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Utopia - Oblivion CD (album) cover

OBLIVION

Utopia

Eclectic Prog


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2 stars By no means a good album, nor even a good Utopia album, but it does contain Maybe I Could Change, one of the finest songs Todd Rundgren has ever written. Worth the price of admission alone, even if it is about as prog as Kylie.
Report this review (#26512)
Posted Friday, January 23, 2004 | Review Permalink
daveconn
PROG REVIEWER
3 stars Both UTOPIA and TODD RUNDGREN were beginning to lose relevance in the '80s, coyly keeping one foot in the pop camp and another in the new wave scene. "Oblivion" marked the beginning of the end for UTOPIA, relegated to yet another minor label (Passport) that struggled to get the word out. Although half of the material here would compare favorably to their last two records, it's a shortage of good ideas that ultimately defines the album. The opening "Itch In My Brain" is very catchy, but UTOPIA played this card already with "Hammer In My Heart." Likewise, it's an old formula at work on the ballads "Maybe I Could Change", "If I Didn't Try" and "I Will Wait." The energetic rockers are a shade better, with "Too Much Water" and "Crybaby" wisely selected to represent this album for Trivia. Medium-tempo, quirky tunes like "Love With A Thinker" and "Winston Smith Takes It On The Jaw" round out this tepid affair. While fans who enjoyed "Swing To The Right" and their eponymous followup from 1982 will find "Oblivion" reassuringly familiar, the lack of inspiration might be mildly alarming. It's pretty much a given that any RUNDGREN/UTOPIA album will deliver at least one good ballad plus some catchy, quirky, playful pop tunes. That "Oblivion" doesn't deliver more is why some critics have panned it. H

onestly, only UTOPIA's first album, Trivia, and Redux '92 get fewer spins on my stereo than this album. If you must own it (and I'm not recommending you don't), buy "Oblivion" after you've picked up everything from "Another Live" to their last record, UTOPIA; otherwise, you're cheating yourself. Note that this appears to have gone out of print in the '80s, but I'm sure there are plenty of folks who'd be willing to sell you their copy.

Report this review (#26513)
Posted Tuesday, May 4, 2004 | Review Permalink
ClemofNazareth
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR
Prog Folk Researcher
2 stars Todd Rundgren is a smart guy, so it’s likely he was clearly aware of the fact that Utopia was fading fast as a relevant presence by the time Oblivion released, so maybe he was simply acknowledging this with the self-described title and bland cover art. Certainly many 70s bands were struggling to find their way through the fast-shifting fad minefield that was the 80s, but for groups like Utopia who had no solid body of work that established their niche and fan base, the struggle was proving to be fatal.

Utopia had always had chameleon tendencies throughout their career, issuing albums of a progressive/experimental bent (Todd Rundgren’s Utopia), spiritually psychedelic (Ra), British–invasion proto rock (Deface the Music), post-punk socially conscious fare (Swing to the Right), and just plain pop (Oops! Wrong Planet). Occasionally the band stumbled upon a hit (“Hello It’s Me”, “Love is the Answer”, “Set Me Free”), and certainly scores of modern musicians point to Utopia as a major influence on their own styles, but by and large the band was simply ‘there’ throughout the latter 70s and early 80s, neither making a huge impression, nor simply fading away. Until Oblivion – with this album the band pretty much sinks the final nail in their creative coffin. There is almost nothing here that is memorable, but more significantly, there is little here that is either progressive or even markedly creative. The proverbial fat lady has sung for Utopia.

Rundgren leads off with “Itch in my Brain” with some characteristic clever lyrics (“I’ve got a free will that I ain’t even used yet”), but the music is pure 80s synthetic pop with cheesy sound effects, punchy but predictable tempo, and a vocal track that sounds dangerously close to David Byrne and Talking Heads’ “Wild Wild Life”. In contrast to Deface the Music where the band intentionally parroted 60s pop icons as a tribute, this one is pretty much just a shameless rip-off as far as my ears are concerned.

Instead of love-struck angst, Rundgren has a different problem on “Love With a Thinker” – his girlfriend is apparently too smart for him! “She has the answers I don’t know how to ask”, “when she starts thinking over my head it makes me dizzy”. Clever premise maybe, but this one actually sounds like it was nipped from the suave 80s Greg Kihn Band, with its lightly pulsing keyboard riff and exaggerated vocals.

On to “Bring me my Longbow”, a syncopated synth beat and shout-and-response backing vocals sound suspiciously like a b-side from The Fixx, yet another 80s icon whose style should have been nothing like what one would expect from Utopia. Such were the times (and the level of the band’s desperation for acceptance).

“If I Didn’t Try” is a tougher call – I’m not sure which tortured soul the band is trying to emulate here. Maybe they are actually attempting an original sound; if so, it falls flat. Rundgren’s off-key wailing, over the top of a strident guitar squeal and erratic keyboards sounds more like the band was recording after too long of exposure to a sensory depravation tank. Painful to listen to.

