1980 was a hell of a synthy year (1981 even more so), and if there's an album that encapsulates the mood of the time with style, understatement and sheer other-worldliness it's John Foxx's Metamatic
It’s one of life’s cruel ironies that some people saw John Foxx as a Gary Numan wannabee, as just prior to his solo emergence, Numan had famously stated in the press that “I’ll never be as good as Ultravox!” He was referring to Foxx’s hideously underrated futuristic glam-rock pioneers, his comment instantly prompting millions to cry “Who?”, then rush out and buy ‘Systems of Romance’. At the time of Metamatic’s release in 1980, Numan had already peaked with ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and ‘Cars’ (‘Cars’ aside, much of ‘The Pleasure Principle’ sounds like he was singing over the various cycles of the washing machine, as Beggars Banquet’s accountants rubbed their hands and cackled in the background like Smash martians. Though you could shoot me into space with ‘Are Friends Electric?’ on repeat and I’d die happy.)
Foxx’s decision to go solo was fuelled by disinterest from Island Records and being so ahead of the curve that Ultravox! never garnered the praise they so richly deserved (a Mark 2 version would soon return, losing the exclamation mark on the way but gaining a moustache.)
John Foxx (real name Dennis Leigh) exuded the dystopian otherness and exotic European mystique that was almost de rigueur at the time for synth bands, whereas with Numan you had the impression that a quick bath and some make-up remover, and he’d be down the Arsenal before you could say J.G.Ballard.
Metamatic’s charm is its deceptive simplicity, seemingly little more than a gentle phased drum machine and occasional synth drones, when in fact multiple layers of haunting soundscapes are worming around each song. Hydraulic percussive hisses, R2D2 tweets and disembodied whistles populate the alienating sleek cyber scenery.
The single ‘Underpass’ with its catchy line “click-click-drone” could almost be a metaphor for the robotic sterile brain re-tooling that Foxx is covertly indulging in. ‘Metal Beat’ winks a nod to Kraftwerk’s ‘Metal on Metal’, but is more like shiny scalpels than crashing pistons. ‘Blurred Girl’ revisits the bossanova paranoia of Ultravox!’s ‘Hiroshima Mon Armour’, while ‘030’ is like Robbie the Robot playing The Last Post to mourn dead cyborg soldiers. Closing track ‘Touch and Go’ has an almost cold-war John Barry feel, as if Harry Palmer was really Rick Deckard all along.
1980 was a hell of a synthy year (1981 even more so), and if there’s an album that encapsulates the mood of the time with style, understatement and sheer other-worldliness it’s this one.