November 17, 2013

John Foxx - Metamatic (1980/2007) / The Garden (1981/2008)

Despite being a seminal figure in the rise of experimental synth-pop during the late 1970s, John Foxx has never received the level of notoriety lavished on fellow synth-pioneers Kraftwerk and Gary Numan.  Nevertheless, Foxx's uniquely detached vocal style as well as his consistently challenging approach to electronic music, both of which he progressively developed during his tenure in Ultravox(!), were clearly major influences on Numan as well as any number of lesser new wave artists who littered the musical landscape throughout the early 1980s. In fact, aside from David Sylvian's mature work with Japan, it would be hard to find a more trailblazing figure in post-glam electro-pop. Foxx (then known as Dennis Leigh) spent much of the mid-1970s in a marginal glam band called Tiger Lilly, but in the aftermath of the rise of the punk movement, he, along with violinist Billy Currie, formed Ultravox! whose first three albums, Ultravox!, Ha!-Ha!Ha!, and Systems of Romance, trace an increasingly experimental progression from glam and krautrock-inspired post-punk to a more lush yet minimalist, synth-dominated sound that points ahead to Foxx's even more groundbreaking solo work. Perhaps due to Ultravox's unselfconsciously experimental nature, the U.K. press was always dismissive of Foxx's version of the band. John Foxx: "Very early on, we decided to investigate and develop lots of what had then been declared ungood and which we felt were manifesting themselves and were worth recording. These included psychedelia, electronics, cyberpunk, environments and elements suggested by the likes of Ballard and Burroughs, cheap European music and modes, and strange English pop, such as some aspects of The Shadows and Billy Fury which seemed to relate to a sort of English retro-futurism. We were interested in a sort of ripped and burnt glamour. I was also taken with a detached, still stance."
Ostensibly, Foxx's decision to go solo after Ultravox's brilliant third album, Systems of Romance, had to do with the band's increasingly difficult circumstances, which included being dropped by their label, Island, on the eve of a U.S. tour. However, Foxx has suggested his departure was inevitable given his desire to pursue his own muse without interference: "The band thing is a phase- like being in a gang. You can't really be part of a gang all your life; it begins to feel undignified and it stunts your growth, unless you want to be a teenager forever. Some do. Some don't. The benefits were the Gestalt- where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, a very powerful experience- and working in a closed society with people who have the same aim. Of course, the aims almost inevitably diverge as you all grow. The point of view I've always worked from is that of a ghost in the city- someone who is a sort of drifting, detached onlooker- but still vulnerable and trying against all odds to maintain a sort of dignity in the face of all the static." Foxx would take this "ghost in the city" approach to a new level on his inimitable debut LP, Metamatic, quite possibly the most important electro-pop album of the eighties. Recorded in a small studio in North London, which Foxx once described as "an eight track cupboard [...] Very basic, very scruffy, very good," the album represents quite a departure from his work with Ultravox, as it completely dispenses with conventional instruments (and in the process, Foxx's punk origins), instead relying entirely on synthetic textures, and in doing so, achieving a chilly, mechanized aesthetic that is both aurally challenging and artistically compelling.

