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: 6. Depeche Mode ‘Spirit’

“Not an album to listen to if you are remotely worried about the state of the world right now… The kind of album that is necessary for shining a light on our basest traits and for encouraging us to think differently all over again; in that sense, for the first time in a long time, Depeche Mode have judged this just right.”
– Clash

Honestly, I couldn’t bring myself to get excited about Depeche Mode‘s Spirit album. Partly it was because it was billed as being political, and I’m not an outwardly political person and nor do I especially gravitate toward albums with obvious political content. I was asked by Clash to write a piece explaining that Depeche Mode had always been political on some level, which seemed like utter nonsense until I started writing it. That piece can be found here; I won’t rehash it again but it’s a piece of mature analysis that I am particularly proud of.

‘Where’s The Revolution?’ did nothing for me when it was released, and I didn’t hold out much hope for the album. Being political had become trendy, with bands using music as a platform to make a political point, and I couldn’t get on board with it at all. But spending time with the album to write a review, also for Clash, unlocked something that I hadn’t especially expected to find.

My earliest drafts for the review were uniformly negative. I couldn’t reconcile lyrics about impoverished members of society with a band whose members variously live in Manhattan apartments and Californian mansions; it somehow seemed hypocritical on a very obvious level. But as I spent time time with Spirit I began to hear parallels with a very different album – Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On – and a certain similarity of poise began to emerge, especially in Martin Gore‘s lyrics for ‘Fail’ at the very end of the album.

Spirit did much to allow me to reconcile issues that I didn’t even know I harboured toward Depeche Mode, a band that have been part of my life since my teens. Consequently, I’m convinced that when, in decades to come, writers like me are asked to assess Depeche Mode’s legacy, Spirit will stand out as the band’s surprising yet defining late period statement.

Listen to Spirithere.

My review for Clash can be found here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Depeche Mode – The O2 Arena, London 22.11.2017 – photos by Andy Sturmey

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(c) 2017 Andy Sturmey for Documentary Evidence & This Is Not Retro

People Are People – The Politics Of Depeche Mode (Clash feature, 2017)

“If ‘Where’s The RevolutIon?’ is any sort of bellwether of what Spirit will sound like, it suggests that Depeche Mode are ready to stop dealing in vagueness, the cryptic and the shrouded, and instead feel inclined to go for a more direct approach to the message they’re trying to get across.”

Clash, 2017

Ahead of the release of the new Depeche Mode album Spirit, I wrote a feature for Clash that explores the political messages within first single ‘Where’s The Revolution?’.

As a rule, I try to steer clear of politics if I can help it, but in the last twelve months that’s been pretty hard to do. And rightly so; to say we live in interesting times is a huge understatenent, and if there’s ever been a time to take notice of politics, amid the chaos and uncertainty in the wake of the votes against the status quo represented by Brexit and Donald Trump, now is most definitely that time.

Even so, this was a piece that I felt ill-equipped to write, until I got started. The piece was written in the second week of a fortnight spent working in the US, initially on the East Coast, then in the Mid-West, then from the East Coast ahead of returning to the UK, and maybe a sense of proximity to what’s going on over there allowed the piece to come together slightly easier. That and taking the opportunity to trawl back through the entire Depeche Mode catalogue in a bid to see whether the political dimension the band were showcasing with new single ‘Where’s The Revolution?’ was really that new after all.

My feature for Clash can be found here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Gwen Stefani – Wonderful World (Interscope, 2006)

Gwen Stefani 'The Sweet Escape' CD artwork

The Sweet Escape album | Interscope | 2006

Mute alumni Martin Gore and Richard Hawley appeared on this upbeat closer to Gwen Stefani’s The Sweet Escape, both adding their guitar talents to a song which sounds suspiciously like Stefani trying to cover Depeche Mode‘s ‘Enjoy The Silence’ via Black’s song of the same name. Hawley and Gore’s contributions are quiet and not exactly distinctive: Hawley seems to offer ruminative slide guitar wheras Gore’s playing seems to be the kind of simple but devastating melodies he’s made his own. Unfortunately, they’re both just drowned out by the garish high energy pop of this Linda Perry-penned tune.

First posted 2013; re-posted 2014.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence