Martintox Presents: Discipline Reviews
An interesting exercise in pseudo-plagiarism.
Released in: 1980
Genre: Synthpop / Post-Punk
Producer: Ultravox, Conny Plank
Best Track: Astradyne
TRACKS: 1) Astradyne; 2) New Europeans; 3) Private Lives; 4) Passing Strangers; 5) Sleepwalk; 6) Mr. X; 7) Western Promise; 8) Vienna; 9) All Stood Still
How about a bit of music history?
Back in the early 70's, a German group called Kraftwerk appeared. No one really cared that much about what they were doing, since their earliest album were experimental bullshit (that I kind of like, bizarrely enough), but things changed a bit when, in 1974, they released the album Autobahn, most well-known for its 23-minute title track that never, ever gets boring.
Four years later, they release The Man-Machine (or Die Mensch-Maschine in German) and revolutionized the electronic realm by making mini-dance-epics about robots and spacelabs, creating techno and about 600 other genres of electronic in the process. If people weren't convinced about the capabilities of synthesizers and synthesized equipment, then, after this album came out, they were fucking sold.
It took until 1980 for synthpop to get a head start, but when that year came around, positively everyone jumped on the bandwagon. Devo came out with Freedom Of Choice, Queen released The Game (their first album to use synthesizers, interestingly), the soundtrack to the romantic musical film Xanadu became a thing, and then... in the midst of all those earth-shattering releases (more or less), Ultravox happened.
Originally formed in 1973, the group was, originally, not popular at all, until the original frontman, John Foxx, jumped ship, and a dude called Midge Ure took over as frontman of the group in 1980. The group, from that point on, made lots of money until disbanding in 1987 and reforming once in a while. The first album that the Ure-led group put out, in 1980, was Vienna.
There's a good reason why I told you about Kraftwerk in the introduction, but the exact reason why will be revealed later on. One thing I can tell you is that Vienna shares a similarity with all of Kraftwerk's albums (starting with Autobahn): it's a concept album. More precisely, Vienna is a concept album about Europe in the beginning of the synthpop craze and the continent's influence in countries like Japan.
The problem is, though, that, while Ultravox is very competent musically, the lyrics are... less so. Which explains why the opening instrumental, the 7-minute "Astradyne", is absolutely fucking awesome and the best track on the album. That tune, in spite of being the longest track, doesn't feel like it artificially makes its escalation longer, and when it reaches its peak, it's a thing of absolute beauty. I'd have no problem saying that this is one of the best instrumental synthpop track of the decade, in fact, just because of the drive it has.
Sadly, though, nothing in this album even comes close to being as awesome. After "Astradyne" comes "New Europeans", which, aside from some kind of blunt vocals ("Synthesizer sun"? Really now?), is actually an alright post-punk rocker. So does "Private Lives", which stands out due to the melody being different (that's a no-brainer) and a false ending that sort of emulates a record suddenly stopping. I almost always fall for it, bizarrely enough.
"Passing Strangers" is pretty cool because the main melody is more foreboding. The chorus isn't exactly great (this album doesn't actually have a lot of great choruses), but the instrumental work compensates perfectly. We then get to "Sleepwalk", which is a bit faster. I suppose the irony of the fact that something called "Sleepwalk" is pretty funny, but I think the vocal work is interesting enough for me to disregard that.
But... that's already the first side. And while four fifths of it were good but otherwise not really awfully interesting songs and the last fifth was an awesome instrumental, the second half is... worse on average, but not necessarily for simple reasons. For instance, "Mr. X" has some very good robotic instrumentation, along with some... strings, for some reason, but the fact of the matter is that it's a blatant attempt to be Kraftwerk.
I mean, listen to this and then tell me that you don't hear a sort of similarity between this track and this one. I understand that they were probably trying to pay their respects to Kraftwerk, since they played an important part in the evolution of music at the time, but it seems to me like they blur the lines between "homage" and "blatant rip-off". Which sucks, because the synthesizer playing in this one is actually really good.
"Western Promise" is also a pretty noteworthy lowlight, but for a different reason: yet again, the instrumentation is really, really goddamn promising, and it doesn't even let down either. But the lyrics are some of the least subtle ever. It's about the rebuilding of Japan and how the fact that the Americans added in some Western values only succeeded in screwing things up even further, but it sounds a bit like you're taking your audience for idiots if you go around saying lines like:
"Hai, Mystical East, all taxi-cabs
All ultra-neon, sign of the times
Your Buddha Zen and Christian man
All minions to messiah Pepsi can"
The title track, however, I find to be quite good. The fact that the music is quite moody and somber is actually nice, since that is executed well, but the most important part is that the chorus, down to the piano and the vocals, is actually really memorable! An interesting chorus in this album, holy shit! The main appeal, of course, remains the music, which is still pretty intricate, but it's still good to hear that there is a song with very good vocals also, since that also seems to be lacking in this record.
We then get to the final track. "All Stood Still", due to its speed and more guitar-oriented instrumentation, calls back to the first side, and while the main synth groove could also remind you of Kraftwerk, they make more effort in putting in their own spin, which, for most intents and purposes, works out in this case. The fact that it's got more drive in comparison to the rest of the songs makes it an adequate conclusion to the album overall.
The 80's saw the creation of a lot of synthpop bands, and a lot of them had their own distinct styles: New Order was all about the beat, Depeche Mode was more about the melodies and the dark tone, Simple Minds did music for The Breakfast Club, Tears For Fears brought an element of fragility (thanks to the two main members' family problems), Duran Duran added glam to the genre, and that's only including new groups.
But as one of the fondly remembered 80's synthpop band, Ultravox really misses the mark on this one, because they seem to sacrify time they could have used to refine their sound and instead spent it trying to emulate Kraftwerk's music ("Mr. X") or Kraftwerk's concept albums by having an overarching theme that doesn't really work that much overall. Plus, the idea of a synthpop concept album quickly vanished into the ether by the time Kraftwerk released Computer World in 1981 (their last album until 1986, where they put out Electric Cafe and then didn't release anything for another decade or two).
If you're interesting in music history, you might want to check this out, considering the confusion it sometimes has on whether or not it wants to be a 70's synthpop album or an 80's synthpop album, but as a record, maybe the first side and the last two songs are worth it. Even then, the instrumentation is the only really interesting part out of most of those, especially for "Astradyne", and while that's enough for me for most of the record, it may not be enough for you.
Personal Rating: ***
Recommendation Rating: **½
Lettered Rating: B-
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