Monday, February 19, 2018

Review of Ultravox's "Vienna"

I posted this review a short while ago on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: An album of cold beauty, Midge Ure's first LP with Ultravox deserves inclusion in any conversation about the strongest new wave albums of the 1980s.

Vienna was the fourth studio album released by the British band Ultravox, and it represented a total change in direction for them. Released in 1980, Vienna was the first LP released after their former frontman, John Foxx, left the band to pursue a solo career and was replaced by Midge Ure. It was also their most successful release, reaching as high as #3 on the UK charts, (and making the Top 10 in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, The Netherlands and Sweden), and selling enough copies to make it the only Plantinum album the band would ever achieve in the U.K.

Under Foxx, Ultravox had been a commercially unsuccessful band with a cult following that drew their inspiration primarily from artists in the glam-rock movement. Under Ure, the band moved firmly into the realm of synth-pop. The change wasn't completely accepted by their old fans, nor was it universally acclaimed by critics, some of whom derided Vienna as being as either too pretentious or too commercial. However, as evidenced by the sales charts, the band made many new fans with the advent of this LP, and for the most part, it's retrospectfully considered to be their best album.

Vienna is an album of great beauty that manages to be both cold-blooded and fierce at the same time. It's dominated by the synth and the bass, and the music works together with lyrics to create a nightmarish quality and an overall feeling of paranoia. This, for example, is from "Sleepwalk", the album's first single: "Rolling and falling, I'm choking and calling/Name after name after name." Then there's this, from the whispered, spoken-word "Mr. X": "I almost thought I saw him, standing, whistling on a bridge/I asked him the time, but when he turned around/I saw it wasn't him at all." Clearly, this isn't happy '80s dance-pop music.

The atmosphere continues, all the while building towards the dramatic climax of the next-to-last song, the brilliant title track "Vienna". Ure has said that the band wanted to create a song that was quiet and "sparse", with a middle that was "incredibly pompous", then give it an "over-the-top classical ending". Maybe. He also originally claimed that the song was inspired by the 1949 British murder mystery The Third Man, then later said he had completely made that up, so who knows? In any event, the track became a #2 single in the U.K. and New Zealand, reached #1 in Ireland, Belgium and The Netherlands, and is generally considered to be one of the signature songs of the British '80s synthpop era.

Vienna isn't my favorite Ultravox album. That title goes to their warmer, more mournful 1984 classic Lament. But I love Vienna for its pervasive disquieting mood, and for the consistent high-quality of its songs. It deserves inclusion in any conversation about the strongest new wave albums of the '80s.

Rating: #.5 of 5 stars