ULTRASOUND – London, Hoxton Bar & Kitchen
One music writer’s reconciliation with the fact he never saw Ultrasound first time round… and why it matters so much more now…
At the beginning of the set, someone drops a glass. A predictable ‘Yay!’ fills the room. Ultrasound frontman Tiny – massively Johnny Vegas-like in Homer Simpson t-shirt and undersized plimsoles – takes a moment to ponder: “We always applaud failures, don’t we?”
Not only has he got a point – we English just love a knobhead – it’s also a fitting metaphor for Ultrasound’s own dropped pint of a career, itself applauded and lamented in equal measure.
Too big to sink (perhaps they could have dispensed with the irony and had a frontman called Titanic?), yet too voluminous to rise (their debut was more unrestrained and grandiose than the Sistine Chapel tattooed onto an elephant’s knob), Ultrasound’s was a maiden voyage that promised so much yet sank under the weight of its own expectations.
Now here they are again, back with a vat of new tunes to fill an epoch-sized vessel that has sat empty for over a decade. Yet tonight’s set, a fusion of old favourites and equally infectious new tracks, like every refill, is just as warm and soothing in its familiarity, only that much more intoxicating.
Opening with a pointedly self-referential ‘Same Band’, a kind of Alzheimer’s rally-call (hey, remember us?) but more a flagrant show of unity from the ‘same band’ whose past is stained in notorious acrimony.
Nevertheless, Ultrasound set out their stall initially to remind rather than reveal. And with a back catalogue such as theirs (never mind old wounds) why the fuck not?
Exhibit A, ‘Floodlit World’, one of the best and most underrated singles of, erm, whenever it came out, demonstrates in a blazing refrain the sheer power of the guitar chord – axeman Richard Green bent double under the gravity of it all, as if he’s equally possessed by the ghosts of his heroes (clearly Gilmour and Page), but also that of his former, younger self.
In fact, Richard doesn’t even seem to have aged at all – still every bit the scruffy, fop-haired student on a head-shake degree he always was.
‘Stay Young’ indeed.
But it’s not all plastic nostalgic. For while the vintage stuff has undoubtedly aged well (so well, in fact, that rumours abound the master recordings are kept in an attic somewhere – a Wilde accusation), it’s the new tracks – and the fact they easily stand up to such an impressive legacy of tunes – that has the room all effusive and in love again.
‘Welfare State’, with its anachronistic title (has anyone used that term since the 1980s?), sees Tiny making like Arthur Scargill while he points and finger-wags his way through the song’s acicular message, as if t’pits were still under threat.
Next to him, Richard rocks back and forth like a drunken baby, his guitar a huge rattle he repeatedly, petulantly slams into his own kidneys.
Other side of Tiny, sultry, warbly-voiced, bass-playing co-vox Vanessa rocks the buxom-but-sultry look of old, all topped off by a peculiar white wig that makes her look like a pole-dancing Myra Hindley. “We’ve been away for a while,” Tiny’s dirbbling howl of a voice cries. “But we were never in style!” Some things have clearly not changed.
And while it’s somehow very self-aware and retro, this is also absolutely and exactly the point. For while we do live in treacherous times, wherein legions of also-rans and never-rans of indie yore are rising like even slower-moving zombies from their respective graves – yer Ocean Colourless Scenes; yer Dead 7s – Ultrasound’s is, well, a sound that remains as relevant today as it was a decade ago. Yes, they were never in fashion. Neither will they – or moreover, want to – be. And that’s why they will always remain impervious to the fickle nature of trend.
Part of the reason bands are coming back out of the woodwork left, right and stage centre now is that the live music scene has had a resurgence – or nostalgia’s back in; or Dead 7 really can’t be deaded – and that’s what Ultrasound’s stratospheric, stadium-bound noise was constructed for. What’s to change about that?
Tonight is a lesson in precisely how a show can and should be; it’s also a timely (not before time) reminder that, while the pressures of belonging are as socially prescribed to us as ever, and all around kowtow to the vagaries of the cultural cognoscenti, sticking to your guns and biding your time can preserve you, keep you impervious, overthrow anything.
As Tiny clenches fist and tilts his weary but defiant face to the ceiling and cries the “Donnnnn’t let goooo’ refrain of fresh-as-the-day-it-was-born ‘Suckle’, the sheer physical size of the frontman pales into anorexic proportions next to the reveal of a gargantuan soul.
With new album ‘Play For Today’, Ultrasound not only have the tunes they always used to have – one of tonight’s highlights is the epic (yes, you can apply that word to most), swoonsome ballad ‘Between Two Rivers’, a veritable hymn for humanity crafted from Pink Floyd’s very own prism rainbow – they are also more fierce and determined than they ever were. Not to gain our approval, you understand. Just to reclaim our ears and our hearts.
And speaking as someone who never saw them first time round, while I’m not going to get all hyperbolic and say it’s been worth the wait – I haven’t, in fact, been waiting, because I haven’t, in fact, been expecting… – but it’s been fucking worth the non-wait.
Whether they stick around this time or not is not the point. Some bands, like some people, just can’t be claimed.
Fact is, this is a collective that could disappear for another ten years, and still leap out from the black hole of the sonic stasis their tunes and performances create and reclaim our hearts whenever they pleased.
It’s taken over ten years, sure, but there’s something to be said for fermentation.
And that’s why ten or more years feels like a mere drop in Ultrasound’s timeless, tumultuous ocean of noise.
*A live review of Ultrasound from this article is published in Record Collector magazine