Mute 4.0: VCMG – Ssss (Mute Artists album, 2012)

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As part of Mute‘s fortieth ‘anti-versary’, the label is making available very special limited edition vinyl versions of selected releases from their four decades of releasing and curating incredible music. To celebrate this element of Mute 4.0, we’re re-posting reviews of those special albums from the depths of the Documentary Evidence archives. Full details on the releases can be found here.

Ssss is the minimal techno album collaboration devised by Depeche Mode‘s Martin L. Gore with original Depeche songwriter Vince Clarke, arriving over thirty years since the pair last worked together.

Vince was, at that time, one of the founding members of Depeche Mode who, in 1981, released Speak & Spell, one of that defining year’s great synthpop albums. Clarke’s departure from the band left Gore in charge of songwriting duties, a role that would allow him to move the band into far darker territory toward the dark electro-rock they are purveyors of today, while Vince has produced – with Alison Moyet as Yazoo and Andy Bell as Erasure – some of the best pop music of the last thirty years.

The idea of Clarke and Gore working together again seemed remote until Vince started mentioning their collaboration on Twitter. That project stemmed from Clarke listening to a lot of minimal techno – which itself seems remote until you consider the remixes of other artists Vince has submitted recently – and asking Gore if he’d like to work with him on a project in that style; he wanted it to be something casual, with no deadlines and no major expectations. Gore himself is a fan of the genre, as anyone who has heard his DJ mixes or heard the tracks he selects to be played just before Depeche Mode take the stage at one of their huge arena shows (always a strange thing to hear barely-there techno over the speakers at somewhere like the O2). Vince went out to his Twitter fanbase and asked what they should call the project and whilst I don’t know if the moniker VCMG was a tweeter’s suggestion, it nevertheless fits the project perfectly (personally, I liked my suggestion of calling themselves Speak & Spell in reference to the last time they worked together, but I’m not bitter).

Ssss was produced by Gore and Clarke and mixed by California’s Timothy Wilkes who goes under the moniker Überzone / Q. Wilkes’s involvement – and Stefan ‘Pole’ Betke’s mastering – adds a certain credibility to what could be seen as two long-in-the-tooth veterans dabbling in a genre that neither have a particular pedigree in.

Opener ‘Lowly’ starts with some chords that feel like they were borrowed from ‘Enjoy The Silence’ or ‘Never Let Me Down Again’ before a dark energy takes over, all buzzing, clamouring synths, solid beats and crunchy percussion. Some nice synth pads heighten the bleak, almost symphonic mood while some very Kraftwerkian pulses and squalls pop up in the background. ‘Lowly’ feels like one of the few tracks on Ssss where Gore slips into the pensive negativity that often creeps into his songwriting. ‘Windup Robot’ starts as one of the strongest tracks here, a shiny, sleek bass-heavy monster although it would have benefited from a touch of 303-style madness somewhere along the way.

‘Bendy Bass’, as its name suggests, has a bendy bass sound, crisp beats and some spinning, elastic synth sounds. The droning synths and wonky, hollow lead riff may be a bit overbearing for this to work on the dancefloor, but it’s engaging enough. The second half introduces a partial riff which reminds me of one of the 12″ remixes of Erasure’s ‘Chains Of Love’. ‘Recycle’ has a slowed-down, subtle sensuality to it, a throbbing bass sound and some neat synths that sound like Kraftwerk’s vision of what pure of electricity might sound like. The vaguely orchestral stabs and the dramatic section at the centre are a bit unnecessary, but ‘Recycle’ is nevertheless one of Ssss‘s best moments. Closing track ‘Flux’ features some nice, emotional riffs that wouldn’t go amiss on some of Depeche Mode’s more poignant moments, offset by percolating synths and hissing percussion.

As a purely ‘listening’ album, Ssss is not a disappointment; whether it would work in a Richie Hawtin club set is debatable, but as a collaboration between two electronic music stalwarts it is interesting and engaging stuff, and there’s no denying the quality of the synth design at work here. At times you do long for a more song-based collaboration, a chance to hear how Clarke would have wrapped his synths around Gore’s mournful lyrics, a Depeche Mode that never was, but that was clearly never the premise here (particularly as Gore is hardly the most prolific lyricist in the world). Nevertheless, there is a distinct sense of two musicians challenging each other by operating outside of their comfort zone, with very fine results indeed.

For Mute 4.0, Ssss is being reissued as an orange double LP edition.

First posted 2012; edited 2018.

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(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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