John Foxx ‘London Overgrown’ (Metamatic)

A minimalist marvel shines in the light at the end of the concrete underpass

Abandoned cities being gradually reclaimed by nature is a theme that’s captured the imagination of John Foxx for decades. It’s popped up before, on albums like ‘Cathedral Oceans’ and ‘My Lost City’. You might even say it’s something of a personal obsession.

In the liner notes to ‘London Overgrown’, Foxx talks fondly of night-time rambles in Highgate Cemetery, of the tree roots sprouting from the walls of his recording studio in early 80s Shoreditch, then an industrial wasteland giving few clues to its hipster future, and of the derelict factory offices in his native Lancashire, where brambles grew among the moulding account books. He also cites an impressive array of references, both populist and scholarly, from ‘Planet Of The Apes’ and ‘Quatermass’, to the work of Piranesi (famed for his etchings of Roman ruins) and the extravagant architectural fantasies of Capriccio.

‘London Overgrown’ relies on the same capacity for creative vision, but the beautifully rendered artwork (Foxx’s own) certainly helps build an appropriate mind palace for the listener. The multi-layered picture is made all the more intriguing by the ambient minimalism of this instrumental album. If you take away the artwork and the intriguing theme, you could easily hear the ambient washes and ‘Blade Runner’-esque strains as being far removed from urbanity, crumbling or otherwise. Close your eyes and you might find yourself transported to a meditation resort on a remote Balinese beach, rather than sitting in the shadow of the moss-enveloped spire of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The distinctly filmic quality recalls Eno’s ‘Music For Airports’, with no percussion and little variance between the tracks, some of which are given bewitching titles like ‘Often Now, I Wake’ and ‘A Small Revolving World’. Ethereal notes are sustained for aeons, burning with intensity for a few seconds and then slowly ebbing away before the cycle begins anew. Aside from the more brooding ‘City Of Mirage’ and the ‘Close Encounters’-ish ‘Persistence Of Vision’, ‘London Overgrown’ sounds like one slow, awe-struck awakening, like the wonder of coming to in a foreign city after a lengthy cryogenic stasis, watching a sunrise spread steadily over endless unknown horizons.

Foxx had an extended spell in the musical wilderness himself, of course. After his time with Ultravox and his initial solo success and his years running the Garden Studio, where everyone from Depeche Mode to The Cure recorded, he retreated from the fray in the mid-80s. He reinvented himself as a graphic designer, photographer and multimedia conceptual artist and it’s tempting to interpret this album as some sort of personal treatise on the serenity that comes from stepping back from the maelstrom at your artistic apex, a la Ziggy Stardust.

In the manifesto-like press release, John Foxx talks passionately about a possible future London as a “Post carbon city” complete with “the Hanging Gardens of Shoreditch and the Glades of Soho”, where Hampstead Heath blurs into Richmond Park. Listening to this, preferably while drifting off to sleep in darkness with the window open, the tendrils of his plangent synth strings slowly spiralling their way into your subconsciousness, such dreams feel almost close enough to touch. Here’s hoping there’s an accompanying tactile virtual reality installation in the works.

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