METAMATIC – “The Retro-Futurist Manifesto”
“Our hearts were filled with an immense pride at feeling ourselves standing quite alone, like lighthouses or like the sentinels in an outpost, facing the army of enemy stars encamped in their celestial bivouacs. Alone with the engineers in the infernal stokeholes of great ships, alone with the black spirits which rage in the belly of rogue locomotives, alone with the drunkards beating their wings against the walls.”
(The Futurist Manifesto, F.T. Marinetti. Le Figaro 1909)
Marinetti and Russolo called for the emergence of “more robust, dynamic spirits”, and John Foxx answered the call. I present some reflection on his 1980 album, Metamatic, now available in deluxe 3-disc format. A triptych, if you will.
Disc 1 is the original album in its purest form. Ten tracks, most-recently remastered from original studio tapes in 2014 for release on white vinyl. This is the first CD pressing of that version. Tape hiss present, adding to the sounds of steel and concrete. Presented as it would have sounded back in 1980 – flanged, phased and compressed to within a well-judged inch of its life. Minimal and clear. I’m no audiophile, and I am grateful to the post-punk monk for his articulate explanation of what makes this such a good quality edition. Clanging, cut-up and mixed with plenty of space for everything to be heard in all its Ballardian, Burroughs and Brutalist glory.
Foxx is seeking a new self in his first solo project, and many of the songs explore and question ideas about identity and displacement: Underpass, a returning soldier unable to connect with his family; the ‘remixed features’ of the mysterious Lt. 030; He’s A Liquid, shaped by circumstance. On this subject, a personal favourite is the exquisite Blurred Girl with its unusual time sequence, entrancing repeated figures, and ARP Odyssey riffs throughout. Everything played by hand, except the drum pattern – which echoes that used on Hiroshima Mon Amour but from a different machine, serving a new kind of purpose. First song recorded during the Metamatic sessions, apparently. Nice. But risky and obtuse. Touch and go. At risk of minimalism.
The last track builds to a tumbling crescendo and ends with a triumphant strike, leaving us bewildered and breathless. Try and imagine you are hearing this for the first time. Imagine how it leaps from the pages around it.
Disc 2 presents all the extras and single B-sides etc from the same period, as per the similar release in 2007, but using re-mastered material. Thus these include the most authentic-to-date presentations of Burning Car and My Face, the ‘repurposed’ tracks To Be With You and Cinemascope with their post-modern vocals and the ‘music for film’ pieces Glimmer, Film One and Mr No. And wow, does the latter shred the speakers! Accompanying this material are eight ‘early’ (demo) and ‘alternative’ versions of the highest profile songs on the album. Everything is here for the completist, including a version of Like A Miracle that was never quite recorded to John’s satisfaction and ultimately set aside. I find these original ideas especially interesting, following the progression of a song – and especially the lyrics – through their various developments.
Who would argue that the extended version of Underpass is too long? Foxx presumably, at the time. Maybe, but the ‘longer fade’ version of Blurred Girl is a delight and closes the album perfectly. And here we should give due credit to John’s management, whose ear for a cohesive ‘album’ in the running order of these individual pieces is miraculous too in its own way.
It is on Disc 3 that this box-set edition really becomes a treasure to behold.
Here we are presented with an hour of unreleased material that all but the most determined Foxx collectors will not have heard before. And of course it is absolutely glorious. The running order again deserves praise – it can’t have been easy separating 45 minutes of un-named solos and sonic dalliance into a coherent order, and the considered result is perfect.
The discovered material lines up either side of an early, rejected mix of the familiar Glimmer (resolutely set aside as imperfect despite everything being played live on instruments with no memory) and forms a mosaic of contextual wonderings and expressions created on synthesizers sounding like themselves. Some are fragmented ‘samples’ looped and expanded (A Frozen Moment, Urban Code), others (The Uranium Committee, Approaching The Monument) are mechanical drones – threatening and sparse. Among these sketches and notes for future musics are more complete pieces, including the fragile, sweeping beauty of Over Tokyo and A Man Alone – arguably the album’s ‘best’ tracks. I would award the same accolade to Fragmentary City – a ‘surprisingly articulate’ piano piece reminiscent of Erik Satie. He too was considered a subtle, if rather clumsy technician…
The essence of architecture is detail, the tiny pieces best appreciated with fingertips. And over the course of time, some of those details have become overgrown. Lost. Sonic archaeologists Dallas Simpson and Joe Caithness have exposed fragments we never knew were there before and laid them out for us to admire and wonder over. With our fingertips. Little intricate phrases, sonic textural delicacies. When they were created they had contextual relevance, but contributed to the whole in such a way that individually they had little apparent significance. So they were hidden in corners, set in walls, buried under floors adding support and ambience, and not given names.
Now they are set out before us, displayed as if exhibits, each loving restored, catalogued and labelled. And how exquisite those labels. How well-considered and perfectly judged. Each piece is named retrospectively, given a contemporary name in the context of the 21st century vault in which they were discovered. Names that allow the pieces to become part of the present rather than of the past.
They have ample other qualities that set them there.
There’s a progression in the track sequence that leads up to an ‘early version’ of Touch And Go which combines the Elka Rhapsody, the ARP, and various drum patterns into the recognisable conclusion to Metamatic. Beyond this point, the epilogue comprises the earliest of all the demos – material recorded by Foxx at home before the album sessions proper at Pathway. A raw version of Burning Car with prototype lyrics (“Burn! “Burn!”) and another stab at Like A Miracle. With hindsight, it is remarkable that Foxx had the vision to leave this track to one side for another four years. It is altogether too romantic for the stark landscape of Metamatic. Not so Miss Machinery. This is John Foxx “ideal mistress”, the “cruel Queen” of Marinetti’s turn-of-the-century proclamation. We’ve seen her glinting in John’s most recent work, his theatre soundtrack album The Machine and heard traces in the 1980 TV theme 20th Century. In fact, it is to The Machine we can turn for the contemporaneous realisation of many of these conceptual scribblings. The titles allocated to the stage production pieces come from the same notebook. Memory Oxide and Hive Frequency for example would not have been out of place were they to have been scribbled in the margins 40-years previously.
There is an epiphany here. A realisation.
The circle closes.
“The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you… Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.”
(The Machine Stops. E. M. Forster 1909)
John Foxx career has been something of a travelogue – artistic expressions of a journey through his relationship with the city, tracing the narrative of a quiet man and a invisible woman, presenting scenes in a revolving symmetry of tiny movies. Songs of longing and memory. Ghost stories and Mechanical hymns. Through gardens overgrown, Terminal Zones and Places of Remembered Beauty to stations, cinemas, plazas and cafes – always coming back to the unfathomable, fractured beauty of the endless, shifting metropolis.
Metamatic is a freeze-frame instantaneous picture of a process. A Frozen Moment.
A starting point on the Road of Becoming that is to twist its way through an unmappable sequence of events, coincidence and half-dreamed reality.
Now available at amazon for under £17…!