Gangs Assemble in the Old Arcade
The War Against Silence #41, 9 November 95
UFO: Walk on Water
Ozzy Osbourne: Ozzmosis
g//z/r: Plastic Planet
The Upper Crust: Let Them Eat Rock
UFO: Walk on Water
It will probably come as a surprise to even most of those few people who still care that UFO, who nobody but me seems to have paid much attention to since the late Seventies, is still around making albums. The bulk of their supporters appear to have largely written them off back when guitarist Michael Schenker defected to the Scorpions, decades ago. I was too young to care about them until later, though, so for me the definitive UFO album is 1982's Mechanix. I like 1983's Making Contact a lot, too, and 1985's Misdemeanor has several songs that often float into my mind without any obvious provocation. After that, though, even I concede that things began unraveling. The demo-ish EP Ain't Misbehavin', in 1989, while it broke a long silence, was terminally disjointed and, in places, embarrassingly inane even by UFO's not particularly sophisticated standards, and seemed to hint at dire record-label difficulties. The studio album High Stakes and Dangerous Men, which eventually emerged in 1992, didn't get a US issue until two or three years after its UK release, which turned out to be just as well, I think, as it's one of the saddest, most demoralized albums I've ever heard. Phil Mogg, one of my very favorite rock singers, has always had a melancholy tinge to his voice, but on this album he sounds utterly dejected and lifeless, and the rest of the band seems to sleepwalk through the exercise in the same dolorous state. A better example of the walking-dead effect in rock is hard to come by.
But a while back I heard that Michael Schenker, having run his solo career ignominiously into the ground (I still insist that the hilariously uninspired McAuley-Schenker album Perfect Timing ought to have been called Rigid Timing), was rejoining UFO, and while as a career move this seemed a bit like a slide rule manufacturer hoping that getting bought by a typewriter company was going to turn their fortunes around, I was at least willing to hear what they came up with. In fact, not only is Schenker back for Walk on Water, but drummer Andy Parker and keyboardist Paul Raymond rejoin Mogg and loyal bassist Pete Way, and they unearth producer Ron Nevison, thus reuniting the entire cast of 1978's Obsession, which is the only Schenker UFO album I actually own.
(Get Next Article Segment) ******** Any hopes I had of this record fostering a UFO rebirth on my continent vanished once I discovered the manner in which it was to be released. Somehow, in the process of grinding themselves into oblivion, UFO have been transformed from a rock band into that most perplexing of variants, a rock band that the Japanese like. This album appears on a Toshiba-subsidiary label with the historically alarming name Zero, and in fact, if the word of importers is to be trusted, there is not intended to ever be a Western release. A full Japanese translation of the lyrics is included, as well as two separate liner-note bio-pieces. The "first edition" I acquired even comes with a holographic sticker and a luminescent UFO guitar pick, which I guess the Japanese don't regard as annoying crap that is always falling out of the jewel case when you open it. The most damning and pathetic touch, though, is the final track, listed in the credits as "Message for Japan". If I can do you no other favors in this life, let me at least do this for you: if a copy of this album ever finds its way into a CD player in your vicinity, please, for your own sake, do not play track 11. I promise, I solemnly vow, I assure you with utter certainty, that you will be happier if you don't. It is not a song, you are not missing anything musical. Please believe me. The spectacle of five grown adults attempting to abjectly abase themselves before an entire nation would be bad enough if the ridiculously patient tone their voices take in the process didn't make it sound like it hasn't yet occurred to them that the noises their listeners' mouths make might be an actual foreign language, rather than signs of drooling mental incapacity. Nobody warned me, and after hearing it I felt like an entire hemisphere had just soiled itself.
As for the other ten tracks, these are entirely more respectable. These guys are getting old, but they still remember all the things that made UFO special. Schenker's guitar-playing is electrifying enough, but the soul of UFO to me always was two things. First, Phil Mogg's voice has a warmth and sincerity to it that I find eternally appealing, a sort of amalgam of John Waite's clarity and Bryan Adam's heartfelt roughness. His lyrics are rarely even vaguely remarkable on paper, but when I hear him sing them, they seem to me to turn into emotional talismans. I still get choked up every time I hear him sing "Terri, is it over again?", and even though there's nothing here as overtly sentimental as that, his delivery lends even leering boogie a humanity that it doesn't often possess. Second, I continue to believe that UFO is one of the only heavy metal bands to ever incorporate synthesizer as a completely natural component of their sound. Raymond plays like it's never occurred to him that five-piece isn't the archetypal band configuration, and his presence is as much a part of UFO's sound to me as Jon Lord's organ was to Deep Purple's.
Only eight of these songs are actually new. "A Self Made Man" and "Knock, Knock" are steady and measured, a bit like "Night Run", from Misdemeanor. "Venus" and "Stopped by a Bullet (Of Love)" are faster and more charged, like "We Belong to the Night", from Mechanix. "Pushed to the Limit", "Darker Days" and "Running on Empty" have old-style grooves like "Doctor, Doctor". And the slow, tender "Dreaming of Summer" reminds me of Mechanix's "You'll Get Love". The album is rounded out with 1995 remakes of "Doctor, Doctor" itself, and "Lights Out", two venerated UFO tunes that I guess Japan showed a particular fondness for. The most obvious question, though, is whether UFO can still a) rock, and b) do so without sounding like a preposterous Spinal-Tap-ish parody of themselves. To whatever extent my reactions are indicative, the answer is that they rock just as convincingly as they ever did, and if there's any significant element of the absurd, it's lost on me. UFO were never heavy, originally, in the way that Black Sabbath or Motorhead were, and they aren't now, either. Their version of heavy metal always treated metal as a stylistic variation on mainstream rock, not an outgrowth of punk, industrial noise or arcane cult ritual, so to listeners weaned on Metallica and Slayer this stuff may sound worryingly like Journey. But it counts.
Thanks to Mike for forwarding this piece.