something that should outlive us all
Ultrasound’s third album, Real Britannia, released on their CAC (Classic Album Club) label, co-founded by a couple of rock’n’roll doctors, actually real life medics and vinyl freaks who bought the band the studio gear they needed to make the record. The lengthiest track on an album that resolutely refuses to pander to 21st century attention spans is a suite of sorts entitled “Blue Remembered Hills”, a lengthy, autobiographical lyrical expression by Tiny that’s doubly apt. It harks back to an ugly/beautiful childhood, a blue remembered Seventies one of bubblegum and concrete and Top of the Pops, of cub scouts and power cuts, civil unrest and hazy summer lawns; it also harks back to a late 20th century culture, in which Ultrasound were themselves late participants, in which maverick, impassioned art was given play in the mainstream.
“I got obsessed with Dennis Potter,” says Tiny. “The way he viewed Britain. I like Dennis Potter because he dared to do things other people wouldn’t - and he was brutally honest. . . you don’t get that window of opportunity now. I saw a documentary about Ken Loach recently. They tried to shut him down, stop him from working. But even if it’s been shut down, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t follow that path.”
Real Britannia is, as its title suggests, a bittersweet, Potter-esque contemplation of this sceptred but septic isle. Land, as bassist Vanessa Wilson puts it of “knickerbocker glories to Jimmy Savile’s salacious abuse and yet also this green and pleasant land. It’s all bonkers-ly? beautiful and harrowing.” Or, as Tiny says, was what it means to British, what that means to people. But also to get to grips with this whole idea of nostalgia; harking back to times that never existed. Things were just as bad and just as good back then; they’re just as bad and just as good today.”
From “No Man’s Land”, triggered by the 80s post nuclear drama Threads, with musical nods to both Pere Ubu and even Jethro Tull, to the single “Kon-Tiki”, whose guitars burst fresh from the cupboards of the late 1990s, to “Soul Girl”, Vanessa’s first ever penned contribution to an Ultrasound album, a motorik, affirmative celebration of a force that will not be denied, to “Asylum”, with its vivid, musty fragrance’s of the provinces, Real Britannia is an album that straddles the styles of the late 20th century decades, from segmented Prog to Chicks On Speed-style raw, minimal pop. “It helps the fact that we’re all different ages,” says Tiny. “We all bring something different to the table.”
It’s an album about low times, bad places yet also propelled, as Vanessa says by “ascension, a feeling of moving towards the light.” It’s an album on which love and care has clearly been lavished, the product of four years of patient architecture, evolved in its own time, wrought outside of the terms and conditions of an increasingly desperate record industry those serious about making music would be better having nothing to do with.
“The music industry gets very heavy,” says co-songwriter Richard Green. “People get very jobsworth about it. We have a lot of fun, a lot of laughing, a lot of messing around. It’s not a job. The simple buzz of hearing sounds you’ve made coming out of a speaker.”
The love of the labour is reflected in the vinyl packaging, particularly the glorious artwork of the gatefold (tri-fold) sleeve, which broadcasts the demand that this album not be merely cherry picked but treasured as a whole. In that respect, as rocketing vinyl sales demonstrate, Ultrasound are down with the kids. As Tiny says, “You see kids clutching vinyl when they come out of gigs who don’t even own record players because they need something tangible from the experience, in their hands, an artefact.”
What’s more, the album is recorded using analogue processes; it’s about capturing the vibe rather than achieving some clinical, self-defeating and sterile idea of perfection.
“You can put fast food in your face quickly but you’ll still feel hungry at the end of it,” says Vanessa. “But recording analogue isn’t just some pretentious gesture against the music industry. It’s nourishing. It’s like a dense weave on a steak. A good quality piece of meat doesn’t have air and water in it - whereas a lot of modern music is full of air and water. Hot air”.
“For us, Real Britannia is about putting the needle on the record and going on a spiritual journey with us into light and dark dreams and wash up on the shores of life somehow changed, hopefully for the better. Music is important to us and to our fans. It is not just a chart obsessed “here today” type thing, but has a lasting permanence – a sense of eternity and something that should outlive us all.”
David Stubbs 2016