‘Interplay’, the new album from JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS, sees a return to his ‘Metamatic’ framework, and yet oozes contemporary electro aesthetics.
Containing tracks suitable for dancefloors and yet encouraging with the seductive warmth of Benge’s magnificent analogue studio the donning of headphones in repose, this album is a marked jump into digestible territory from his recent ‘D.N.A’ release.
And yet, it is classically ‘Foxx’, whilst still referencing DAF and KRAFTWERK, his early ULTRAVOX work, and nodding to the electro legacy his early work brought forth including GOLDFRAPP, ANTHONY ROTHER and MISS KITTIN. For appreciators of a strong synth melody this album is utter heaven, as there is no finer pedigree than vintage analogue for producing warmth and depth, and yet soaring euphoria: this album’s sonic breadth leaves weedy 21st century plug ins in the shade, and listening on a good stereo or through quality headphones is very much encouraged for the ultimate reward.
Lyrically JOHN FOXX is in an intriguing mood: gone is his contemplation of the car crash, the urban isolationist, the failed connection, replaced throughout the album with contemplations of a more philosophical, dare one say spiritual nature. References seem to abound to mythical, mystical places, worlds beyond worlds, shadow lands, dream scapes.
Foxx is taking his imagination beyond his Plazas and grey streets, away from technology and communication, towards something more unknowable: one might almost consider he spent a summer reading Tolkien before getting to work on this album, but that’s not something we should be frightened of. In the hands of Foxx and Benge aka Ben Edwards, the unknowable idea is supported by liquid-like synthetic context, leading us into warm dream, melancholy introversion, and not always, but definitely sometimes to the dancefloor to shake out the cobwebs of stranger places.
“Songs were most often generated in response to Ben’s beautiful, rich arpeggios and patterns” recalled Foxx, “Themes basically concern a man, a woman and a city. Tried to make most of the vocals sound like a crackling phonecall from a lost city, or some sudden electrical ghost too close to your ear”. And in the ultimate compliment: “Intelligent, knowledgeable, technically blinding. He does remind me of Conny Plank. Same generosity and ability, same civilized manner – even looks similar”
‘Shatterproof’ is uncharacteristically dark and body music influenced, as though Foxx has been sitting with DAF concocting ideas in a dark club corner. Snarling vocals announce our vulnerability: we are not shatterproof.
And Foxx’s vocals are delayed, stretched, distorted. It has a menace beyond the usual clinicism… like a mad scientist, an egotistical maniac announcing his awareness of a victim’s weak points. Cowbells and claps nod to electro in a classic manner, but this could easily sit alongside recent the recent CHRIS & COSEY release on Optimo, in that it explores a darker, more uneasy sonic territory.
The vocal treatment and synth fizz and phase all sit uneasily over a dark brooding synth stab and a NITZER EBB-like arpeggio. An album standout and no better way to introduce JOHN FOXX’s current aesthetic – the vintage / ultra-contemporary electro nexus.
Meanwhile ‘Catwalk’ seems like a more muscular version of ‘Metamatic’, of cities, of observing from a distance, a semi-critical assessment of lives lived in a big city. Specifically, this track speaks of the high-money world of a catwalk model, the fiction, the cheaply sold dreams sold on YouTube, or Fashion TV. It’s almost MISS KITTIN-esque in quality, with the repeated bassy progressions holding this track in place, with sparse drums and a relatively simple tale to tell.
It’s catchy, nods towards a dancefloor, and perhaps is as destined for the catwalk it describes, due to its almost ambivalently presented critique of glamour life. The analogue is very contemporised here, no vintage feel, and if any, this track seems to me the odd one out on the album, although ‘Shatterproof’ has also been nodded at as a-typical by some critics. But for me this seems like a far frothier souffle – not that being light hearted is a problem, it just lies far outside the metaphysical contemplation which pervades ‘Interplay’.
The very melodic ‘Evergreen’ is almost jaunty, calling to mind Foxx’s ‘In Mysterious Ways’ period with heavy vocoder, light synth wash, and tales of mythical trees. Vince Clarke can almost be perceived in the melodic counterpoint, certainly this recalled early DEPECHE MODE instrumentals more than anything.
Sentiments speak of a park, trees, a mythical forest… a physical place, almost like the Viking Valhalla or Tolkien’s Lothlorien. It’s certainly not urban, not city bound, not isolationist. “I’ll look for you and perhaps you’ll look for me”. A You… a dream place… very human. Almost looking at organic, humanist issues.
With the presence of Mira from LADYTRON, ‘Watching a Building On Fire’ could perhaps be the most anticipated track on the entire album. It opens with almost a YELLO like cabaret swagger and an odd latinesque Roland 727 style drum pattern, and then reveals itself as almost the ultimate duet. Foxx said: “I’ve wanted to do a song with her for some time. These particular circumstances seemed right – London analogue studio. We invited her to the studio. She was tough, friendly, gentle, critical and contributing. She brought in some great monosynth parts. You couldn’t fail to get something good out of them.”
