In my quest for having a complete collection of Ultravox albums I also bought (when I could find them) back catalogue recordings on vinyl of their previous incarnation with John Foxx. That 'Systems of Romance' was the last album I found was a rather cruel twist of fate.
Ultravox mk1 were very much 'arty' and experimental, leaning more to bands like early Roxy Music, David Bowie and to a lesser extent The Velvet Underground. The first album - 'Ultravox!' was pure 'art rock' weirdness, whereas their second 'Ha! Ha! Ha!' succumbed more to the influence of the then current Punk/New Wave movement.
With 'Systems of Romance', their third and final album with John Foxx, they seemed to say to hell with everything and all that was around at the time. Locking themselves away in Germany with some primitive synths, electronic musical equipment, guitars, bass, drums and the guidance of the late lamented German producer Conny Plank they came up with a master piece.
The year was 1978. Punk was still spewing bile, Disco was big and only bands like Kraftwerk were allowed to make electronic music. Then along came this album....
From the opening strains of 'Slow Motion', Systems of Romance proves its significance. Fat synth lines cavort with drums, guitars and the 'extremely English' vocals of John Foxx. It sounded totally unique, and only when Gary Numan (a fan of this album) came along a year later with 'Are Friends Electric?' and 'Cars' did this electro crossover musical style become accepted.
Every track on this album is worthy of a listen. 'Quiet men' and 'Dislocation' are pure electronica, whereas 'Some of Them' is pure New Wave. Others fall somewhere between these two. The mix here is dancey, uplifting, surreal and at times very dark. That Ultravox can move so easily between different musical styles and instruments yet still retain their signature sound proves what a unique band they were.
The stand out tracks amongst a collection that is already superb can be picked simply because of the influence they had on the forthcoming New Romantic movement.
Rich with heavy, fat synths, neurotic guitars and a disjointed drum pattern. Foxx's vocals fly high above this to make a compelling, weird, yet strangely catchy song.
I Can't Stay Long:
Driving, rhythmic, lush synths and mournful guitar. A strangely moving song with some brilliant vocals and lyrics. Also quite surreal in places: 'I want to glide the long green light of a July afternoon, sliding down a vague conversation'. Lyrically beautiful.
Kraftwerk like, also similar to pre 'Dare' Human League. Strangely danceable, catchy and infectious. Must have influenced early Depeche Mode, Soft Cell and OMD.
Bowie like vocals, eerie electro music, thunderous synth. Not the sort of song to listen to in the dark........
When You Walk Through Me:
Great Warren Cann drum pattern, Robin Simon's guitar also shining brightly. Strange rhythm, great vocals and unsettling lyrics.
Just For A Moment:
Haunting, eerie, creepy, downright disturbing electro track with beautiful short piano piece in the middle. Foxx's vocals have been 'treated' to make it sound even weirder. The sort of song that leaves you with a shiver down your spine.
John Foxx has a fantastic voice that is both emotional and powerful, as well as embodying 'English eccentricity'. His lyrics are artistic, at times moving, at others surreal; all the while painting a lush landscape of imagery that is both light and dark. A line from 'I can't stay long' sums up his lyrics perfectly - 'Everywhere seems to be, just a flicker, from a silent screen'.
Robin Simon's guitar style is unusual, moving and powerful without ever resorting to standard rock clichés. His playing on this album is revelatory, eccentric, pure genius. He later went solo, and also played in Howard Devoto's Magazine. He should have gone on to be a guitar great.
Billy Curry brought in keyboard skills, violin, viola, and classical music training. He fused 'pop' with his classical style and made it work, such as interjecting the short, beautiful piano piece into the disturbing 'Just for a moment'. On other songs he added lush synthesized strings, or fat, rumbling, quirky analogue synth sounds.
Chris Cross' bass playing is simplistic, yet rhythmical and at times unusual. It is also worth noting that the bass synthesizer lines were played by him. He creates a backbone to which the band can attach themselves to.
Warren Cann is like Chris in that his drum lines are simple yet unusual. Note as well in the fade out of 'When you walk through me' he used the same drum pattern again in the fade out to 'Reap the Wild Wind' a few years later! He also deserves recognition for the electronic drums and rhythms, using primitive programming and ingenuity. The 'drums' on 'Dislocation' are in actual fact a synthesizer being looped onto tape!
Overall this album is quite simply ahead of it's time. Had it been released in 1981 maybe it would have gone huge, but sadly it was just too advanced for 1978's listening ears. Comparisons with Midge Ure era Ultravox are unfair, though in all respects Systems of Romance set the blueprint that Ultravox mk2 would use to have greater success.
The quality of recording and mixing is excellent as well as unique, as can be expected with Conny Plank producing. Sadly it sounds as if Island simply dumped it onto CD without any re-mastering. One wonders how much better it could be with some modern technology bringing out the best of an already brilliant album.
Whatever, this is a must have for anyone interested in the early pioneers of electronic fusion. To listen to it one can hardly believe this was released in 1978, and the creativity, songwriting and musicianship shine through. A true gem.
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