Review Summary: Foxx ditches his Ultravox past and embraces synthesiser technology, creating an eerie, futurist synthpop record to be danced to slowly, under the shadow of the cenotaph.
There’s a cult following for a certain time period in Ultravox’s career, roughly speaking, 1977-79, when a stark, jarringly voiced John Foxx led the band and it’s apocalyptic mix of styles - most identifiably punk, burgeoning electronic noise and art rock popular in Britain a few years previous to Ultravox!’s LP debut in 1977. It’s often the fans of this period who cite Foxx as being a major reason to favour the early Ultravox output to the Midge Ure, sleek sythpop records of 1980 onwards. Whatever the reason, his detached vocals and chilling, futurist lyrics found a hook in the minds of those bored with punk and conventional pop music of the time, influencing the likes of soon-to-be superstars like Gary Numan. Although Foxx’s work with Ultravox was important to the face of British music at the time (with some sources claiming that the final Foxx-led ‘Vox LP, ‘Systems of Romance’ was one the first synthpop albums), his cold, robotic sci-fi visions truly came into their own without the conflicting artistic views of fellow band members to cause tensions, when he split with the band in 1979. In short, ‘Metamatic’ saw Foxx being able to distil and refine his style into its purest, most effective and influential form yet.
The album has a consistent theme and style of sound, namely, clinical, cold, robotic synthpop, more to the tune of Kraftwerk’s ‘The Man Machine’, Gary Numan and early Human League, than to other, warmer electro pop groups emerging in England at the same time, such as OMD or Depeche Mode. Embracing synthesisers wholeheartedly; it was relatively new technology like the ARP Odyssey and Minimoog that made the music here - ditching any traces of his punk tinged past, even replacing the need to hire a live drummer with the Roland CR-78 drum machine. The eerie, ethereal synthesisers whirl in their cold glory, and whisk up an ominous electronic atmosphere to complement Foxx’s sci-fi, futurist lyrics.
It’s not just the instruments that are unconventional, but also Foxx’s lyrics. Virtually all the tracks steer away from the usual pop tales of love and life, and lean in the direction of fiction - common themes being visions of the future, machines and characters cloaked in science-fictional allegories. The brilliant opening number, ‘Plaza’, serves as a good example of the lyrical style, with its chorus, reading “down escalators, come to the sea view / behind the smoked glass no-one sees you / a familiar figure comes to meet you / I remember your face from some shattered windscreen”, backed by jarring zaps of synth rising and falling, menacingly, behind Foxx’s tale of a ‘plaza’ where people are “dancing slowly, lit like photographs… / toward the shadow of the cenotaph”. ‘Underpass’ is the most memorable hit from Metamatic, featuring on many of the (admittedly better) electro 80s compilations from the past and present, and with good reason. Although still dominated by robotic beats and frosty synth jabs, ‘Underpass’ is as close as Foxx comes to commercial pop on the record, with an intoxicating, danceable flourish of synth flitter, preceding the brief, angular vocal interjections, crashing background noises and yelps of the title “underpass!”. Other standout moments include the machine-like, mechanical beats of ‘Metal Beat’, the desperate, frightened fiction of ‘No-One Driving’, and the bouncy, somewhat upbeat (compared to the other tracks, anyway), electro-reggae closing tune, ‘Touch and Go’.
Truthfully, there isn’t really a weak moment on the entire disc, and whilst some tracks standout more than others, after a few plays, ‘Metamatic’ really begins to shine as one of the most enjoyable, very early 80s British electronic albums, that demonstrated all that was great about the country’s growing fascination for the cold, danceable electro beats of Kraftwerk, and fashionable futurist themes and moods - something which ‘Metamatic’ does a better job of than most of its contemporary rivals. John Foxx, (aided by, at-the-time unknown; sharp, young engineer Gareth Jones) took his visionary tales of the future (first toyed with when he sang for Ultravox) to the next level, producing an album that features a genuinely eerie and clinical electronic atmosphere to match his jarring, detached vocals and astute sci-fi lyrics. ‘Metamatic’ is a stunning, confident and well-executed debut album, and is impossible to ignore for any fan of influential electronic music, especially if they love sci-fi, to boot.