We’ve heard HEAVEN 17 and LA ROUX, GARY NUMAN and LITTLE BOOTS, but both pale in comparison to these two luminaries combining. The track oozes a synthetic smokiness and more than a little camp with their duet, and then courtesy of the wonders of vocoding, Foxx almost self duets. The metaphor of a “building on fire” alludes to entropy… smoky danger, lovers. There’s almost an amusing camp to this track, and one can hear more than a touch of Boris Blank in the shadows, a digital – or should I say analogue – noir torch song in there somewhere… Mira’s role is restrained, but also a something of a kittenish burlesque turn.
The title track is downtempo, also quite theatrical, atmospheric, contemplative but almost cabaret… JAPAN or Sylvian influences abound in the space and the bass noises, where analogue sounds like rain. Foxx sings this time without the vocoder, but vocally in croon mode. This track is not far stretched from a short interlude, which given its beauty is quite a shame, lamenting that the relationship between things can often not be calculated… there is chaos, and all things that can be calculated and predicted can become uncontrolled when in ‘Interplay’. Synthesis? Human relationships? Science? Whichever it is, the Meta(matic)physics continue to dominate this albums themes.
A shuffling beat gives ‘Summerland’ contemporary references with GOLDFRAPP, LADYTRON and even some melodic German techno. The arpeggios fall without obvious force, keeping the swing soft yet insistent, ‘Summerland’ – another reference to Viking mythology, dreams: “wake me up when we arrive”.
He speaks of coincidence, leading to the sea. Is it a real place? A dream land? ‘Summerland’ for the Norse was Valhalla, the Fortunate Island. Sonically it soars, but not overbearingly. By tracks end I am, in fact, in ‘Summerland’, facing the sea.
The Running Man with its upfront instrumentation is very contemporary future pop-ish, but with a very early ULTRAVOX feel on the vocals, pacing and the feel, ‘The Running Man’ sounds push forward, seem urgent. And yet, it remains very dancefloor friendly. There’s a ‘Metamatic’ style melodic soaring, and the track’s lyric thematic link politics, science fiction, the idea of energy and intent, a metaphor for information? One of the tracks on the album that is begging a remix for clubland. The breakdown is decisively dancefloor, with shades of the very early days. It wouldn’t be out of place next to COVENANT and yet displays a classic cold-war techno-paranoia reminiscent of the classic days of ULTRAVOX and early Foxx.
An almost Bowie-esque vocal delivery, over a very quiet and contemplative classic electro background, ‘A Falling Star’ is sbout a mythic person – larger than life, linked to the elements, never changing. Another line about “no one could find you” – this album is full of references to attempting to find someone, or something. The unknown, but always here. Mysterious but present. The sonic fabric for this is soft, subtle, dreamlike but with an insistent subtle beat, like blood or heart, machine imitating the body’s mechanics.
Our ‘Destination’ is unknown… Foxx in un-vocodered full throttle, almost an Elvis like quality to his hearty singing voice, the accompanying melodics are super sci-fi, a sense of flying through space, a journey… “we leave no traces here, just pass on by”… we begin to wonder whether JOHN FOXX is considering the span of life itself, its journey, destination, meaning, and what is beyond.
Is this album possibly spiritual contemplation from Foxx? Certainly the lyrics and the sound indicate an expansive rumination, rather than the withdrawal from life, the tentative and jaundiced peer around mean cold streets – this is larger than life, both literally and metaphorically. Benge’s analogue arsenal in epic mode,
The album finishes with ‘The Good Shadow’… KRAFTWERK sounding tendrils caress the ears as this track opens with a superb arpeggio which carries this track through its small shimmers, the vocals on this one are heavily treated, to intimate an ethereal feel, as Foxx speaks of himself in the shadows… A contemplative closer, as we watch The Quiet Man close the studio door and disappear into the greying twilight, ready to appear again in another guise.
Worthy of a remix set, and with at least a couple of dancefloor gems in ‘Catwalk’ and ‘The Running Man’, and even a more boisterous EBM nuance in Shatterproof, the album is by one means singular in dimension. Foxx often finds his most effective framework in pop music, managing to make it a grander ideal than mere fodder, and ‘Interplay’ certainly manages that. This album is worthy of a permanent place in your playlist in 2011.
‘Interplay’ uses the following equipment: ARP Odyssey, ARP Omni, ARP Sequencer, Crumar Bit 01, Crumar Multiman, Crumar Roadrunner, DBX 119 compressor, EMT plate 140, Fairlight CMI, Formant Modular, Hohner Pianet T, Ibanez AD80, Korg Monopoly, Korg MS20, Korg PS3100, Lexicon 224, Linn LM1, MCI 416b console, Minimoog, Moog Modular, Polymoog, MXR flanger/doubler, Oberheim Xpander, PAiA Phlanger, Roland 100M, Roland CR78, Roland RS202, Roland SH101, Roland Space Echo 201, Roland TR808, Roland VP330, Sequential T8, Sequential VS, Serge Modular, Simmons SDS5, Studer 900 series console, Ursa Major delay, Yamaha CS30, Yamaha CS80, Yamaha Rev1.
Special thanks to Steve Malins
‘Interplay’ is released by Metamatic Records on 21st March 2011
Text by Nix Lowrey
7th March 2011