John Foxx is having a very busy 2009 and Cathode Ray Tube can't keep up with him! Between February and May of this year, he's released three albums. Yes, three.
There is a very special quality to these three recordings that can be best described as sacred music for the modern age. This carries through from My Lost City to the stunning collaboration with Robin Guthrie on Mirrorball and much of the content of the three albums overall seem to me to relate to 12th and 13th Century plainsong, choral music and hymnals right through to Tallis and Byrd where Foxx layers on his own vocals and sings in an indefinable but beautiful language.
His vocal dexterity is matched to electronic washes, riffs and atmospheres that conjure up the Brian Eno of Music For Films. All in all they all seem to be a form of electronic Mass that sound as if they should be played in the splendid architecture of churches and cathedrals or dubbed onto the soundtrack of films that form a snapshot of the changing urban landscape that can equally epitomise the spiritually modern. Holywell Lane is a series of rising synth riffs that float on and up into a beautiful sound poem to a place and time. Barbican Brackage is probably the purest form of this attitude on the album and as the title suggests it is perhaps a hymn to film making and modernist architecture. Hawksmoor Orbital is a mass of reverberating Foxx vocal chanting, fluttering electronics and strident organs. There's even a delicious little prayer to that oft discussed and derided piece of architecture, Trellick Tower in the closing track.
His obsessions with Ballardian hyper-reality are still intact too as the music and his intimate sense of place, an urban sense of place most definitely, leak out of the music and offer a liturgy to the layers and layers of history that can be fleetingly glimpsed in John Foxx's version of London. Precious, almost fragile, compositions set contemplatively together in miniature suites and well worth your consideration.
For further background to this album I would highly recommend John Foxx's own essay on The Quiet Man website
John Foxx: My Lost City (META21CD - Released 23 February 2009)
John's collaboration on A Secret Life with Japan's Steve Jansen goes back to their meeting during a performance with Harold Budd in May 2005. Foxx invited Jansen to record tam tams (gongs to you and me, love) for a potential collaborative release. After a long period of gestation and some additional work with Steve D'Agostino, whose efforts brought about the album's completion, what emerges is a fascinating soundscape of vibrations and oscillations merging with treated piano and percussion. This has the fragile beauty of Harold Budd piano pieces coalescing with Desmond Briscoe style radiophonics (check out his eerie soundscapes for the BBC's Quatermass And The Pit) and the edgier compositions of Simon Fisher Turner.
The sound, at once cavernous and yet punctuated by delicate keyboards, shimmers, shakes and drones. The nine minute A Secret Life (Part 2) oozes atmosphere and as in most Foxx instrumental works would be an appropriate soundtrack to some experimental film that depicts hidden worlds beneath the mundane surface of the everyday. It also is highly reminiscent of Brian Eno's series of Ambient albums where the textures and sounds in a shifting audio environment are free of traditional melodies or song structures. It's delicate, elusive music, hardly there. Beautiful and mysterious. Listen to it late at night with headphones on to get the best effect.
John Foxx, Steven Jansen & Steve D'Agostino: A Secret Life (META22CD - Released 23rd March 2009)
Mirrorball is perhaps the most satisfying and engaging. If one was being somewhat disingenuous then it would be very cliched to say this is the Cocteau Twins album we never got. It's full of Guthrie's beautiful, filigree layers of guitar and Foxx's vocals are very impressive as they soar away over the layers of piano, guitar and electronics. This again touches on his interest in vocal harmonies and resonances, particularly the way sound behaves in cavernous spaces such as the architectural perfection of cathedrals and churches. It's an effect that he's been interested in since The Garden and the initial sessions for Cathedral Oceans.
It again reminds me of the Brian Eno music that featured heavily in Derek Jarman's film Sebastiane and Foxx's vocals are seemingly just improvised, used as an instrument to compliment the swathes of sound, and only the odd word can be comprehended. It all adds to the overwhelming sense of mystery and hidden secrets that the album conjures up. I hate to use the word but it's all very 'pretty' with lullaby-like melodies, particularly on My Life As An Echo, which conjures up a meandering walk through gardens bursting with flowers and fountains. Foxx's keyboards dance and pirouette, glittering like jewels in the echoing layers of guitar and percussion. Quite lovely. The Perfect Line picks up on the sacred music of the other releases and is beautiful, his lush vocals and Guthrie's trademark guitar work being a heavenly match.
My personal favourite is Estrellita as it condenses and amplifies all the sound experiments into one gorgeous track that waltzes across the soundstage. A sonic jewel. Yeah, pretentious, but when something's this lovely you just need to put your 'ambient music, ugh' prejudices on hold. And Foxx's vocals just soar and it gets really quite emotional. Luminous deserves to be performed in a vast cathedral and aches to fill massive spaces. It's just so big. Sunshower is probably the closest comparison you could make to the melodic and vocal structure of better known music of The Cocteau Twins and Foxx makes a very impressive stab at improvising those iconic Lis Fraser vocal skips.
Mercurial, full of longing, soaring melodies, this is reflective, summer afternoon listening, perfect for wandering through those cool colonnades, and indeed 'down all the English lanes'.
John Foxx & Robin Guthrie: Mirrorball (META23CD - Released 4th May 2009)
And coming up: The reissues of The Garden, The Golden Section and In Mysterious Ways and the forthcoming reissues of Shifting City and The Pleasures Of Electricity. Will this pleasure never end...
The Quiet Man fan site (excellent!)
Cathode Ray Tube John Foxx My Lost City A Secret Life Mirrorball