by Maxwell Cavaseno
The trouble with having friends who are amazing is there’s a coin-toss involved with how you can be remembered. Sometimes you look cooler, but sometimes one can get overshadowed. And for Kurt Ralske of Ultra Vivid Scene, this was a probable issue. After all, when you’re on the 4AD label, historic home of bands like Cocteau Twins, Pixies, and Throwing Muses, you’ve got quite the track record to compete against. So whereas many of those bands have been since venerated and canonized, Ultra Vivid’s strange take on the sounds of indie then still overflowing with potential hasn’t quite managed to get to that level.
It’s not unfair; Kurt Ralske’s endeavors with Ultra Vivid Scene’s first album was a hazed out affair, The Jesus & Mary Chain and (of course) The Velvet Underground inspiring him to pursue that brand of guitar aquatics that had yet to become associated with kids who obsessed with making sure their feet didn’t go anywhere. But by the second album, he’d drained out the noise to show off a lot of his pop forte, and even had a single featuring former Pixie turned Breeder Kim Deal. However, whereas both endeavors had seen him play all the instruments for the recordings, his third album, Rev, saw Ralske hire a backing band, perhaps worrying that he needed the extra muscle to push his way to the top.
As a result, one discovers that Rev is a slightly confused affair. Before the new blood, Kurt Ralske had a singular vision that demonstrated a particular pop concept. It was the work of a mopey loner, trying to create a soundtrack to what his imagination could cook up that was torrid yet inviting. However, here we find a man hiding behind the trappings of rock to an unexpected degree. Maybe it was his attempt to break out of the confines of the 4AD scene into commercial rock paradise, maybe the influence of bands turning to 70s rock for inspiration like Primal Scream or The Stone Roses. Just take a look at the Who-like outro to “Mirror To Mirror”, turning a slight and colorless bit of jangling-guitar music into some sort of ploy for arena rock pomp. It’s hard to believe that this came from a guy who’d once been contemporaries with Pale Saints. Following right after that, “The Portion Of Delight” also sounds like it could serve as a bridge between Oasis and The Black Crowes, digging itself deeper and deeper into a strange, unfamiliar murky groove.
Elsewhere, the pep continued to get swallowed up by this sort of trenchant guitar sound, recalling the lazy stoner bob of the Meat Puppets. “Thief’s Love Song” is a wall of guitar harmonics, slides, riffs, and everything; but it lacks the shoe-gaze ‘swoon’, instead becoming a sonic junk heap of guitar ideas. Meanwhile “How Sweet” goes for a sort of funky vibe with sampled drums and extra percussion (to unknown success), while “Medicating Angels” sounds like the funeral of a space cowboy. It’s hard to imagine how a young Mark Kozelek, a recent arrival to 4AD, might have taken this strangely depressive stew of guitars to heart. For all the while, Ralske’s presence in his sea-sick record is a dulled sneer, perhaps unwilling to let you find a safe haven once you’ve pierced through the whirlpool he’s at the center of. Maybe this time, the loner was kicking everyone out.
Ultimately, Rev failed to do what it was aiming for. The record’s only single, stern rocker “Blood And Thunder” (edited down from a truly draining 10 minutes) was his lowest charting song in the US, and sales couldn’t match the band’s debut album. Ralske would retire the Ultra Vivid Scene name, pursuing a career in education in addition to working as a producer and releasing more experimental ambient works. And while his music has yet to find the type of cult audience that some of his peers did, it remains a fascinating display of a time where the ‘alternative rock’ phenomenon could offer the most bizarre of results, welcome or not.