The vinyl side-A closes with “Too Much Water”, another cheap knock-off of Talking Heads, complete with very flat and tacky drum sequence tracks and synthetic brass wind bleats. Combined with tepid lyrics (“too much water under the bridge”, repeated as- nausea), this is another dance-hit misfire.

Rundgren always managed to redeem himself at least partially, even on the worst works Utopia spewed out. On Oblivion that track is “Maybe I Could Change”, a slower, almost ballad-like pleading that’s musically pretty close to “Love is the Answer” and lyrically nearly the reverse of “Set Me Free”. I suppose it’s excusable that at least on this track, the band is copying themselves!

“Crybaby” is a rocker, screaming guitars and thwacking drumbeat overlaid with those dementia-laden vocals that form about the only consistent trademark for the band. I won’t attempt to figure out whether this is a Richard Marx or a Rick Springfield clone, since it really doesn’t matter which.

I suspect “Welcome to My Revolution” is actually a leftover from Swing to the Right, with a denser guitars, stark and more subdued rhythm, and disaffected-man-setting-in-his- basement-writing-angry-letters-to-the-government lyrics. If so, there’s a reason it was left off that album, as there is really no point to be made other than that ‘The Man’ is out to get us. Sorry, but this is not really news.

“Winston Smith Takes it on the Jaw” is kind of a Barry Manilow vocal with indiscernible lyrics and an almost completely synthetic instrumental accompaniment. “Copa, Copa Cabana, hottest spot north of Havana – here, at the Copa,…..”.

The band tries to somehow gather up all the tried on outfits at the end and bring them together into some sort of cohesive closing tune – “I Will Wait”. Unfortunately this comes off as Freddie Mercury doing “Who Wants to Live Forever” but without any talented musicians backing him. Really pitiful.

This is a frustrating band. By now all their fans know the whole story, since the band basically ceased to exist shortly after this and one more (just as awful) album was released. And that truth is – Todd Rundgren may have been some sort of musical child prodigy and technical wiz kid, but he apparently only got luck with the band’s debut and “Ra”, as almost everything the band did after these failed to demonstrate any appreciable talent or creative potential. For true fans only, and maybe not even for them. Two stars.

peace

Report this review (#80952)
Posted Sunday, June 11, 2006 | Review Permalink
Easy Livin
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR
Honorary Collaborator / Retired Admin
1 stars Maybe we should change

Following Utopia's painful departure from their long term label Bearsville, the band recorded one self titled album for the fledgling Network records. Unfortunately, that label folded a year later, and the band were once again left homeless. They negotiated a deal with the small PVC label, "Oblivion" being the first of three Utopia albums for that label (the third "Trivia" was a compilation of unreleased material).

Once again, although Rundgren was clearly the leader the songwriting credits are democratically shown as "Utopia" throughout. Interestingly though, the production and engineering credit states "Todd Rundgren and Utopia".

As had been the case on more recent Utopia albums, any vestiges of prog had long since been eradicated from the band, so here we have ten short, pop based songs. The lack of effort though is apparent throughout the album, from the bland black sleeve to the endlessly repeated one line choruses.

The overall sound is that of the 80's, with thin electronic synth backings, and jaunty pop melodies. At times, the band sound like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, but without the melodies. Indeed, it is the song-writing which is the weakest link here. The first three tracks are among the worst Rundrgren has ever put his name to. The title "Itch in my brain" offers fair warning of the upbeat rubbish which is to follow, this being mirrored on the equally poor "Bring me my longbow". Even the vocal harmonies sound unrehearsed and lacking in effort.

Switching to side two brings some slight relief, with "Maybe I could change" being a passable ballad, and the following "Crybaby" at least finding Rundgren in decent vocal form. It's all too short on real quality though, and the album closes in equally bland fashion.

It is hard to find anything positive to say about this album. Quite why the band persisted when there was no fuel left in the tank is an enigma. Avoid.

