REVIEW/HISTORY: Ultra Vivid Scene, A Primer

-John Walker

Probably one of the finest, if most unheralded (except by a few smart rock critics) bands to inhabit the increasingly corporatized and bland rock landscape over the past few years has been Ultra Vivid Scene (UVS), initially a project hatched from the subversive mind of singer/guitarist Kurt Ralske. Ignoring trends, Ralske has created over the span of three releases (Ultra Vivid Scene; Joy 1967-1990; Rev) a musical world that summons up images of Baudelaire and Wilde more than of Seattle grungemeisters. In fact, Ralske belongs only amongst the most elevated of rock artists to appear since the genre's inception; in time, Ultra Vivid Scene will take its place in rock genealogy beside another great--and for years, ignored--band, The Velvet Underground.

Ultra Vivid Scene is the result of a long musical odyssey on the part of Ralske, one that began with him entering Boston's Berklee College of music at the tender age of 16--a prodigy indeed. This interest in jazz soon evolved into something different through the influence of New York's no wave, punk jazz scene (of which James Chance, of James White and the Blacks, was a seminal figure), inspiring not only Ralske, but figures such as Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and Michael Gira (Swans). These were people who "got up on stage and just didn't give a fuck what they even sounded like; they just wanted to get it all out. It was very impressive, inspiring" Ralske says.

This inspiration led Ralske to relocate to the slums of London, England, in 1986, there soaking up the vibes of the nascent noise-pop scene being founded by the Jesus And Mary Chain. Ralske recalls JAMC's Douglas Douglas and his mini nightclub called Speed, which featured 60's pop music played at thunderous levels; "the Shirelles or the Mamas and Papas would start to distort and sound just like the Jesus and Mary Chain" he says. After a brief run with a UVS prototype called Crash (the name taken from a J.G. Ballard novel about a man obsessed with violent car crashes), it was time for Ralske to return to New York to "get desperate," and to assimilate and re-assemble all the various influences of his musical life, the result being the conception of Ultra Vivid Scene.

1st release: Ultra Vivid Scene (1988)

Ralske's major obsessions all appear on this self-titled first release, which sounds as vital today as the day it first appeared. These interests focus not on the daytime, socio-political world, but on the nighttime, Dionysian realm, the realm which lays behind closed doors and closed eyelids. It's as if Ralske took up the provocative theme of The Velvet Underground's "Venus In Furs" and formed a band to explore it. At any rate, the "band" on this first release is, for the most part, Ralske himself, "off in a private world" as he puts it, in the studio. Perhaps the quintessential UVS song appears here: "The Mercy Seat" (not the Nick Cave song but one just as good, which is saying something!) describes a situation where "when the blood begins to flow/there's nowhere else to go/I feel complete in the mercy seat." The accompanying music is appropriately thunderous, an ominous riff-rocker combined with a lyrical subtlety unknown to most grunge merchants; in concert, this number often metamorphoses into a free-jazz, Velvets-styled guitar assault.

Ultra Vivid Scene gives us with Ralske as the postmodern John Donne, mixing sexual and spiritual metaphors, obsessed with the interplay high and low. Thus we also have "The Whore of God" ("But a kiss on the lips/is far too much for anyone/so kneel and pray until you're sore"), an ethereal number yoking the smell of incense with the raunch of the street. Overall, Ultra Vivid Scene is a stunning debut, comparable to Andy Warhol Presents The Velvet Underground in style and content, a definitive statement of purpose introducing themes which continue to appear in UVS material to this day.

2nd Release: JOY 1967-1990 (1990)

The enigmatic title of UVS's sophomore release can be explained by Ralske's aesthetic fascination with the subject of death; the title is Ralske's fictive inscription of a 23-year-old girl's tombstone. For Ralske, the contemplation of death, perhaps the ultimate taboo in our "be young have fun drink pepsi" consumer culture, is one way of freeing yourself from the constrictions of accepted ways of thinking and behaving. "Thinking about [death] can be a real liberating experience," he says, "because death is a part of life. And if you don't deal with that fact, you're fooling yourself."

For an album based on such themes, Joy is a far cry from a depressive, Joy Division-styled foray into darkness. Instead, the album is one long, languid, sensual, narcotic buzz, the tracks flowing into each other freely, like the bodies at an orgy (a simile Kurt might enjoy!). Among UVS fans, Joy brings knowing smiles and nods of approval; tracks such as "Praise The Low" ("Emily is hanging round/by her feet strung upside down/swaying back and forth without a sound"), a smoky Renaissance dirge replete with bodhran, viol and recorder, and the soaring "The Kindest Cut" are razor-sharp and ultra-vivid pop-rock of the highest calibre.

Ironically, only Ralske seems to feel that Joy was infected by any hint of the sophomore jinx; producer Hugh Jones, who Ralske personally admires, nevertheless exerted too much control over the finished product to suit him. "I feel like that record was taken away from me" he says, as UVS fans nevertheless clutch it tightly to their chests.

3rd Release: Rev (1992)

This most recent UVS release is a departure from previous efforts, in that, as much as Ultra Vivid Scene and Joy 1967-1990 were results of one man in a studio, Rev is the result of three men in a room, "jamming," as they used to say (and still do). Perhaps lending credence to my description of the "narcotic" vibe of his previous release, Ralske sums up the new band-oriented feel of Rev by stating that "it's not something I'm at all proud of, but if you're taking drugs, it's hard to play with other musicians."

Rev, then, is a result of some changes, both personal and musical, that Kurt Ralske has made in his life. One change is his conversion experience leading away from a reliance on studio technology toward a more Zen-like philosophy of going with the musical flow, also reflecting an attitudinal return to his jazz roots. "The best music happens when people just give up their will and go with the flow" Ralske says. "I really hate machines now: the stupidest thing that ever happened in music was when somebody brought a computer into the recording studio."

While the previous two UVS releases tended toward the clipped, strictly delineated strictures of the pop song, an Apollonian presentation of Dionysian subject matter, as Camille Paglia might say, Rev explodes these boundaries in search of "the moment," that elusive groove which is the magic elixir for all true musicians, and which can only be found in a live situation: the album is basically Ralske, bassist Chuck Daley and drummer Julius Kelpacz, live off the studio floor. As such, Rev is probably the least immediately "catchy," but finally the most musically rewarding, of all the UVS releases.

"Thief's Love Song" is the albums's centerpiece, the most sensual mood Ralske has yet conjured up, a "dreamy love/sex song between two women, I think" ("Beneath the sea a fish/is matching kiss for salty kiss"). For fans of hard-rock, the band summons up the atmospheric "Kashmir" era of Led Zeppelin for the extended jams "Medicating Angels" and "Blood and Thunder," Ralske fashioning a noise-maelstrom with his slide guitar. "This Is The Way" returns to Ralske's obsession with the theme of sex and death, a seduction intoned by the ghost of a deceased husband to his still-living wife.

UVS: WHAT NEXT? Unfortunately, doing things your way in the music business is never easy, and Kurt Ralske's new direction didn't sit well with his label for all three UVS albums. That label, 4AD, is undergoing other changes, none of which seem for the better. So UVS is label shopping, the band's only recent release being an "official" fan club bootleg tape called Ultra Vivid Scene Live at the Masquerade, taken off the sound board from the Atlanta stop of the rocking 1993 tour. The tape is a neat summation of the best UVS moments from the first three lps, with an emphasis on material from Rev; the versions here of "Thief's Love Song" and "Mercy Seat" are especially thrilling, the band reaching for the limits of musical fire and passion, whetting the appetite for what's to come. Stay tuned.


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