somewhat unexpected. It stripped out formality and exposed a reinvigorated band that would mirror the majority of German audiences in their more intimate venues (in terms of energy that is). Warren also commented on how much they enjoyed the vibrancy of the European shows in comparison to the rather sedate British audiences. Billy added: “I have great memories of the UK concerts. The audiences tend to soak up the whole production scene when seated, and so can be quieter.”
Arguably, they were a different band on the continent and the cogs were well and truly oiled. “The Berlin, Cologne, Munich and Hamburg gigs were all great memories for me,” says Billy. “I think the band played well. In Germany we played large clubs where the audience stand for over two hours. I think they felt more full-on involved! The sound is much more basic in these clubs. More like a straightforward rock gig really… sorry, electronic rock gig. I enjoy both kinds. Unfortunately I am obscured by my own piano to the lower down standing club audience. That gets a bit tedious! I must take up the violin!”
Upon reaching Cologne, they were placed in what could almost feature as their spiritual home given the prominence of their iconic, early releases that were written and recorded there. Opening with the title track from their new album Brilliant, before stepping into their distinct blend of rock band persona for ‘New Europeans’, it was no surprise that they would continue to generate lashings of raw atmosphere that stemmed from those important changes made to the show configuration in Leipzig. This time it was non-stop power, which saw them step out from the industrial shadows and deliver all the raw materials they’d always been noted for, not least, the drama of their most famous ballad ‘Vienna’ – which incidentally had a certain magical appeal when witnessed at the Gasometer venue in Vienna.
There were rocked up versions of the hits ‘Hymn’ and ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’, these two tracks in particular exhibiting some subtle differences. For one, they had become more guitar orientated and the keyboard part on the verses of ‘DWTIME’ was difficult to extract at all the shows (although it’s as clear as a bell on the Hammersmith live recordings). Explosive breaks of synths and violin were still high on the agenda though. Take ‘Astradyne’ for example, and not least, the undercurrent of its uplifting piano melodies. Every show on the tour earned its own special place – Midge and Billy’s handshake onstage in Munich following ‘We Stand Alone’, and one dangerously intense synth solo, was another notable moment that induced masses of audience cheers.
There was no shortfall when it came to showcasing their new catalogue from Brilliant either. And, true to form, on each night they would deliver the grandest of finales: ‘The Voice’, which now has a more powerful piano sound behind it, saw all four members taking part in their legendary percussive workout before taking their bows and tossing their drumsticks into the audience. “I’ve really enjoyed playing these European shows,” remarked Warren after the Cologne gig.
In returning to Germany for their recent dates, it’s logical to ponder whether there is still an affinity to the country, with the band having worked on Systems Of Romance, Vienna and Rage in Eden there. Were there any surges of nostalgia for the band? “Yes! In Berlin,” says Billy. “I had a great view from my hotel window looking west towards Tiergarten. I knew I was looking towards Kufurstendamm, so in the early evening (we’d just flown in from Gothenburg), I walked the eight kilometers there through Tiergarten. I just wanted to be on the street of Kurfurstendamm again after so many years. In the 1970s we stayed there a few times while performing at the Kant Kino. This was when we drove through East Germany”. The ambience of the location must obviously have changed somewhat over the decades. “Berlin had a real pressure cooker vibe to it then. After the gig, we used to fall across the road into the many clubs. Most of them playing Bowie’s ‘Heroes’. Great memories.”
Berlin was an original centre of experimentation at the start of what would become Germany’s experimental period in terms of new music. Bowie had also acknowledged this, taking the decision to record Low and ‘Heroes’ at the city’s Hansa Studio by the Wall, back in ‘76/’77 respectively. Since the 1970s and the days of Kant Kino, Ultravox would return to Germany for subsequent tours. “As a nod to the 1980s, “I walked back past the Hotel Inter-Continental near the zoo,” says Billy. “We stayed there in 1982 when then-Vice President George Bush was in town. We flew into Berlin then. There were so many riot police and demonstrators that we found it very hard to even get to the gig! The hotel looked different. It looked free. Lots of space around it rather than walls and gun towers! It was dark when I walked back by the river.”
The Finer Threads
With abstract sounds – sometimes so shockingly stark, that they would blend into sonic soundscapes – the threads that form the basis of classic-era Ultravox’s landmarks are easy to identify. Ultravox! (with the “!”) were named so after Neu! and when it came to Ultravox continuing their significant journey, their albums Vienna and Rage in Eden (as well as the earlier Foxx-era Systems Of Romance) would flash the genius of legendary Cologne based producer, Conny Plank – providing a common pathway that was shared by both Neu! and La Düsseldorf .