Report this review (#88899)
Posted Monday, September 4, 2006 | Review Permalink
4 stars It may be very strange, but Oblivion is definitively my favorite Utopia record. I bought the vinyl 18 years ago in Madrid (with POV ; bad luck some of you might say) just because Todd had produced Cheap Trick (one of my favourite band). I agree that the techno pop production of Rundgren is a little bit overblown but this albums contains some of the best pieces ever written by Rundgren and the band. I think "Maybe I could change", "Love with a thinker" and "I will wait" are examples of ultimate pop songs. I've always consider this record like the "Black Diamond" of Utopia and the more i listen to it, the more i consider it like a important album. The reason i don't mark it 5 stars is because i don't see Oblivion like a "Masterpiece of progressive music", but i sure see it like one of the most smart pop collection ever recorded.
Report this review (#130354)
Posted Thursday, July 26, 2007 | Review Permalink
Tom Ozric
PROG REVIEWER
3 stars UTOPIA began life as a musically 'Progressive' venture for eclectic musician TODD RUNDGREN leading up to the mid-70's. Having successfully tread these wonderfully colourful paths with amazing results, the down-sized line-up comprising of Rundgren (Guitars/Vocals), Roger Powell (Keys. Synths, Vocals), Kasim Sulton (Bass Guitar/vocals) and Willie Wilcox (Drums/Vocals) latched onto space-hero STEVE HILLAGE and cut the album 'L', after which the brilliant Utopia album 'Ra' was recorded. The later Seventies offered the band successful possibilities within the growing 'New-Wave' scene. Here we are at 1983....... - musically, much water has passed under the bridge, and the Utopian musicians have learnt just as much in the ensuing years. Todd has always been up-to-date with revolutionary Production techniques, the newest technology, and the endeavour to produce a 'perfect album' (as if Meatloaf's 'Bat Out Of Hell' didn't receive anough accolades......of course, not an album I particularly enjoy....) so 'Oblivion' offers up an album worth of 'New-Wavey' and rather synthetic sounding material composed democratically by all members of the band. Perhaps they've taken on a more 'Progressive' approach to their writing/recording (considering the usual 80's values ??). Around this time, drummer Willie Wilcox had a rather primitive form of a Midi drumkit (Musical Instrument Digital Interface - actually, we could still be talking 'analogue' for now ??) in the form of some supersonic Bob-Sled (or motorbike) - just some pads and cymbals which were linked to a sound-base that was able to re-create the sounds of a full drumkit (and then some - hitting a drum and hearing bubbly synth sounds surely must've been innovative...) Same goes for Kasim's Bass - at times, we hear a Synth-Bass, and, perhaps some Taurus Pedals, along with his vibrant Bass-Guitaring. MIDI was all the rave during these 'plastic' times, for sure interesting, but took the 'heart' out of a natural approach to playing music, even though some musicians used it sympathetically (Bill Bruford, Phil Miller, among others). Those who have seen footage from this phase of the band will be astounded with the result these great musicians had with their craft. Roger Powell is responsible for a lot of the synth innovations displayed here - he has long been a dear friend of the late Dr Robert Moog, had an immediate know-how of synthesis and software programming and pretty much a virtuoso keyboards player to boot. 'Oblivion' is quite an over-polished affair never-the-less, containing some well written material, precision playing and tight harmonies. Nothing a Prog-Head would die for, but some of the songs featured on this album are really enjoyable, the playing really is tight, and we can hear the vaguest of prog-related ideas as well (if one looks hard enough...) To mention high-lights, as always, opening song 'Itch In My Brain' recalls a light resemblance to the Prog-Pop tune 'Caravan' off their successful 'Adventures In Utopia' album, with a great progression and brief Roger Powell synth and Todd R. guitar trade-off. 'If I Didn't Try' is a tastefully performed ballad in the vein of the lovely Rundgren blast 'The Verb 'To Love', complete with some unique Powell synth colourings - the vocals and harmonies are absolutely superb, and the main organ melody is just beautiful (this track rates up there with, say, the 'Utopia Theme' (from the debut) 'The Seven Rays' (from Another Live) 'Singring...' (from 'Ra') etc... Definately my favourite piece from this album (and I'm hardly a 'die-hard' Utopian follower). 'Cry Baby' is a really good Pop tune with a driving beat, memorable riff and chorus - I have to mention that Todd's lead-guitar breaks speak volumes - melodious, intelligently constructed and performed well (on most tracks, too), and the epic wanna-be 'Welcome To My Revolution' should strike a chord for some Prog-lovers, even if a frad repetitive. With the up-tempo song 'Winston Smith Takes It On The Jaw' Kasim shows off somewhat elaborate Bass-lines which are admirable considering its basic Pop construction. Perhaps a tad daggy, 'Oblivion' is still an interesting listen and worthy addition to most music collections. 3 stars.
Report this review (#203642)
Posted Thursday, February 19, 2009 | Review Permalink
2 stars This is pretty much an average Todd and Utopia release. A total of 10 Standard hard power pop songs with catchy choruses. There is no resemblence to what the original Utopia had to offer on their first couple of albums. These are certainly not bad songs, by any means, they have some of the catchiest choruses this side of an ELO album, but they are pretty simple in structure and are not progressive at all. My favorite tunes are the first two: "Itch in My Brain", and "I'm in Love with a Thinker". "Maybe I could Change" is also a good Todd ballad. Nothing groundbreaking on OBLIVION. This is 1983 after all. And an extremely ugly cover! 2 stars.
Report this review (#452178)
Posted Thursday, May 26, 2011 | Review Permalink

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