John Foxx ‘Metamatic’ (Metamatic)

John Foxx is a Zelig-like character who pops up all over the place in the history of British electronic music. He’s often associated with the earliest, pre-Midge years of Ultravox, but from being cited by Gary Numan as not only a formative influence but also a hero, to lending a hand in the creation of videos by LFO and other early Warp artists, he was there. He’s worked alongside everyone from Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite (who both worked on Ultravox’s eponymous first album) to avant-garde king Harold Budd and more recently the synth fetishist and sound sculptor Benge.

After three years with Ultravox and the band’s deal with Island in tatters, Foxx jumped ship to Virgin in 1979 and the first fruit of this new relationship was the 10-track album ‘Metamatic’ which emerged just over a fortnight into 1980. If you’re looking for a watershed moment that would pave the way for the decade ahead and the music that would dominate it, then this is surely it.

With everything that’s come after it, of course, it’s impossible to replicate the shock an album like this caused on its arrival. Despite leapfrogging its way into the Top 20, it was a surprising listen, miles away from the guitar-powered revolution of the Pistols, The Clash and The Damned just three years before it. At the same time, ‘Metamatic’ is equally distant from the carefully cultured mystique of Kraftwerk and other European electronica like Tangerine Dream.

Even in its newly remastered incarnation, ‘Metamatic’ is a gloriously rough and ready affair. From the opening, flanging drum machines and apocalyptic descending notes of ‘Plaza’ onwards, it’s stripped down and devastatingly simple, owing much to punk rock attitude. A less showy and more reserved English cousin to the single-minded abandon and brutally unembellished arrangements of Suicide, perhaps.

‘He’s A Liquid’ continues the funereal eeriness, a single synthetic echoing click in place of the traditional snare drum, accompanied by a snaking bassline and almost religious sounding chords. Foxx’s vocals on ‘Underpass’ are a revelation, treated to the point of being twisted up and punctuated by exultant shouting, while on ‘Metal Beat’ he approaches a un-self-conscious rap over harsh harpsichord tones, electronic sirens and another highly effective but picked clean skeleton of a beat.

‘No-One Driving’ and ‘New Kind of Man’ are slightly more familiar, dancefloor-friendly outings, the former with its throbbing Moroder sequencer and the latter with its bassline nicked, either knowingly or unknowingly, from ancient rock ‘n’ roll anthem ‘Peter Gunn’.

‘Blurred Girl’ is another showcase for Foxx’s soaring vocal exercises, given maximum space by its minimal arrangement, with his more robotic performance on ‘030’ following on, the links to Numan’s deadpan style probably the most pronounced here. ‘Tidal Wave’ has the prodding electronics of proto-techno, bringing Juan Atkins’ Cybotron project, some half a decade later, to mind. Then the album concludes with ‘Touch And Go’, with its evocative talk of letters from Tokyo and motorway sparks, set to arcade game pings and pongs, but at the same time boasting one of its most memorable tunes.

Coming here as a triple CD deluxe reissue, the original album has been expanded to a 49-track selection that takes in not only the remastered version of the original 10 tracks, but a another two CDs of alternate and instrumental mixes, B-sides and, probably the most of interest to Foxx aficionados, a wealth of unreleased songs recorded during the same period.

It’s quite the musical banquet, but the most fascinating moments are the unreleased tracks, some fully formed, some mere sketches. ‘A Frozen Moment’, for instance, with its backwards tapes and crackling high frequencies, or the alternate take on ‘Mr No’ with its birdsong-mocking electronic effects suggest that Foxx was ably armed to push the envelope even further than he actually did on ‘Metamatic’. As does ‘Over Tokyo, with the kind of hoover bass that sounds like it had been made by a techstep drum ’n’ bass head a couple of decades later. Others, like the straightforward harmonic beauty of ‘A Man Alone’ or ‘Terminal Zone’, are maybe less revolutionary, but no less beautiful.

Which rather sums up the two different ways you can approach this mammoth package. As a historical document, a signpost to so much that was to follow, it’s totally successful but also as a library of weird and exotic experiments to dip itn and out of and simply enjoy, it works equally well

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