UK band Ultrasound rises from ashes of 90s implosion
DURHAM, England (Reuters) - Rock and roll is full of cautionary tales - of excess, break-ups and missed opportunities.
British indie band Ultrasound, touted as the "next big thing" in the 1990s only to sink without trace following bitter bust-ups, reports of in-band infidelity and "creative differences", fits the bill neatly.
But in the case of the quintet led by the imposing Andrew "Tiny" Wood, the tale may yet have a happy ending.
Ultrasound has just released a second album "Play for Today" 13 years after its ambitious yet poorly received double-CD debut "Everything Picture" proved the beginning and the end of an act that record labels had fought each other to sign.
This time around there are no six-figure sums, no flights to the United States to be wined and dined, none of the hype generated by record company A&R departments whose influence has waned with the arrival of the internet.
Instead there is a 10-song, single-CD album which failed to trouble the charts in Britain on its release last month, a series of small gigs and decidedly modest hopes for the future.
"It would be nice if we could earn enough so that we could do this," Wood said during a recent interview in Durham, northern England, close to where he now lives.
"Tiny", who is anything but small, has been singing in other bands and to help make ends meet spends two days a week washing dishes in nearby Newcastle, while principal songwriter Richard Green is a delivery man working "ridiculous hours.
"If we could earn enough so that each of us could be comfortable then that would be great. I don't think you should have any more," Wood added.
Ultrasound's manager Andy Macleod said he too, was not getting carried away.
"We can't compete with the squillion-pound marketing spend of the majors (labels) so we are taking one step at a time and seeing how far it can take us," he said ahead of the band's biggest comeback gig to date in front of 600 people in London.
"So hopefully it's a slow-burn to world domination ... around 2021. Pink Floyd meets The Who - Punk Floyd!"
Even in the late 1990s, when Ultrasound signed with Nude Records for 250,000 pounds ($400,000) and were on the covers of music magazines, Wood did not get ahead of himself.
"I was in my mid-30s then," he explained. "I wasn't in some kind of bubble or anything ... I've seen bands come and go, I know how it works."
Wood, who is "48 or 49" - he says he can't remember which - recalled the heady days of bidding wars and big contracts which the music industry is still recovering from.
"There was still that sense of take a band, throw a lot of money at it and you've got another Oasis," he explained, referring to the industry's search for someone to fill the void left by Britpop's decline at the end of the 1990s.
"It doesn't work that way, really. You've got to take bands that you believe in and build them up."
In the case of Ultrasound, he blames the band for being naive and the label for failing to offer enough guidance when Everything Picture came out.
He and his fellow musicians, including Green and Vanessa Best on bass guitar, could have negotiated a significantly bigger contract, but wanted "artistic freedom" above all else.
What they created was an album that baffled the music press at the time and flickered briefly in the British album charts where it rose to no. 23 in 1999, but which has since come to be regarded as a "lost" classic of progressive rock.
"If any criticism could be made, I suppose it would be that we do that with everything - you try and make a nice little pop song and you always start adding things in to make it big and joyous. If there's a criticism, it's that," Wood said.
"We get criticism for being over-ambitious. So what? It's good. It's better than not being ambitious at all."
Their dramatic rise and fall is not new. The hugely influential Sex Pistols released one studio album in 1977 before a tempestuous break-up the following year. Subsequent comebacks have been jeered as "sellouts" as much as cheered by fans.
Liverpool's The La's took around four years to complete their eponymous debut album in the early 1990s, only for volatile group leader Lee Mavers to instantly disown it and the band to drift into relative obscurity.
BAND THRIVES ON STAGE
NME magazine called Ultrasound the "most underrated band" of the 1990s - it flourished briefly at the time Coldplay were starting out - and described Everything Picture as a "perfect, bloated double album of endlessly ambitious guitar rock."
Wood said he had wanted to produce a three-CD album, but compromised and stuck with two.
"We didn't know how long we were going to last," the soft-spoken singer explained. "We thought, well, let's put everything in this because this might be the only chance we get. It wasn't necessarily made for 1999, it was made for the future."
Ultrasound's biggest draw was their live shows. Wood's stage presence and the drama of the band's big, punk-infused sounds make for an arresting spectacle and one that could fill far bigger venues than they have of late.
In its heyday, Ultrasound played music festivals like Glastonbury and T in the Park, although Wood also recalled performing in front of two or three people in the early years.
Surprisingly, Wood is not a big fan of performing.
"I'm good at doing it, I know I am. But it doesn't necessarily mean I enjoy doing it. (But) I'm quite happy to do a lot of gigs because I know that's where we excel and that's how we can sell records."
Most reviews of the new album, out on the Fierce Panda Records label, have been positive.
"Play for Today is above all else a collection of consistently fine-tuned anthems, suffused with passion, intelligence and a kind of heroic, life-affirming despair," wrote Paul Whitelaw on the BBC's music website.
The Drowned in Sound website gave a more mixed review, calling the album "fine" and the live shows "still incredible" but adding that Play for Today was more a trip down memory lane than a "reclaiming of the flame."
Play for Today opens with "Welfare State", a brazen, angry comeback featuring the lines "We crashed and burned but we return/ To claim our stake."
"Nonsense", about self-loathing, is jaunty and harmonious by comparison, "Between Two Rivers" is a mournful take on Wood's vision of belonging while in "Long Way Home" he lets loose his romantic side, singing of a "flamingo pink and powder blue" sky.
Now Play for Today is out, the hard work begins.
The band has begun recording new music, including an extra-long "prelude" to their next album, and has eight confirmed gigs starting at York's Fibbers on November 22.
"I'm a little bit cynical myself, and I always take everything with a pinch of salt, but the response that I have noticed has been very positive," was Wood's typically blunt assessment of the comeback so far. "We'll see."
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)
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