Foxx: "I lived alone in Finsbury Park, spent my spare time walking the disused train lines, cycled to the studio everyday and wobbled back at dawn, imagining I was the Marcel Duchamp of electropop. Metamatic was the result. It was the first British electronic pop album. It was minimal, primitive technopunk. Carcrash music tailored by Burtons." Both lyrically and musically, Metamatic conjures dystopian images of isolated individuals navigating cold landscapes populated only by architecture and machines, with a recurring theme being disconnection. For example, on the stunningly strange opening track, "Plaza," Foxx's dis-attached vocals are surrounded by several synths all sounding as though entirely isolated from each other. This gives the song an eerie dislocated feel that contrasts sharply with the rather straightforwardly descriptive lyrics. The most recognizably pop-oriented song on the album is "Underpass," an electro-pop masterpiece that manages to be minimalist and incredibly catchy at the same time; it's melodramatic synthesizers and Foxx's heavily treated robotic vocals create another dark tale of unbridgeable distances, but the tension is undercut by the song's inherent danceability. While Metamatic ultimately proved to be the least outwardly accessible of Foxx's 1980s solo albums, it also proved to be his greatest, as its follow-up, The Garden, though a fine piece of synth-driven pop in its own right, signaled a step toward a more conventionally melodic sound that Foxx would continue to explore, despite diminishing returns, for the remainder of the decade until dropping out of public view in 1986; however, it did not take long for his considerable influence to be felt. Foxx: "All the same sounds surfaced again after 1987, reanimated with beautiful new rhythms, as the beginnings of acid. I recognized the vocabulary immediately. A new underground at last. Adventure was possible again after the double-breasted dumbness of the mid-eighties."

Metamatic  (1980/2007 ~ Deluxe Edition)
Disc I: Metamatic
 1. Plaza
 2. He's a Liquid
 3. Underpass
 4. Metal Beat
 5. No-One Driving
 6. A New Kind of Man
 7. Blurred Girl
 8. 030
 9. Tidal Wave

Disc II: Bonus Material
 1. Film One
 2. This City
 3. To Be with You
 4. Cinemascope
 5. Burning Car
 6. Glimmer
 7. Mr. No
 8. Young Love
 9. 20th Century
10. My Face
11. Like a Miracle (Alternate Version)
12. A New Kind of Man (Alternate Version)
13. He's a Liquid (Alternate Version) 

Links in Comments

The Garden (2008/1981 ~ Deluxe Edition)
Disc I: The Garden 
 3. When I Was a Man and You Were a Woman
 4. Dancing Like a Gun
 5. Pater Noster
 6. Night Suit
 7. You Were There
 8. Fusion/Fission
 9. Walk Away 
10. The Garden

Disc II: Bonus Materials

 1. Swimmer II
 3. Miles Away
 4. A Long Time
 5. Swimmer I
 6. Fog
 7. Swimmer III
 8. Swimmer IV
 9. Dance with Me (Early Version)
10. A Woman on a Stairway (Early Version)
11. Fusion/Fission (Early Version)
12. Miles Away (Alternate Version) 

Links in Comments

A meeting of synth-pop geniuses


  1. Metamatic




    part 1


    part 2


  2. The Garden




    part 1


    part 2


  3. Grabbed these this morning hoping to give them a listen tonight. Thank you voixautre!

  4. my pleasure scurfie. Enjoy the dislocation!

  5. Looking forward to checking these out. So glad you're back in action voixautre!

  6. WTF ?? Those links dont work at all

  7. "The Golden Section" and "In Mysterious Ways" are NOT diminishing returns. Sorry, you lost all credibility with that uninformed opinion.

  8. The Pleasure Principle came first. Whether it's electro-pop or not is a moot point. Foxx is being disingenuous here, he should credit Gary Numan with that. He owes any success he has post-1979 to the numanoid, for me "Underpass" was his answer to "Cars". This doesn't detract from Numan crediting him as a major influence and precursor.

    1. That's funny, because after reading that quote by Foxx (in which he stated Metamatic was "the first British electronic pop album") I immediately thought, "What about Pleasure Principle?"

  9. Of course Numan's "REPLICAS" (with "Down In The Park" and 'Are "Friends" Electric?') preceded even The Pleasure Principle as an electronic album, albeit it wasn't all-synth as TPP and Metamatic were. Some tracks were all-synth though, instrumentals like "When the machines rock" and "I nearly married a human". I never thought of Tubeway Army or Gary Numan as "pop" in any sense of the word. He simply didn't have any rhythm or danceability!! He feigned it later with "We Are Glass", "She's Got Claws" and "Music for Chameleons" etc.