Ultravox - Brilliant
Live Aid 1985 was the last time that the definitive Ultravox line-up of Midge Ure, Billy Currie, Chris Cross and Warren Cann played together. Ure scored solo success that same year with his first solo album, which ultimately put a dampener on the band when they got back together to record the successor to 1984's Lament. With Ure pushing to return to a more slim-line sound rather the more expansive synth-rock hybrid they were known for, something had to give and that was the departure of Canadian drummer Warren Cann. Sadly 1986's lacklustre U-Vox album, now known as The Dreaded Pink Thing by fans, was a disappointing swansong.
Cann teamed up with not-quite-so-famous-yet musician Hans Zimmer and produced a stunning but sadly still unreleased concept album Spies before decamping to Los Angeles. Bassist Cross became a medical professional and withdrew from music other than the odd foray onto the Extreme Voice website now and again to touch base with Ultravox fans.
Ure continued his solo career albeit with ever diminishing returns after the initial success of his album The Gift, frequently embarking on one man acoustic gigs to save on costs and keep the music alive. Classically trained synthmeister and violinist Currie meanwhile embarked on a mostly critically acclaimed career as a solo musican, with the odd flip-out at Martian-inspired critical reviews although this seems to have been the after effect of dental treatment.
Then 2009 saw the band finally reform for the superb Return To Eden tour that was documented on a CD/DVD release of the same name. Spurred on by their current success, the band then decided to decamp to Midge Ure's house in Canada to produce their first album in 27 years. Enlisting the aid of Stephen Lipson to produce, expectations were high as Lipson was previously responsible for production duties on Propaganda's A Secret Wish.
The result is Brilliant, an album title that has an implied question mark if you look at the artwork. And actually, it's not far off - although as Ultravox are my favourite band bar none that was more than likely always going to be my view unless it turned out to be a crushing disappointment, which it most definitely isn't.
Brilliant sets it's stall out with an opening trio of strong tracks. Live is a powerful opener that is almost certainly going to be a live favourite, whilst Flow continues the stadium rock vibe with Midge doing his best Edge-like guitar impersonation. Opening single Brilliant, a veiled dig at reality-based acts, is as good as when heard a few months ago. My only issue with this electronic based track is that the instrumental break still seems too short, reminding me of the single edit of We Came To Dance that arguably removed the soul of the track.
Change is the first of the slow tracks and despite some misgivings when hearing 30 seconds snippets prior to release, they're all rather good. Ure's almost pleading soft vocals are accompanied by some atmospheric synths and sublime piano by Currie. The mournful Remembering would not have been out of place on Rage In Eden alongside Your Name (Has Slipped My Mind Again), I think this would be superb live.
Rise is my favourite track on the album, a fantastic synth based song with a Kraftwerkian bassline that seems to be a tirade against music svengali's like Simon Cowell, and a natural follow-up to the earlier Brilliant. It's also the point where Billy Currie lets rip with one of his trademark Arp Odyssey solos. I could bang on about all the tracks but this is long enough already and there's not one I would skip. This album isn't a cohesive piece of work like the earlier Rage In Eden, the high mark of their discography so far, but it is a fantastic album with the plaintive Contact a great closing track that leaves you gasping for more.
There are the usual Ultravox musical trademarks throughout the album, including their penchant for musical experimentation whether the combination of sounds, the vocal stutter in Rise or the mock vinyl intro of One. Bass and drumming from Cross and Cann respectively are still a mixture of traditional instrumentation and electronic, some great percussion from Cann in spite of not apparently touching a drum kit between the mid 80's and 2009. Midge Ure's guitar playing is the best it's been in years, both understated and prominent as required - proving he's at his best within the structure of the band playing off his cohorts. Ure's trademark powerful vocals are not really present, and unsurprising given his age but his vocal technique here is not only more restrained but highly effective. Currie is also better within the band, his playing is both sublime and the driving force in equal measure, a brilliant viola solo in Satellite one of the highlights.
In terms of where this album sits, it appears to me to be a worthy successor to Lament albeit a more mature album due to the length of time between the two and their subsequent experiences outside of the band. It's a testament to this album that it's been on rotation on my iPod since I've gotten it, making an instant impression on me rather than being a slow burner. And despite it not being being one of the core Ultravox albums, I can't see me getting bored of this modern successor any time soon, if ever.
A worthy addition to the canon.