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This Weekend I’ll mostly be listening to… Ultrasound, Welfare State… September 17, 2011

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....
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Prog is such an… well… ugly word, isn’t it? And yet it covers a multitude. Rush, Porcupine Tree, Hawkwind … all these and more have been squashed with little enough discrimination between them into the category. But consider a somewhat less likely candidate… London based [though with some connection with Newscastle] outfit Ultrasound – appearing for a brief period in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Their debut album, ‘Everything Picture’ was notable for it’s length and reach. A sprawling beast of a thing, one part glam, two parts prog and various parts post-punk. The sound drenched in textures and depth, quite unlike many [perhaps most] of their contemporaries in English indie at the time but providing a link back to a multi-stranded musical heritage that made them a vastly more intriguing proposition. Originally planned as a triple album they somehow managed to compress ‘Everything Picture’ to a double, and if it was an – ahem – challenging listen due to length, intensity of vocals and melodies and whatever, at least it spoke of a certain degree of genuine ambition and with a ragged charm to back it up.

But if that were all there was to them, intensity, endurance, textures, charm and ambition, that might not be quite enough. But the thing about Ultrasound across their career was an ability to construct both long epics and short snappy, almost poppy, singles-like tracks. The songs while immediate often built up of layer upon layer of guitars and vocals but generally achieve a weightlessness – a tribute to Richard Green’s guitar work.

Though not too poppy… lead singer Tiny Wood, a man with a certain presence, has a voice that can be on occasion harsh – and reminiscent of nothing so much as a slowed down Tim Smith of the Cardiacs – a band ploughing a similar musical furrow.

And when I say poppy, I mean poppy in the way that the Pistols or the Damned were poppy, abrasive but catchy. The first thirty seconds of ‘Fame Thing’, with looped vocals, chugging riff and undulating bass line sum it up perfectly – as do the bells that see the song out. Speaking of glam note the samples of Rock’n’Roll on ‘Stay Young’ which positions this as 1999 – for Mr. Glitter’s transgressions were as yet unknown then, though the lyric ‘Gary Glitter’s gone to seed, so who will lead us now?’ seems remarkably prescient at this remove. Listen to ‘Same Band’ and it’s near impossible to see that being composed in the absence of Television or the Damned, and yet it sounds like neither of those bands. It’s more a matter of the dynamics at play and the unhinged quality of the vocals.

And there’s also an hint of folk here and there, as with the verse of ‘Suckle’, with the vocals shared with bassist and co-vocalist Vanessa Best. Throw in some sexual ambiguity, such as the lyric ‘I’d kiss you if you weren’t a girl’ and some sexual explicitness, as on ‘Fame Thing’, and there you have it.

Or not.

The reception to ‘Everything Picture’ was mixed, and the band was already in crisis over personal issues. So perhaps not entirely surprising that they collapsed early in the new century. In a way this made perfect sense. One album, one statement, none of the slow dissipation of myriad other bands.

And if the fact is that they’re back then it’s curiously satisfying that the new songs, on their single ‘Welfare State’ are of such an high standard. More or less the same line up… sans their original keyboardist. Although speaking of keyboardists there’s a most proggy keyboard in the background to the single ‘Welfare State’ a nice little deconstruction of the personal situation of some of them as well as a broader statement.

Anyhow, enjoy.

Welfare State

Floodlit World [Jools Holland]

Fame Thing

Stay Young

Suckle

Cross My Heart

Same Band

Sovereign [BBC session] [Double A-Side with Welfare State – 2011]

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