John Foxx is undeniably a musical legend, having appeared on the first three Ultravox albums all of which which would go onto inspire legions of future Electronic artists such as a young Gary Numan, Depeche Mode. Ladytron and film-maker/musician Vincent Gallo. After departing Ultravox in 1979 John would go onto embark upon an equally influential solo career, releasing stark Electronic fare such as ‘Metamatic’ and ‘The Garden’. A hiatus away from music would follow from the mid-80’s, during which time John Foxx would revert back to his career as a graphic artist under his real name Dennis Leigh, designing book covers for the likes of Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson and Anthony Burgess. John would later return to music in the late 1990’s, collaborating with Manchester musician Louis Gordon as well as Londoner Benge (Ben Edwards), the latter as part of the present day John Foxx and The Maths project. The Maths are joined this time round by Foxx’s former Ultravox bandmate Robin Simon and Northern Ireland solo artist Hannah Peel.
‘Howl’ is the latest album from The Maths and follows 2017’s ‘The Machine’ which served as a soundtrack to ‘The Machine Stops’, a theatrical presentation of the E.M. Forster short story. Unlike the ambient and atmospheric Klaus Schulz inclinations of ‘The Machine’, ‘Howl’ starts off with ‘My Ghost’, a spiky slab of late 70’s/early 80’s Post-Punk/New Wave which sets the tone of the musical journey awaiting us. Considering Robin Simon’s involvement it comes as no surprise that the track nods its head to the original incarnation of Ultravox. The song sounds surprisingly current despite its somewhat retro tendencies and will not only appeal to Ultravox fans, who were there first time round but also a new generation who may only be familiar with the po-faced pretensions of the Midge Ure era (‘Vienna’ in particular). An strong and vibrant way to start the album.
If you are nostalgic for the 70’s glory days of Bowie and Roxy Music then title track ‘Howl’ will doubtlessly satisfy you with its Glam stomp albeit one given an Electro twist. Another standout is ‘The Dance’, and with its icy robotic synth sheen you can easily envisage dancing away in London’s legendary New Romantic Blitz Club circa 1981/’82. There is a certain romantic beauty to this number. The final recommended standout is album closer ‘Strange Beauty’, which exhibits the same mournful qualities exhibited on the soundtrack to David Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’, in particular the David Bowie track ‘I’m Deranged’. This number is so downbeat and filled with such a sense of hopelessness and dread that it would have fit onto the aforementioned soundtrack perfectly. It is possibly one of the darkest tracks Foxx has ever penned and makes all his other output feel like Erasure by comparison. A fantastic conclusion to the album.
Not every artist who has been around as long, if not longer, as Mr Foxx would either be capable or have the will to release an album as fresh and contemporary sounding as ‘Howl’. One need only consider any Rolling Stones album post ‘Exile on Main Street’ as a testament to long-standing artists going through the motions with ever increasing irrelevance. That is certainly not the case here and while the music definitely acknowledges Foxx’s past, it also features strong songwriting and excellent production, hinting at an even brighter future.