In a recent interview with the Spanish magazine Metropoli, former Ultravox singer John Foxx had this to say about nostalgia: “It’s an illness. It’s a kind of death. Why should anyone attempt to imitate themselves as a young man – often a foolish young man? You have to be blind, vain, and terribly insecure to do this. There is absolutely no point in looking backwards when there is still so much to investigate.” While he wasn’t being asked about the band he founded, it’s pretty clear that Foxx would think that the idea of Ultravox reuniting with his replacement (Midge Ure) is faintly ridiculous for a number of reasons – and it’s not hard to disagree with that assessment.
The Foxx-era Ultravox was a futuristic and aggressive synth-pop act, indebted to both krautrock experimentalism and the punk rock movement. It did not meet with much success, but it’s generally regarded as one of the more innovative acts of the early New Wave movement. After Foxx left the band, Ultravox became one of the most popular and successful bands of New Wave’s commercial era and made a string of records that, while certainly not all that groundbreaking, nonetheless captured the epic melodrama that so defined the sound of the early ’80s. It was, basically, the European pop version of Van Halen vs. Van Hagar, but if David Lee Roth was more into the Velvet Underground than Black Oak Arkansas.
This “reunion” album brings vocalist/guitarist Midge Ure (a.k.a. Sammy Hagar) back together with the “classic” lineup of Chris Cross (bass), Billy Currie (synthesizers), and Warren Cann (drums), and revisits the unapologetically huge synth-rock sound that the band was so successful with between 1980 and 1986. Within the first minute of Brilliant, the skyscraping anthemry, the pulsing synth lines, and the gorgeous textures of “Live Again” immediately evoke the band’s Vienna/Rage in Eden era, during which legendary krautrock producer Conny Plank helped Ultravox connect the experimentalism of their early years with their mainstream ambitions. Contained within that song is pretty much any reason one would have to pay attention to an Ultravox album in 2012.
Unfortunately, after that, Brilliant quickly loses the plot. Before the album even hits the halfway mark, the band seems to have completely run out of steam and focus, unable to decide if stadium-sized fluff like “Flow” or synth-heavy dirges like “The Change” are the right way to go. By the time the album reaches the witheringly dull second half, half-baked, late-’80s leftovers like “Satellite” and bloodless midtempo numbers like “This One” very nearly suck all the remaining life out of Brilliant. Of course, this is where the band slips in the most interesting song on the whole album: “Fall” is part musical theater solo number, part twisted synth-pop, and all epic drama. It’s almost uncomfortable to listen to, but unlike the discomfort caused by the rest of Brilliant, it actually makes you want to hear more where it came from.
Essential tracks: “Live Again”, “Fall”