With many of Ultravox’s early, non-commercial and more obscure album tracks would come misunderstanding; being deemed cold, grim and mechanical, by the many who would often misjudge their artistry. Yet something seems incredibly appropriate when considering such a description – take the influences of the time, and not least, the visual aspects of the work. With the darker qualities of their writing, they remained uncompromising – just as those who had gone before them had. They nurtured the creative nucleus that allowed the more daring elements to flow and they made no apologies for it.
Ultravox would ultimately embrace the synthesizer, yet they set themselves even further apart by mixing that distinct blend of rock band instrumentation with various electronic personas. The earlier German bands of the genre had strived to edge beyond the basic rock ‘n’ roll simplicities, but for Ultravox guitar instrumentation would creep back in with tracks such as ‘All Stood Still’ and ‘New Europeans’. The Vienna album as a whole appeared to be built upon those very foundations and would expand upon what had already drifted into our consciousness from Germany – for those who cared enough to listen. But not only that, they took things a step further with notable classical blends also, morphing it all with softer tinges of accessible pop, or theatrical ballad. What their clever integration of styles also did, was enable them to step ahead of their more progressive German cousins, forming a brand new musical identity. It was perhaps less freeform – in the progressive sense – but it still had an expressive edge, depending on which side of their personality you would choose to appraise.
Slightly later, the concept styling of Rage in Eden was a throb of darkening desire that would touch the air with its cold voice. ‘Stranger Within’ would give way to a thrilling ride that bore similar temperate tones to Neu! guitarist Michael Rother’s ‘Feuerland’. ‘Feuerland’ with its sinister contours, maintains a pace that strives towards anxiety-driven movements sharing that familiar pulse evident in ‘Stranger Within’. The Neu! track ‘E-Musik’ is a thought-provoking one. It would be the inspiration for live B-side ‘Face To Face’, with similarities that certainly exhibit that same sense of place. Consider its texture template – from building trippy guitar to distinctive rhythmic foundations. Tones from ‘Hallogallo’ could also be traced into ‘Face To Face’, but ‘E-Musik’ is particularly significant. Drummer Klaus Dinger exhibited a motorik style much like Apache Indian tribal motifs, which Warren Cann would essentially borrow, despite him having very much being exposed to traditional blues-rock platitude. “The first gig I ever saw was Jimmy Hendrix in Vancouver,” recalls Warren.
With regards to themes around tribal drum work, cosmic rockers Faust also did lots of experimentation in this area. Looking back to ‘E-Musik’, its rhythmic chant drives forth another interesting commentary when considering how these particular drum patterns also align, not only with the outro to ‘The Voice’ (and that famed live drum solo), but also ‘The Song (We Go)’ off 1982’s Quartet album. The infusion of howling wind mid-track is a distinct haunting touch that shifts towards the intro of ‘Reap The Wild Wind’, as heard on Monument The Soundtrack. When Neu! split, thankfully that didn’t mark the end of a great period of German music. Michael Rother would go solo while Klaus Dinger went on to form La Düsseldorf. Harking back to the days of The Blitz Club, DJ Rusty Egan would play ‘Viva’ by La Düsseldorf; it also featured in the soundtrack for the Boy George dramatisation Worried About the Boy.
Conny Plank would produce the first La Düsseldorf album as well as the first three Rother albums. Billy Currie mentioned in an interview with TEC back in May that ‘Astradyne’ was heavily influenced by La Düsseldorf, most probably by the twenty minute epic ‘Cha Cha 2000′ with its middle piano breakdown and epic synthphonics. The Rother track ‘Zyklodrom’ also appears to have a marked presence. There are synth washes that melt into an empty background and those that appear towards the latter part of ‘Astradyne’ are perhaps a miniscule nod to ‘Zyklodrom’. Sonically, it’s a fiery micro-symphony with gallant tones, as is ‘Astradyne’. The mid synth sections of ‘Passing Strangers’ are also closely aligned to ‘Cha Cha 2000’. They’re also witnessed more recently, creeping into play on ‘Live’ from Brilliant. Speaking of Rother, the track ‘Sonnenrad’ was the inspiration for ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’ – Billy was given the Sterntaler album, from which it came, by Conny Plank. It’s certainly possible to feel how ‘DWTIME’ could emerge from the dampened down guitar progression that underpins ‘Sonnenrad’, while noting also the rhythmic dimensions. The intros could almost be one of the same, in terms of feel, tempo, pitch and structure.
Weaving it all together, the pre-show music at the 2012 Ultravox gigs featured Rother’s ‘Flammende Herzen’ and ‘Karussell’, plus La Düsseldorf’s ‘Time’ and ‘Silver Cloud’. ‘Silver Cloud’ has a sharp synth overlay that brushes against those of ‘One Small Day’ and even drives a slight Celtic atmosphere. ‘Karussell’ however is probably the most Ultravox sounding adventure, purely due to its star bright synth motifs. But Ultravox sounding or not, such a playlist of music would give their recent shows a more potent European scent – a fitting touch.
Reflecting on what was special to him as a musician regarding this post-Neu! axis and how it influenced the direction of Ultravox, Billy Currie tells The Electricity Club: “I wasn’t influenced by them that much, but I heard the string atmosphere of Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity and never looked back. Certainly, the strings do bear distinct alignment with the live version of ‘Mr X’, especially when the synths layer up for the outro; hugely atmospheric reveries that swell into that plethora of electric blue mist. “I heard Neu!’s ‘Hallogallo’,“ he adds. “It has ethereal synth playing ninths over a bass end that oscillates your lower stomach. That was in Conny’s studio. What a moment!”
With reference to influence revealing itself in Brilliant, Billy explains: “On ‘Rise’, there is a ninth interval in the verse (Neu!), plus simple left hand pad triads (La Düsseldorf). The subtle difference is that the triads are not that simple because the pads I do have an octave on the top so they sound a bit fuller. Possibly more classical than La Düsseldorf.” It is a thought that influences may be exchanged both ways. Ultravox may have either knowingly or unknowingly assimilated elements on to their albums and visa versa. “I think La Düsseldorf were equally influenced by us.” says Billy. “We wrote ‘I Can’t Stay Long’ and ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ in 1975 and 1977 respectively… I say!”
Billy once quoted in an interview with Beatmag circa 2006 that the solo at the end of ‘The Voice’ was very German and that also, ‘Williams Mix’ on his solo album Accidental Poetry Of The Structure is “quite German, with a definite nod to Conny Plank.” But then that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Neu!’s ‘Leb Wohl’, with its soft piano timbres could make its acquaintance with much of Billy’s solo work. ‘The Voice’ of course displays one of those renowned fiery solos, and it’s quite possible that various trademarks were exchanged between Ultravox and Neu! when it came to such a free-form improvisation formula.
Working with producer Stephen Lipson, the band would deliver an album that looked forward rather than back, and much of that can be put down to technological advances. In a recent interview with GForce Software, Billy spoke of his decision to avoid the use of the VSM on the Brilliant album (the VSM having the ability to replicate the Elka Rhapsody 610), in an effort to avoid over blowing certain vintage elements. There’s no harm in some of the key fundamentals that do remain – Billy’s ARP Odyssey soloing for one. An absolute favourite, and still very much possible on stage, thanks to the Oddity software instrument. The onslaught of the laptop-based studio also makes the logistics of writing and recording easier, so who knows with regards to possible future material?
When asked about the talk that’s been circulating recently regarding a possible US tour, Warren wasn’t overly optimistic about the reality of this actually happening. With regard to his views on their impact as a band in the States, he said: “It was down to the record company.”
The release of Brilliant did indeed put the band’s signature back on the parchment, certainly within Europe, but whether that scroll reaches further afield remains to be seen. Ultravox would remain a cult band in the States, but the fact that 2013 will see Midge Ure take his solo show across the waters, extending to both the States and Australia, is certainly a mark of optimism.
To conclude, the impact of the Ultravox sound can always be found and/or referenced – not a bad thing. Author Simon Reynolds, in his book Energy Flash quotes Adam Lee Miller of Adult: “I always get a kick when people say the first techno record was Cybotron’s ‘Alleys of Your Mind’. To me, it was just a New Wave record. It sounds particularly close to ‘Mr X’ by Ultravox.”
The Electricity Club gives its warmest and grateful thanks to Warren Cann and Billy Currie.
Special thanks also to friends of The Electricity Club throughout Europe for their hospitality and kindness.
Brilliant is released on CD and double clear vinyl by Eden Recordings/EMI Music.
Ultravox 2012 Tour – Live at Hammersmith Apollo is released as a 2CD set by Live Here Now.
Billy Currie is a classically trained, multi-talented instrumentalist / composer. With a serious musical background, he was once offered a place at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music back in 1969.
He opted not to go; the prospect of regimented training and academics being promptly traded for a more creative and experimental outlook. He didn’t go far wrong and since then, he’s worked with Tubeway Army and subsequently toured with Gary Numan’s band in 1979. He was also a member of Visage (a studio-based project fronted by New Romantic icon Steve Strange), and co-wrote the smash hit single ‘Fade to Grey’ with Chris Payne and Midge Ure. Now a long-standing member (since 1974) of the new wave electronic rock/pop synth pioneers Ultravox, Billy has long since been associated with the technical side of song crafting. Without a doubt he is Ultravox’s very own virtuoso of counterpoint and melody, and famed for delivering sounds of radical contrast; all of which seem to hold that air of suggestive spontaneity.
Billy is typically noted for his trademark soloing, which in the main, was created using his ARP Odyssey synthesizer. His profound blends of some of the most harmonious and expressive sounds, have not only helped establish him as a player with a unique charismatic edge, and one of unprecedented musical sophistication, but have also brought a somewhat striking shade to the colourful threads that were interwoven to form the music of Ultravox.
As a violinist, Billy would create a stylish, yet subtle classical inflection that still manages to leave a glaze all of its own, some three decades-plus later. On an instrument that perhaps lends itself more to virtuosity than others, he has also given scope to some of the most meaningful and unique aspects of Ultravox compositions, when considering the eloquent melodic violin sequences contained within the vast majority of their earlier material. Alongside his sharp soloing however, be it on violin or synthesizers, there’s also the alto voicing of his viola playing, often understated and played legato – adding yet another dynamic to his sound.
To date, Billy has eight solo albums to his credit. Each exhibits many distinct and individual stylistic features, ranging from the exhilarating and worldly Transportation (Billy’s 1988 solo debut), to the organic violin/viola sounds that constitute Stand Up & Walk. The most diverse of all, perhaps, emerges from the dynamic, intricate orchestration that leaps off the score to form Unearthed – showcasing snapshots of the lively symphonic, all set against contemporary vision, with definite impressionist elements that arguably go a little way to trigger a reminder to the French composer Maurice Ravel. Other works include Accidental Poetry Of The Structure, a delicately voiced dialogue forming an impressive collection of sensual and evocative compositions. There’s the heavily weighted, emotionally charged, upbeat synthesizer sounds hailing as Push, and not least, the wonderful minimalistic expanse that is Still Movement – to mention but a few.
Following the reformation of Ultravox in 2009 for their critically acclaimed Return To Eden tour, there was more to follow in 2010, which saw them stage their show not only in Britain, but also in Europe and Scandinavia. In the space of just two years, fans have been privileged with the release of the Return To Eden DVD (filmed live at the London Roundhouse in 2009) and also 2011’s Moments From Eden EP (recorded live during the German leg of the Return to Eden Part 2 tour.). However, the best and most celebrated news would come in January 2011 with the announcement of a brand new Ultravox album in the making. Fast forward to May 2012 and the album is here. The album entitled Brilliant is ready to hit the streets with Billy lately citing his favourite track was ‘Live’.
Just very recently, Billy stated on his website that he was also working on his next solo output. The Electricity Club caught up with him to talk about his vast body of work and not least, the new Ultravox album.
The news regarding the new Ultravox album only became public knowledge in January 2011 and was a tremendous surprise for fans – when did a new Ultravox record become a very real possibility for the four of you?
It was July 2010. We had a meeting and decided YES!
New music is something you seem to have set your sights on fairly early on, picking up from previous interviews since the live reunion?
That’s correct, I discussed it with Midge and Chris as early as May 2009. They were not very interested then. We all got more serious about it while doing the 2010 Return To Eden Part 2 tour and in Sweden for the festivals, we spent the travelling time discussing how we would go about it. I have a great memory of Chris driving me and Warren all the way across Sweden to Varberg. We talked a lot. Beautiful country, especially in August. We usually went there in winter.
After putting out so much solo material, how did you find working with a full band again?
I was anxious at first. When we went over to Canada the first time in September 2010, we did not bring ideas with us to work on. I thought that was good. We all felt the same way. We had to start from scratch.
I brought a couple of very basic ideas just to fall back on if we got a NOTHING HAPPENING AT ALL moment. One became ‘Rise’. The band put such a great rhythm to it that I had to take my average idea off and do something better. Midge helped. It was a simple pattern of chords. A few 2nd inversions though. That’s an influence from my solo work. It’s just the bass playing the 5th of the chord.
How would you describe the tone of Brilliant?
It’s sounding bright and positive. It sounds like we are having a good time.
Stephen Lipson is an excellent choice as producer. What extra qualities has he brought to the album?
Mostly energy! He has lots of it! He is very organised as well. We mixed it together. He is very good with drums and the bass synth. He would work tirelessly on them. He never forgot the whole picture though. His sounds are powerful and direct. He responded very well to the mid-tempo tracks. With ‘Hello’, he helped us virtually rewrite it in the studio!
And with ‘Remembering’, he told us to go away and rewrite it! He does not take any prisoners. It was good that he knew how far to get involved. He knew not to start doing any writing himself. That was our business! We had a good laugh as well!
Violin is your first instrument and you are a left-hander that learned to play right-handed (violin/viola). Did this present any barriers during your early years when learning the instrument?
It did at the very beginning. It seemed so unnatural. It began to mean that I was much quicker making the notes, higher positions and generally faster. More head stuff. I loved the note number-crunching part of music like sight reading. My bowing with the right arm, which really should be the leader and creator, lagged behind a bit in power. My bowing got better when I was at Music College. My teacher likened the movement to animals and reptiles jumping to catch prey which I understood. Natural Instinct!
Did you feel any inclination over the years to become a concert violinist or involved in anyway with symphony productions?
Yes, that is what I intended to do. On viola, I led the viola section in the orchestra for four years, playing symphonies and all sorts of modern stuff. I loved the string orchestra as well.
You are a classically trained pianist. But what first attracted you to the synthesizer?
When I was in a band, I found that hiring a string synth like an Elka Rhapsody could put the track in a different world. A new world! So when I got the chance to buy an ARP synthesizer in 1977, it was to further that quest. It also cut like a chainsaw. It was nice to be heard. It was exciting to make my own softer sounds that would help the song by lifting it. I enjoyed making counter melodies to the vocals. Weird sounds could completely change the feel of a track.
Was it love at first sight with the ARP Odyssey? What made it so special for you compared with say, the Minimoog?
I just liked that honky mad sound. The LFO was in a good position for me. Just moving a slider up and down, forward and back. It felt right. The Minimoog was all knobs, it did not seem as agile. They were both incredibly spacey to use. Very different though. They were abstract times. You came, eventually, to a sound, used it and never got it back again quite the same way. A Minimoog that had to have the panel upright did not look cool for me but it had to be up to play it properly though. The ARP had a lighter keyboard action which I preferred.
Chris Cross had a Minimoog which obviously suited his role in the band and Warren Cann bought his Roland TR77. Was there a particular moment or influence as to when Ultravox Mk1 decided to utilise more electronics?
Our electronic sound started to creep in while making the Ha! Ha! Ha! album. My ARP, Warren playing more fours-on-the-floor like in ‘The Man Who Dies Every Day’, John Foxx’s vocals painting pictures, high synth helping with the pictures and Chris with the repetitive, still, bass guitar at that time, and robotic parts. In 1977, recording ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ was a milestone.
You’ve mentioned in the past that when you were asked to join Visage, you had ideas stockpiled from before Systems Of Romance, “things that John Foxx and I argued about that we didn’t use”. So what songs on that first Visage album started off as Ultravox ideas?
‘Mind Of A Toy’ and ‘Tar’. Another became ‘I Remember (Death In The Afternoon)’ by Ultravox and one was used as the melody on ‘Kissing The Shame’ by me on Push.
When the Vienna album was released, ‘Astradyne’ was the perfect opener and a glorious statement of intent. How was the track conceived, especially with all that interplay and the way the final section starts on that unexpected lift?
It is hard to remember now. Midge started with that strong melody, Chris’ bass was also a very strong feature. I played a piano counter melody behind. The track was so strong that we felt at ease to lengthen it with a long textural piano bit that is sort of bell-like with the metronomic bass drum beats and the violin tremolo solo. We even start it with the spacey piano bit. Midge came up with that final section lift taking it out of the long ARP solo. I double it! It is a very good strong keyboard part. I used to say at the time: “Only a guitarist could come up with that!” I meant that as a good thing!
It is very celebratory at the end. Definitely some La Düsseldorf entering the rehearsal studio.
The ARP Odyssey was as good as gone by Lament. But Ultravox were early adopters of digital synths with the PPG Wave 2.2, Yamaha GS1 and DX7…
I loved the PPG. It was hard to programme though. I loved that glassy sound. It could also be crisp and metallic! I changed from turning a knob or a slider to moving numbers or letter increments in a window. A bit like getting your money from the HOLE IN THE WALL at the bank, not a very expressive action.
How were you finding the transformation from analogue synthesis as a player and how it was affecting your creativity?
It was tedious! The DX7… I had a rack of eight, it was good for ending all creativity and causing a severe headache! Good sound though when stacked up. With MIDI, I found myself mixing the more boring DX7 sounds with Oberheim or PPG. That was fun. All my synths seemed to be connected by a MIDI cable, like a washing line, round the studio. I could have five or six different synths linked together to get one sound. That got a bit silly though.
You have worked with soft synths for a good while now and seem quite happy to do so. But at what point did you decide to get the ARP Odyssey fixed up for use on the latest album.
It was a couple of months before the tour. I used it on my Still Movement album on the track ‘Deflect Downward’. I use it on my solo albums occasionally.
Are you able to tell us on how many tracks the Odyssey appears on the new album?
What was the most disappointing synth that you’ve used, the one that didn’t quite meet up to expectations and why?
Prophet T8. I got it thinking it would be a competitor to the Yamaha CS80 but the action was always far too heavy. It was the only other synth that had a totally polyphonic touch-sensitive keyboard. It was about £4000… a bargain!
You mentioned on a recent update that you have played violin on the new album – something that has always been a big part of the Ultravox sound. Can we expect some immensely atmospheric violin passages similar to those that were prominent on the likes of Vienna and Rage in Eden?
There is a rhythmic violin on ‘Flow’. The rest are solos. One violin part is adding atmosphere behind the vocals.
The Quartet and Lament albums had less obvious violin parts than the previous albums. Were there any particular reasons for that?
No, but Systems Of Romance had no violin on. Sometimes, keyboards are so consuming, especially when there are lots of very interesting changes going on in technology. There certainly was in 1982 to ’84. To flag up your question about the change from analogue to digital, that was what was going on then. I sort of forgot about the violin.
You must be very proud having just completed the first new Ultravox album for many years. Are there any particular highlights for you?
I love the atmosphere of ‘Lie’, the chord changes of ‘Live’, and the simplicity of ‘Change’ and ‘Contact’.
Apart from the fact yourself, Midge Ure, Chris Cross and Warren Cann have all written and recorded material – in your opinion, what makes this latest offering a standout Ultravox record?
It is very positive!
You have mentioned that you are working on a new solo record. Based on the superior quality of 2006’s Accidental Poetry Of The Structure and 2009’s Refine, that is another wonderful piece of news. How far are you with it, and have you incorporated any new influences picked up from perhaps working with Ultravox once again?
I have got eight tracks going now. Working with Ultravox has encouraged me to get out my fiddle but I also thought: “Why not get my viola out as well!” It is quite a dramatic track with impOSCar sounds. Not too fancy. Mostly the violin and viola are in octaves. There’s some very strange violin on another. One violin is straight, the other is very effected! One track is very up with a tempo of 130 BPM.
I’m using Nexus, that is a synth that I used on Ultravox’s ‘Live’ (in the middle solo section) and ‘Remembering’. That could very well be an influence from writing with Ultravox. The album will be released realistically early next year.
Your first solo album was Transportation in 1988 but why was that released before the material you were working on which ended up as Keys & The Fiddle?
I started a solo album in early 1983. I expelled much energy but then decided to shelve the music. I had just come off the eight month Ultravox Quartet tour and we were soon to start the Lament album. Visage was breaking up. I had to keep an eye on my energy. I worked with Steve Howe on a couple of the tracks so when I started work on Transportation in 1987, I got in touch with Steve again as I loved working with him! Keys & The Fiddle was an album that Rob Ayling at Voiceprint wanted me to do in 2001. It was a process of putting out all the music I had in the vaults. So to speak!
Your solo work is primarily instrumental – how do you find your titles?
They come according to the nature of the finished piece.
So what’s coming up that you’re able to tell us about?
There’s the British and European tour with Ultravox. We may be venturing out further in the New Year. I cannot say where yet as nothing is definitely booked.
If you had to take just one of your instruments to a desert island with you, which one would it be and why?
My viola. I sometimes hate playing it. It’s so big and hard to get round if I am out of practise. I love the look and smell of it!
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to Billy Currie.
The album Brilliant is released by EMI Records on 28th May 2012.
Ultravox tour the UK 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)