For the first time since 1981, electronic music pioneers Vince Clarke (Erasure, Depeche Mode) and Martin L. Gore (Depeche Mode) reunite to form minimalist techno group, VCMG. After releasing two EP’s (EP1/Spock and Single Blip) exclusively on Beatport, the duo has finally released their first full-length album entitled Ssss on Mute Records this past March. I had the opportunity to give the album a listen, and what I found was both intriguing and disappointing.
The opening track, “Lowly,” begins with a driving, simplistic dance beat, accompanied by a synth hi-hat hissing on the off-beats, while the melodic line emerges from an ominous synth drone as something grungy, blunt, and repetitive. The song swells and grows in intensity until there is a sudden and complete removal of all melodic elements near halfway into the song. The last half concentrates on rebuilding intensity through layering contrasting melodies over a steady drumbeat, all before a slow and final decay of melodic and rhythmic elements, eventually leaving nothing but a fading pulse. I felt that “Lowly” acted as a promising opener, but the song grew redundant after a while. I found myself craving a third element, something foreign and unique to the ominous atmosphere created by the lush, multi-layered synthesizers.
Luckily, I found the third element in the track, “Bendy Bass” which lies surprisingly late in the album. The song’s uniqueness does not lie in its structure (a simplistic, danceable synth beat, layered with one, occasionally two melodic lines), but in the subtle blending of acoustic and electronic elements. For example, the main melodic line sounds like it may have come from electronically processing the sound of a pan flute. Also, at various points, there’s sampling of a (Bass?) string tuning and detuning, adding a dizzy, disorienting element to the track.
While the album has its fair share of successful tracks, there are certainly some I felt could have been omitted entirely. Perhaps the most prevalent candidate in this category was “Single Blip.” The song consists of a redundant, slightly annoying dance beat, surrounded by timid melodies played with synth tones already heard and exhausted earlier in the album. Furthermore, the song doesn’t lead in any particular direction. There’s no buildup, no release, just one static idea after another. The track left me feeling slightly bored and irritated, definitely worth skipping.
On the whole however, I feel this album is an interesting and semi-successful attempt at creating minimalist techno that’s worth sitting down and listening to outside of a dance club. As a critic, I found the album was at its strongest where there was blending between electronic and acoustic elements, as these instances created a unique repertoire of sounds worth exploring intellectually. Ultimately, If VCMG was to put out another album, I’d hope for greater use of sampling machines and greater attention paid to developing more complex beats. As a casual listener however, I feel like intellectualizing this music may be defeating its other (and perhaps more pressing) purpose, which is to make people dance. In terms of this, I find Ssss to hold a lot of driving, aggressive energy that certainly makes it worth playing at a party.