John Foxx And The Maths ‘Howl’ (Metamatic)

Humanity needs a vaccination, and not just against Covid-19. I mean, it was bad enough when Foxx conceived this album wasn’t it? But back then, as we can now see, the world was only just losing its footing. It’s since plunged right down the shitter, and it nearly took this album, originally scheduled for April 2020, with it.

‘Howl’ wasn’t, as far as I know at least, recorded onto tape, but it feels like it might have been. It vibrates with magnetic energy, shedding metal oxide like lethal strings of flying swarf from a lathe. It has the patina of New York subway train graffiti about it, Futura 2000 painting backdrops while The Clash played live, the rank stench of burning buildings and white flight. But it’s also staggering shit-faced in a Kiss Me Quick hat on the Golden Mile, a solitary pissed-up howl at the moon while deeply, unfathomably under its mysterious influence. It’s a hot album about love, about death, about sex.

To achieve this, Foxx and co have forged a reconnection with the rage of punk and the artful mechanics of ‘Metamatic’. The album runs patch cords through the decades and whacks them into the CV/Gate output of the screaming ARP Odyssey and distortion pedals of Ultravox, then runs them through the ice-in-the-veins filters of Foxx’s own 1980 coldwave electronica, straight into Benge’s modular brain. And then it’s captured, saturated and distorted, for 2020, the Best In Show of shitshow years since ‘Metamatic’ was released four decades ago. 

Lyrically, the album deals with death and being alive, love and sex, money and real estate, the action taking place in New York and London. Sonically, it’s a brief and focussed explosion of electronics and cage-rattling guitar contained in a mix that sounds like it might just kick your face off for laughs any moment.

The punkish opener, ‘My Ghost’, is an ascending three-chord scratch of dumb simplicity, the sort hacked out by adolescents when they first get their hands on a guitar plugged through an amp. No choruses, no middle eight, none of that fancy stuff. It just hurtles ever upwards, interfered with by brutish and muscular electronics, heading towards what might be a extravagant slashing synthesiser solo. It could be violin. Or both. Hannah Peel is playing violin, (credited in-jokily as “violent violins, San Andreas electrostatic aftermath”), but it’s been mixed into the savagery here to such an extent that you’d never know.

While we’re on the subject of instruments not sounding the way you’d expect them to, the guitar of Robin Simon (his credits: “skyscraper guitar, shape-shifting riffing, demolition intercision”) is one of the most notable ingredients here. His work is front and centre. In the title track, his guitar pulls at its leash, a shrieking animal rearing on its hind legs. Just the kind of noise you need when Foxx is exhorting ‘Let the beast out!’ on the title track. Foxx himself, by the way, is credited with “unlicensed vocals, Blackpool neon fuzzbox, chaos keyboards”. If he’s trying to summon the atmosphere of holiday town seedy drinking dens, all damp plaster and mould in the corners, disguised by the glow of cheap alcohol, flickering neon and lust, he’s very much succeeded.

Foxx touches on obsessions and themes you’ll find throughout his work. ‘Everything Is Happening At The Same Time’, for example, is another iteration of his psychedelic bent, colours extracted from The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, synthesisers flying, massing in trails of keening strings.

‘Strange Beauty’ closes the album and, like ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ from 2012’s ‘Evidence’, is tender to the point of heartbreak. For all the reputation for emotional detachment (mostly thanks to the unerring commitment of ‘Metamatic’ to its austere sound world), ‘Strange Beauty’ and the unkempt boiling of the preceding seven tracks is fired by Foxx’s warmth and humanity. 

He doesn’t turn away from love and all its vulnerabilities, or its mess either. Electronic music’s emotional invisibility cloak isn’t for him. Check out ‘Tarzan And Jane Regained’, where Foxx mugs it up like a voodoo huckster shilling outside a fairground strip show, appealing to the carnal desires of passing trade. 

With Benge (who is credited with, wait for it, “pandemic percussion”, months before the pandemic, along with “psychomatic synthesiser and supersaturated bass”) Foxx has produced possibly the most powerful album of his career. Its sheer fuck-it audacity and lack of politeness on offer here is just what the doctor ordered.

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