9 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Whiplash / heavy metal accident,
This review is from: Metamatic...Plus (Audio CD)
I was very young when this album came out, and I have no organic connection with it. Metamatic is a product of the great black void that existed before I became fully conscious. But I have always been interested in electronic music, and this album is often cited in the music press as a good example of the state of play circa 1980. It was released at a time when synthesisers and electronics were becoming normalised into pop music, but were not yet unexceptional. The album has a deliberately cold, mechanical feel. John Foxx sings passionately but with great reserve. The lyrics are poetic, in the modern way, and occasionally cross the line into high-serious art camp.
I believe that the album is remembered nowadays for three things. Firstly, there is "Underpass", which was John Foxx's most popular chart single, the only one that is likely to be on multi-artist compilations. It sounds exactly like my mental image of a concrete underpass. When I think of a concrete underpass, I hear "Underpass". It is a great synaesthetic mood piece. Secondly, the album is remembered for John Foxx's look. He wore a shirt and tie and sensible trousers, and belonged to the Michael York School of Suave. John Foxx became a solo artist at the same time as a lot of other shirt-wearing pop stars, e.g. Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, Joy Division. He was more fey than the others. He had much better hair, more pronounced cheekbones. It is baffling that he was not more popular. Perhaps the ladies thought he was... not interested in them.
Thirdly, the album has a very distinctive sound. Nowadays it is a time capsule. It is almost all synthesisers, from a time when that was a powerful mission statement. There is no lead guitar. No cowbell. The drum machine used on the record is very primitive. I believe it is a Roland CR-78. It goes pop-fizz-spat. The snare drum and hi-hats are white noise hisses, and the kick drum sounds like someone tapping a record player stylus. The drum pattern on "No-One Driving" goes thud pish thud pish for four minutes. "Metal Beat" has some choice electronic noises, including a twang sound that would become popular in the days of acid house. Throughout the album the bass sounds solid. The strings tend to overwhelm everything else and should have been quieter, with less reverb. Because of this I find it hard to listen to "New Kind of Man" without wincing. It has an extremely strident strings part that annoys me. "Blurred Girl", which follows it, is much subtler.
On a sonic level the record is a period piece. It has dated in a musical way as well. The songs are all gloomy minor-key numbers with sick-sounding, off-key melodies. It would be unthinkable to hear any of them on the radio today. I am in two minds as to whether I am simply incompatible with this sound, or whether the album is an ambitious experiment that did not quite come off. "Burning Car", one of the bonus tracks, is conceptually the same as the other songs on the album, but I think it is fantastic, whereas I am not a fan of "He's a Liquid" or "030". "Tidal Wave" is very mysterious and haunting, and throws up some odd mental images. "The Plaza", despite the crashing overloud strings, has an airy European feel. "Metal Beat" is catchy in a strange way. The rest is certainly unusual and hard to forget, but I can't warm to it. Perhaps that was the idea.
John Foxx abandoned the style very quickly. I have his next album, "The Garden", on vinyl, and it is airy pop music with pianos etc. Perhaps the success of Gary Numan's approach - also stark and futuristic, but rocking - turned the whole "cold wave" into a cliché, and encouraged John Foxx to change direction.
I have an earlier edition of this CD, which only has 16 tracks. It does not have "Burning Car", "Glimmer", or "Mr No"; instead, it has "A Long Time" and "Swimmer 2". The loss of "Burning Car" is a terrible shame, because it is my favourite track of all. It does the grunge quiet-loud thing to perfection and sounds awesome. It was released as a standalone single after Metamatic had come out, and is essentially a distillation of Metamatic's concept into a three-minute pop song.