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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Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 2. Erasure ‘World Be Gone’ + Alka ‘The Colour Of Terrible Crystal’

“Effortless electronic majesty.”
– Electronic Sound

The release of a new Erasure album is always an emotional experience for me, but that’s what happens when you’ve been a fan for so long (nearly 30 years) and when everything else you’ve ever listened to can, on some level, be connected back to them.

However, even without that context – some might say bias – World Be Gone stands out. It’s the type of mature, bold pop that you’d want a duo like Andy Bell and Vince Clarke to make after this long in the business. It’s an album tinged with despair and disappointment at a world that seems to have turned backwards toward a more hateful, vengeful and intolerant version of itself; one that is occasionally hopeful but one that feels like all hope is gone.

None of this was a surprise to me when I heard World Be Gone for the first time, but some people commented to me that they thought the earlier demos for the songs would have been much faster and more uplifting rather than, as presented on the LP, slower and more thoughful affairs. That wasn’t the case – these songs were always intended to be thus, and World Be Gone is all the more coherent for it.

I reviewed the album for Electronic Sound, and I recall that the copy was all written during a flight to Miami with my family. A few days later I was told that a quote from the review would be used on posters to promote the album. I mentioned that to Vince Clarke just after the posters went up on the London Underground, and he refused to believe that there would be posters supporting the record at all. He also refused to let me show him the proof. Here it is (thanks Richard Evans).

Listen to World Be Gone here.

Buy Electronic Sound at www.electronicsound.co.uk.

I continued my work with Vince’s VeryRecords by writing the supporting press materials for Alka‘s The Colour Of Terrible Crystal album. This is truly a work of electronic genius by Bryan Michael and if you haven’t heard it yet, you should.

Given my involvement, albeit behind the scenes, I felt slightly conflicted putting it into my top ten, so I’ve grouped it in here with Erasure because Vince is the common denominator to both.

Listen to The Colour Of Terrible Crystal here. Buy it from VeryRecords here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Electronic Sound – Issue 29 – New Order / Erasure

The latest issue of Electronic Sound includes a major new interview with New Order ahead of their new live album for Mute, NOMC15. The magazine has also landed a major coup by bundling an exclusive clear vinyl 7″ with special copies of the new issue which includes a previously-unreleased remix of New Order’s ‘Academic’.

I contributed a handful of reviews to the latest issue covering the eclectic fields of pop, electronic jazz, electronic grunge and cinematic soundtrack-friendly material in the form of write-ups of new releases by Slackk, Stuff, The Mark Lanegan Band, Kilchhofer / Hainbach and Erasure. I was proud to achieve another career first this month when a quote from my Erasure review made it to the posters promoting their new album World Be Gone across London’s Underground network.

To buy the special New Order edition of issue 29 of Electronic Sound, head here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Documentary Evidence 2016 Top 10 Albums: 4. Reed & Caroline ‘Buchla & Singing’ // Erasure ‘From Moscow To Mars’

I felt a little conflicted about including these two on my list, for reasons which I will attempt somewhat clumsily to explain. I then reasoned that this is my list, I’m kind of really proud of what I’ve done to support both these releases, and so on the list they shall remain. I’ve also linked them together for the purposes of convenience.

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“It might have the look and feel of a futuristic tombstone, but From Moscow To Mars, as its title from the oft-forgotten single ‘Star’ indicates, represents a thirty year journey – a journey that the duo are very firmly still on with a new album in the works and plenty more rocket fuel left in the tanks.” – This Is Not Retro

“What emerges here is a distinct sense of loyalty – from Vince Clarke and Andy Bell to one another, and to the enduring art of writing emotional pop music.” – Electronic Sound

First up, the mammoth and some would definitely argue long overdue Erasure box. This was finally released in December after production delays and I reviewed this – atypically for me – for two places: Electronic Sound and then a slightly more personal piece for This Is Not Retro. I am, and forever will be, a massive Erasure fan first and foremost, so my ability to be objective about From Moscow To Mars is one possible conflict of interest. Personally, I think I pulled it off, but you can judge for yourself. The review for This Is Not Retro can be found here. Back issues of Electronic Sound are over at www.electronicsound.co.uk

The second reason for feeling slightly conflicted came in November when I found myself in Birmingham as a guest of the Erasure fan club at the official launch party for the boxset. I was there nominally as a guest but found myself helping out in a couple of ways – blowing up some very sorry balloons (I apologise to anyone who attended and laughed at those) while listening to Vince Clarke and Andy Bell soundcheck their set (including a new song) and then helping out with three hours of meet and greets. It was a special, and slightly surreal experience.

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Second, Buchla & Singing by Reed & Caroline, a charming album of compositions for the Buchla by Reed Hays with beautiful singing by Caroline Schutz. The album was released on Vince Clarke’s Very Records back in October to universal acclaim. I didn’t get to review this one, but trust me, had I done so I would have called it out as very special indeed.

I wrote the press release for Very Records for this album and enjoyed a very pleasant Skype chat with Hays in order to prepare that. Of all the things I have done this year, getting handed that job and helping support the release of Buchla & Singing – in a way somewhat different from just scribing a review – was right up there as a major career highlight, and I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity.

One of the best tracks on the album is ‘Henry The Worm’. Reed and I spoke about that track at length but I just couldn’t find a way of fitting it into the press release, so here is that little off-cut. I thought it was a nice story. Music sometimes needs to take itself less seriously.

