Friday, August 3, 2007

Ultravox - Vienna (1980/2000)

Ultravox is a relatively new favorite of mine. Like the Human League, they've been on the fringe of my awareness for years but I've only recently begun really listening to them. It started when my sister Meredith bought me a 7" of "The Thin Wall" b/w "I Never Wanted to Begin". Both are fairly good tracks, but it didn't immediately inspire me to buy an album. I'd listened through my dad's The Collection (a collection of the singles from their fourth through seventh albums) on vinyl, but it wasn't until about a year ago that I bought Quartet (1982) on cassette.

Then I went to Vienna. While I was there, I always wanted to go record shopping but never did until Meredith came and visited me halfway through my time there. I'd looked up a dozen or so stores, but we spent so much time at the first one that we didn't bother going to any others. (A couple of weeks before I left I started finding the others.) While at that first store, the only record I bought was Ultravox's Vienna. It was just too appropriate. I bought the album on vinyl, and I didn't have a record player, so I took the technically-cheating route of downloading mp3s of the album. Don't cast your eyes down too far – I do own the album, after all, fair and square. I fell in love with the album and listened to it, and the title track in particular, all the time. It felt so quintessentially Vienna. I later learned the song was written in reaction to the film The Third Man (1948), which itself is set in Vienna. Upon learning that, I quickly found a theater downtown that plays the movie weekly and attended a screening.

When I got home and finally played the record on my dad's turntable, I was blown away.

Artist: Ultravox
Album: Vienna
Release Date: 30 June 1980
Label: Chrysalis
Produced by: Ultravox and Conny Plank

01. Astradyne
02. New Europeans
03. Private Lives
04. Passing Strangers
05. Sleepwalk
06. Mr. X
07. Western Promise
08. Vienna
09. All Stood Still

Reissue (2000) bonus tracks:
10. Waiting [Sleepwalk b-side, 1980]
11. Passionate Reply [Vienna b-side, 1981]
12. Herr X [Vienna 12" b-side, 1981]
13. Alles Klar [All Stood Still b-side, 1981]

Vienna is a grand album. It starts with a tinking synthetic drum beat, and slowly various synth lines come in. Then a bass drum kicks, the drums start, more keyboards fill in, and a melody begins. The album is so dramatic and epic... it has such a big sound, which is why playing it on vinyl seems to only help. I should note that there are two versions of the tracklisting, but my German vinyl copy and the reissued CD version I've seen online use the version I gave above. I think the original US vinyl messed things up – it just doesn't work as well. The way the standard sequencing works makes things flow so well.

"Astradyne" is the opener I had begun describing above. It is a seven-minute instrumental, full of pitch-bent synthesizers and a full sound. Like the Human League, three of the four members of the band are credited as performing synthesizers, but each also plays a "regular" instrument, too, be it bass, guitar, or Billy Currie, who performs piano, viola, and violin. And there's the drummer, too, credited with "Drums, Electronic Percussion, Vocals". These guys loved to experiment and find new sounds – but they weren't as concerned as other bands were about being wholly synthetic.

"New Europeans", in fact, opens with a crunchy guitar. Bass, drums, and vocals enter, and it isn't until the chorus that weird synth washes enter the mix. Through the second verse, there is what sounds either like an e-bow or a good old synth line. That actually happens a lot, where it's hard to tell how "real" or synthetic a track is. The song even has what is essentially a guitar solo (backed by synthesizers), which is of course followed by a synth-dominated third verse, complete with vocals that sound processed to sound distant or through a telephone. The lyrics of the song are very interesting – the title is also the chorus, but the verses tell a story of an elderly man, quietly and passively sitting and reminiscing. It feels so European, though – and suddenly the third verse (the one with a synthesizer instead of a guitar as primary rhythm) declares "... he puts his headphones on / His modern world revolves around the synthesizer's song / ... / He's a European legacy, a culture for today". The clash of Old World culture with the "synthesizer's song" seems so fitting for Ultravox, a band that combines classical string instruments with rock instrumentation and synthesizers. If this is today's culture, I'm in. I love that brand of postmodernism. But it is confusing how this relates to the old man. I find it odd that "New Europeans" wasn't a single, considering that I like the song better than a few of the other four tracks picked as singles.

"Private Lives" begins with a pleasant little piano intro, perhaps in direct opposition to the preceding track. Then comes in the full band, rocking with synths. Piano and synth lines swirl in and out of the song, and the dominating bass is fuzzed warmly to good effect. The lyrics begin what seems to be a continuing theme: waltzing along happily but being vaguely aware that someone is watching or following, or that something bad is to come: "Close your eyes and use the melody / Who cares who stares under the light? / See the shadow tailing me again". For a nice finishing touch, the song dives into a sudden stop, only to break right back out into full rock mode for a reprise.

"Passing Strangers", also released as a single, is also very good but has less obvious distinguishing elements. There's a great synthesizer solo near the end that's cool. It fades out and the bouncy "Sleepwalk" (another single) begins. It alternates between slightly eerie bridges with a buzzing synth and whispered repetitions of the title and the major-key verses. This song also has a great synthesizer break, only it's even better than the one in "Passing Strangers" since this one is longer. The lyrics, happy as they sound, are rather dark and desperate: "Rolling and falling / I'm choking and calling / Name after name after name / Naked and bleeding / The streetlights stray by me / Hurting my eyes with their glare".

Thus ends side one of the vinyl, and side two opens with another long synth-dominated song, only this side's opener is even better than "Astradyne". "Mr. X" is a very spooky-sounding piece, loaded with classic string lines and synth washes in a sort of droning, eerie manner. The drum machine adds to the mood. The lyrics are spoken and further the weirdness. The narrator explains that he found a "perfect picture of a perfect stranger" and that he is "still searching" for the subject; "He could be a killer or a blind man with a cane / Perhaps he died in a car crash years ago / Right now, it's impossible to tell." The strange Mr. X could be anyone, and the band claim that he is an actual person, but the lyrics do not elucidate. The lyrics continue their weirdness: "I saw him in an airport, while he was sitting on a wing / And I waved to him, but I don't think he noticed me / I've got a funny feeling I know who he is". Who!? Oh, the pain.

"Western Promise" opens with a quickly-arpeggiated synth bubble before a lead line enters. The band follows, complete with violin or viola. Like so many of the songs, it sounds so big and full and epic, or at least at first, because it then gets darker, with crazy noises and that distant/telephone vocal effect. The lyrics seem to lament the domination of the East by Western culture, only that the lyrics seem to be from the point of view of a conquistador proud of his conquest of the East, but ready to help rebuild in the Western style: "My Western world gives out her hand / a victor's help to your fallen land". Then comes the real bite: "Your Buddha Zen and Christian men / all minions to messiah Pepsi can".

Now, on my vinyl copy, the synthesizer fades while the memorable drumbeat of the next song begins, but the digital copy I have has a clear separation. "Vienna", a number two single, and awesome, starts simply: a steady one-note synth warble that later moves a bit to serve as an instrumental melody, a steady and repetitive (but unique) drum beat, and a distant synth shine. The singing begins, eerily detailing walking around. Somewhere lies "a man in the dark in a picture frame" (Mr. X?), and "a voice reach[es] out in a piercing cry". Then things open a bit, and singer Midge Ure belts, "The feeling has gone, only you and I", and a dramatic piano (and bass) enter, floating around the words, "it means nothing to me / this means nothing to me / Oh...., Vienna!" The piano plays some more notes and the next verse begins: "The music is weaving". An image is described and then "it fades to the distance / the image is gone, only you and I" and the super-dramatic chorus comes back. Then we are treated to a string-dominated bridge, with slowly ascending chords with descending basslines. It leads right into a final chorus, even more dramatic than before. It's just so grand, with all the synths, the piano, the drum crashes, and the almost-over-the-top singing. The song was written in response to the film The Third Man, as I said before, which takes place in post-WWII divided Vienna, hence the subject matter. The movie is a classic, just like the song.

"All Stood Still" (another single) closes the album. It contains some great guitar workouts, weird noises, a pulsing bassline, and great synths. The last verse has the guitar doing a more 60s sort of thing, only strumming on the off-beats and quickly muting, giving a strange but fitting feeling. The lyrics are sung call-and-response and describe something between a power outage and the apocalypse: "The lights went out (The last fuse blew) / The clocks all stopped (It can't be true)", and by the end, "Everyone kissed (We breathe exhaust) / In the new arcade (Of the holocaust)". Then there is the sentiment of the bridges: "Please remember to mention me / in tapes you leave behind". Okay.

The bonus tracks and other non-album b-sides are a fairly good lot, but a step behind the songs on the album proper. "Waiting" has a nice fade-in with weird sounds, a processed repetition of the title, and snare drum rolls. The song in general sounds a bit simpler, but still fairly dramatic and full. The lyrics aren't anything too new to the album: "Looking back as you head for home / Unsure if you walk alone". "Passionate Reply" also has some great bits but ultimately feels less finished than the album tracks. "Herr X" is "Mr. X" with German lyrics; supposedly it's the same backing track (and it sounds that way) but is somehow forty seconds shorter. As best as I can tell, the translation is accurate. "Alles Klar" (German for "everything clear" or (sort of) "okay") is a synth-tastic instrumental soundscape.

The CD reissue fails to include three further b-sides. There's the b-side to the "Passing Strangers" 7", "Face to Face", a nearly synth-less, guitar-based live recording about something like the apocalypse, but also the b-side to the 12" version, a live cover of Brian Eno's "King's Lead Hat", a fast-paced rocker fairly faithful to the original. (Note that the title is an anagram for Talking Heads, who Brian Eno loved. Eno also produced Ultravox's first album.) Last is the b-side to the "All Stood Still" 12", "Keep Talking", another weird synth-happy instrumental soundscape, this one including some muted screaming.

Ultravox is a great New Romantic band. The fit the bill so well: stylish, dramatic, synthy, intelligent, classical, and modern. Vienna was their fourth album, but their first with Midge Ure – on the first three, John Foxx sang, but he then left to pursue a solo career, and Ure was drafted in. The band melds a very good knowledge of music theory with rock awareness and very dramatic, full production. And synthesizers. The album is enormous and epic. It's all very driving, but it's decidedly weird and eerie. There are strange noises to be found all over the place, sometimes prominent in the mix, and the mood is always dark. Multiple songs mention being followed and feeling that sinking, foreboding feeling. "Mr. X" catches that mood best and has perhaps the best lyrical rendition of those ideas. At the same time, there is the sort of nostalgic European thing – namely in "New Europeans" and "Vienna", two of my favorite tracks.

"Vienna" is simply an amazing song. There's a video, too, that just fits in with the atmosphere all the more. It was shot on location around Vienna sights and features plenty of night-time fog-ridden shots. A very appropriate video. Now, I'm aware how close the song is to cheesy, but I don't care. It's so majestic. I fully intend to cover it, as to me it encapsulates this amazing, grand feeling I still feel about the city of Vienna, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to get over that. It reminds me of this picture of Stephansdom that I took on my third day in Vienna, which just looks unreal and to me has that same wonder:

Original album: A+
Bonus tracks: B
Obscure non-reissued b-sides: C+


Matthew said...

dude, i found that record being thrown out! it was pretty good, and i think your review charecterizes the sound pretty accurately. can't stop the vinyl monster

Patti said...

Man, who would throw out an album as monumentally awesome as Vienna? People just don't know what they have sometimes. (I'm sure the same goes for me now and then, too, though.) I love finding old awesome vinyl. It makes me feel really good.