Just over 35 years ago, John Foxx released his first solo album, Metamatic. Taking the name from a painting by artist Jean Tinguely, this album stands as one of the classics of early electro-new wave.
After recording three albums with Ultravox, John Foxx left the band to strike out on his own. Unlike Ultravox’s art-rock sound, Foxx developed an electronic, nearly industrial tone for this record. This isn’t in any way the industrial music of Throbbing Gristle or Einstürzende Neubauten, but closer to the sounds that Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were to feature in their early albums. Most of the music is synthesized, with a mechanical, robotic tone; the bass sounds like the engines in a massive ship, and the drum kit has “cymbal” sounds like compressed air. All this gave the album a futuristic tone at the time of its release.
Foxx has said that the album was recorded in “an eight-track cupboard in Islington,” and has discussed how he was heavily influenced, at the time, by the novels of science fiction author J. G. Ballard. As such, the album is full of references to cars and roads (Ballard’s novel Crash), and is rife with references to a sterile, industrial world. In addition to creating a sound, Foxx released an album of excellent songs: Underpass, No-One Driving, Plaza, A New Kind of Man, He’s a Liquid, and more. There’s not a weak song on the album.
Flashing back to early 1980, this was a transitional period. The Clash had just released the swan song of punk, London Calling, and Pink Floyd had released The Wall, just before Metamatic hit the stores. Joy Division had released their first album, Unknown Pleasures, and was working on a second album, Closer, another Ballardian work, which was finished shortly before lead singer Ian Curtis’ suicide a few months later. This was also the year of The Durutti Column’s first album, Return of the Durutti Column, and the charts included songs by Gary Numan, Fad Gadget, Cabaret Voltaire, and The Passions. More mainstream musicu included that was on the airwaves at the time included The Pretenders’ Brass in Pocket, the ur-rap song Rapper’s Delight, by the Sugarhill Gang, and Madness’ iconic One Step Beyond.
Like many musicians of the time in the UK, Foxx leaned toward continental Europe, taking influence from Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. Much of the early new wave music owed a lot to these early electronic bands, not just musically. I remember well the music videos of the time, with the young men in their angular haircuts, starkly dressed, often in long coats, trying so hard to look German. Look at Foxx’s photo on the album cover: shades of gray, as he stands there looking dapper in his button-down shirt and wide tie. When I saw Ultravox live that year, after Midge Ure had taken Foxx’s place, the band, now a smooth synth band, all wore the requisite gray coats as they performed music from their best-selling album Vienna.
Metamatic seemed, for a while, like a one-off in Foxx’s career. His follow-up albums, such as The Garden, eschewed the industrial sounds and leaned toward a more lyrical, nearly anthemic approach (especially the songs The Garden and Europe After the Rain). Throughout his career he has oscillated between two extremes: this rough-hewn electro-pop, and pure ambient music (including some wonderful collaborations with Harold Budd). Metamatic sits at one end of this continuum.
In addition to the album itself, the Metamatic period was full of great singles and B-sides, such as Glimmer (a great instrumental, which was the B-side to No One’s Driving), Film One (another instrumental), and perhaps the most industrial/Ballardian song, Burning Car, the A-side of a single released in 1980. All of these extra tracks from the period are available in the bargain box set, John Foxx: The Virgin Years, 1980-1985. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This set contains Metamatic, The Garden, The Golden Section, and In Mysterious Ways, along with lots of extra tracks. (In other words, don’t just buy Metamatic if you want the album; you definitely need at least the bonus tracks from that period.) Otherwise, there is a two-disc edition of Metamatic alone available. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
Foxx also performed the entire Metamatic album live, along with several of the single sides, in 2008, and released an album from those performances called A New Kind of Man. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) While it may seem like a nostalgic exercise, this album actually takes these songs and reworks them just enough to make them sound fresh, while retaining most of their original sounds. If you do like Metamatic, you should absolutely hear A New Kind of Man.