“Around the time my son was born, I wrote a song that’s on the record called ‘Henry The Worm’,” explained Reed. “We named Henry, my son, after a little caterpillar that was crawling around a Mexican restaurant. When we saw the first sonogram I thought he looked like a little caterpillar.”

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Electronic Sound #21 – Print Edition


As if I wasn’t proud already about being part of the Electronic Sound team, this month that sense of pride went up a couple of notches as the publication made the transition from being an entirely digital proposition to a fully-fledged newsstand magazine. That’s a bold move in a day and age where we’re told that everything is going in the opposite direction, but the team at Electronic Sound have undoubtedly pulled it off. You can buy copies of the print edition here.

I’m doubly proud because one of the most important features I’ve ever had the good fortune to scribe is heavily featured in the first newsstand edition – an interview with Very Records owner and one half of Erasure, Vince Clarke. The interview was conducted one extremely sticky May afternoon in Vince’s Brooklyn home studio.

As if that wasn’t seismic enough for an individual whose entire interest in music writing can be traced back to a record label flyer that fell out of the 12″ single of Erasure’s ‘Chorus’ almost 25 years ago, we were joined by Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll by Skype from his home in Brighton to discuss the Clarke / Hartnoll album 2Square. Once I’d properly decided that dance music was the place for me in the mid-Nineties, Orbital were a duo I fell for in a big way, and so getting airtime with not one, but two, idols in one go was a pretty sweet deal. I am eternally grateful to Electronic Sound for this opportunity, and also to my family for letting me duck out of part of our vacation in New York to undertake the interview.
Photography for the interview came from the wonderful Ed Walker. Ed wrote a great piece about the experience for his website, which can be read here. While you’re there, please do take a look at Ed’s surreptitious photographs of New Yorkers, which are all taken during a specific period of the day where light is particularly beautiful.

In addition to the Clarke / Hartnoll feature, I also interviewed Rico Conning for this issue. Conning will be familiar to Mute fans because of the remixes and edits he did for the label during its Eighties heyday. I had not appreciated that prior to working at William Orbit’s Guerrila Studio, Conning (and Fad Gadget drummer Nick Cash) had been in a post-punk band called The Lines. The interview tells the story of their hitherto lost third album, Hull Down, which was finally released earlier this year.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound

Shelter – Ascend (Ministry Of Pop album, 2016)

Shelter are a familiar name to anyone with a passing interest in the solo work of Erasure’s Andy Bell given his collaboration with the duo on 2014’s iPop album, another in a series of extra-curricular projects from the Erasure frontman that have started to emerge in the past few years.

The team of Mark Bebb and Rob Bradley describe Ascend as a more mature offering, and while that might be true in the sense of its slightly more emotional, slowed-up moments, the album is also 100% true to the Shelter sound – namely slick, polished, generally upbeat electronic pop songs that lean heavily toward modern hi-NRG club-friendly structures (see the vaguely ‘Jump’-referencing ‘This Must Be Love’) – but also finds the collaborations that have coloured their previous releases consciously absent.

Judging by the lyrics and phrasing on tracks like the opener ‘Breathless’ or ‘Do You Remember’, Shelter’s time in the company of Andy Bell has evidently rubbed off on them. Mark Bebb’s vocal on these songs has the same thwarted, disappointed, defenceless quality – they’re love songs, for sure, but they seem to be delivered from a unrequited vantage point. Bell has made a career out of that bruised, fragile quality, amplified by Vince Clarke’s sympathetic synth melodies, and what you have here is a decent emulation of that latter-day Erasure style. It’s a formula that Shelter revisit throughout the album, but without ever making them sound like one trick ponies or like they’re just trying to rip off their mates.

Elsewhere, there are moments of rapturous surrender, pitched perfectly for the secret corners of nightclubs; tracks like ‘In The Dark’ might have the rhythm and pace demanded by clubland, but the tone is sullen, dangerous, edgy. Some of the best moments on Ascend happen when Shelter slow things right down and eschew the politics of the dancing for the type of pop music that seemed to wither and die about thirty years ago. ‘Figaro’, for example, is all Latin-inflected rhythms and sun-baked summery heartbreak. The track has that whole ‘La Isla Bonita’ mystery thing down to a fine art, with the juxtaposition of jangly guitars and melodramatic, shimmering melodies more than enough to get a jaded pop music fan like me properly wistful.

It may be a simple product of my general disdain for a pop music landscape which feels duty-bound to use collaborations as the only way to keep things vaguely interesting, but the most compelling moments on Ascend are undoubtedly those that find Shelter operating as a self-contained unit. When they lock the doors to the studio and leave the collaborators outside, Ascend is a smart, well-crafted, confident electronic pop album with plenty of fine songs that suggests a duo finding their own voice.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Various Artists – Fly : Songs Inspired By The Film ‘Eddie The Eagle’ (Universal album, 2016)

  
I reviewed the soundtrack to the film Eddie The Eagle for This Is Not Retro. Fly features a who’s who of Eighties music, including everyone from Martyn Ware‘s Heaven 17to Paul Young, most of whom have recorded exclusives for the album.

Erasure‘s Andy Bell delivers the title track, while Nik Kershaw’s ‘The Sky’s The Limit’ (from his 2012 album Ei8ht) steals the show as perhaps the best song ever written about following your dreams. Kershaw said he wrote this song to his child to show that you really can be whatever you want, and as a father to two growing little girls, I can’t listen to this song without getting emotional.

My review can be found here

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence