Equatorial Ultravox – Chad Valley (2011)

Equatorial Ultravox  album cover
Equatorial Ultravox album cover

One of the great things about the Cocteau Twins was the ethereal quality of Elizabeth Fraser’s voice. That otherworldly sound may have influenced a generation of artist who over time have recreated its effect electronically.

What started as overused Autotuned vocals had morphed into something less sinister sounding. The 2011 film Drive seemed to be the tipping point where the sounds of tuned vocals refined in clubs had made its grand appearance on the mainstream arena. The Cliff Martinez score and much of the soundtrack of that film opened the floodgates to a more mainstream acceptance to tuned vocals in a dance oriented style that had vague traces of ’80s memorabilia.

The Weeknd along with R&B meets club hybrids brought club style vocal treatments to the top 40 and before long a string of new artist appeared sporting electronically enhanced vocals (but avoiding the backlash of the first Autotune boom). Of this crop, one of the most promising was an Englishman named Hugo Manuel, otherwise known as Chad Valley.

Manuel’s second EP Equatorial Ultravox was filled with the angelic sounds of electronically processed male voices. At times reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins in its layering, except that Manuel’s voice carried melodies as opposed to Elizabeth Frasier being a counter point to rhythm. On the surface most of Manuel’s influences were German in nature. In fact Equatorial Ultravox would mix an icy blend of Germanic inspired electronica with retro styled ’80s synth pop.

Like Cliff Martinez with his work on the soundtrack to the film Drive (released the same year), Manuel would be inspired by Regan era synth pop. In fact some of Equatorial Ultravox sounds as if it could have been lifted from Drive. The song “I Want Your Love” has that compressed slow motion rhythm typical of Martinez’s work for that stylish film.

In addition to similar influences, Manuel would go one step further than some of his peers by digging  deep into the American R&B vernacular. Such digging uncovers the pleasantly familiar rift of The Jones Girls 1979 classic “Who Can I Run To” as the basis for fuzzy retro soul of “Reach Lines”. The club oriented “Now That I’m Real (How Does It Feel?)” was the EP’s only single and may have given the initial impression that Equatorial Ultravox was some kind of narrowly focused club dance album.

Equatorial Ultravox was actually closer in spirit to Dead Can Dance or M83, but where those bands may have been dark, Chad Valley was upbeat and optimistic without being too bright and trivial. “Shapeless” is perhaps the most joyious song on this album. Its also the most retro sounding as if it could have been made by Haircut 100 or the Blow Monkeys. The beautiful atmospherics of songs like “Reach Lines” with its subtle backing vocals is typical of how Manuel makes layered sounds sound simple and ethereal.

The lush production and arrangements lend a big sound to an album that’s frustratingly too short as a LP, but a bonus as a EP with 7 songs. This genre of dance music is still popular today, in part thanks to the enormous influence of the Drive soundtrack and talented artists like Chad Valley (or is that Hugo Manuel?). Whatever name he goes by (Manuel leads a band called Jonquil when not recording his own material) is likely to be in the forefront of electronic dance music for some time.

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