Emerging from the vibrant UK electronic scene of the early ’90s, Ultramarine has often been described as “techno-folk,” although the range of the group’s interests defies easy pigeonholing. Essex natives Paul Hammond and Ian Cooper started working together in A Primary Industry with a trumpet player, a drummer and a female vocalist. The result was Ultramarine, an inauspicious debut influenced by the white funk avant-garde of Cabaret Voltaire and A Certain Ratio. The group changed its name to Ultramarine and took a step in the right direction with Folk, but the album is still somewhat stilted and uninspired.
Reduced to a duo, Hammond and Cooper veered the band in an electronic direction on Every Man and Woman Is a Star, Ultramarine’s first fully realized album. Coming at the advent of ambient house, it’s a decidedly laid-back affair, a heady pastiche of easy listening, dub, soft jazz and disco that prefigures both trip-hop and the lounge-core revival. Blending acoustic sounds with wibbly-wobbly analog synths, Every Man and Woman Is a Star is one of the warmest, most organic-sounding electro records, percolating with good vibes and weird enchantment. The duo’s clever sampling lends an air of déjà entendu to the project with bits of Echo and the Bunnymen, Paul Hardcastle and even Bobby McFerrin stitched into the fabric.
With a cover image evoking Arthurian legend, United Kingdoms is a densely textured experience that stands up to repeated listens and remains Ultramarine’s most ambitious, most conceptually rewarding album. Less dependent on recognizable samples than its predecessor, the album employs live instruments (accordion, harmonica, violin and woodwinds) for a chamber-techno effect. The thematic centerpiece is a pair of collaborations with Robert Wyatt. His inimitable wheeze gives voice to “Kingdom” and “Happy Land,” bitingly ironic populist commentaries based on 19th Century folk songs. If this sounds insufferably academic on paper, in execution, the songs are percolating pop masterpieces, encapsulating the band’s fascination with technology, socialism and heritage.
Bel Air and A User’s Guide, while sonically engaging, lack the scope and ambition of the duo’s best work. Worse, Ultramarine sounds behind the curve. Bel Air‘s lounge pop confections are reminiscent of Stereolab, Tortoise and the High Llamas. And 1998’s A User’s Guide is thoroughly depoliticized, a retreat into machines that eschews live instrumentation for stuttering micro-programmed grooves, inspired by the likes of µ-ziq, Aphex Twin and Squarepusher.