VCMG’s ‘Ssss’

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Reunited, and it feels so good! After a long hiatus, erstwhile bandmates Vince Clarke (Erasure/Yaz) and Martin Gore (Depeche Mode) are back together again making dance music magic.

Since Clarke’s much-mourned (by me, at least) departure from Depeche Mode in 1981, he subsequently founded Yaz (aka Yazoo), The Assembly, and then Erasure, along the way crafting some of the most brilliant synthpop in existence. (Beg to differ? I’ll totally fight you over it.)

Gore has built an impressive career of his own, writing most of the music for longtime group Depeche Mode. Even though Clarke was only with Depeche Mode for one album (Speak & Spell, their 1981 debut), he and Gore made a great songwriting team, leaving one to wonder what a reunion — if there ever were to be one — might be like. Now we know.

VCMG’s first release came late last year with the Spock EP, followed by another teaser EP, Single Blip, earlier this year. Released by their old standby MUTE Records on March 12th, 2012, ‘Ssss’ (with sassy snakes on the cover — how apropos!) is VCMG’s full-length debut, and it’s not a bad first showing. It sounds somewhat like what you’d expect from a Vince Clarke-Martin Gore collaboration: catchy-as-hell feelgood synth hooks, danceable beats, weirdly dark effects, and occasional evil squelching…you get the picture.

Yet somehow (and refreshingly so) this doesn’t sound much like Erasure or Depeche Mode at all. There are echoes of each, for sure. But there is also something very trancey at work here. I’m transported to a rave circa 1997, and bathed in cool waves of progressive house and psytrance. Only, there’s a bad trip lurking on the sidelines, just beyond my field of vision. And I love every second of it.

The album as a whole can be described primarily as midtempo dark acid house with some progressive house and trance elements. All tracks are instrumentals, although we still hear the “voice” of each artist in the music. Some tracks sound like a Goa trance 12” slowed down to a less frantic, more manageable BPM, with some dark atmospherics thrown in for effect. Other tracks come off like classic Chicago acid house on Xanax. All of it is danceable (or at least toe-tappable.)  Followers of Erasure and Depeche Mode will likely enjoy the album for obvious reasons, but it might also appeal to fans of artists like Aphex Twin, Autechre, Sasha, Paul Oakenfold, Armin van Buuren, and Infected Mushroom.

Here’re my track-by-track notes:

  1. Lowly – Midtempo slightly trancey acid house with squelches galore. Glimpses of Erasure in both the synth and percussion hooks, and you know Gore has had his hands on it from all the dark little effects lurking throughout. Could easily become a dancefloor favorite. Ends abruptly, leaving you frustrated and jonesing for more.
  2. Zaat – Slightly more uptempo acid house of a more sinister nature. A bit repetitive, but overall quite effective at inducing a toe-tapping trance. Overlapping rhythms disorient, sparkling video game effects dazzle, and–hey, I hear drills and a broom! Is that somebody remodeling the back room?
  3. Spock – Sounds more like Erasure, but perhaps Erasure-gone-to-a-filthy-S&M-club. You can feel the floor sticking to your shoes, but somehow it doesn’t matter. Clarke’s Roland whooshes and snarls while Gore does his thing with his creepy niggling noises in a plodding progression that borders on dark, dark psytrance. A good track that ends too soon.
  4. Windup Robot – It’s got a good beat, and I can dance to it! Progressive trance house with definite Erasure overtones. Gore brings in his signature laser gun sound, which effectively creates satisfying buildups but at other times grates on the nerves like a dentist’s drill.
  5. Bendy Bass – Ominous throbbing bass, seething waves of static, and a beat that won’t quit. Synth hooks straight out of a Speak & Spell (the toy, not the album) are strongly reminiscent of Kraftwerk’s dorkier stuff, while menacing yet curious organic sounds poke at your eardrums, then blend in to become part of the rhythm, Eno-style. This is what androids party to.
  6. Single Blip – Lots of crackles and sizzles and rustling, repetitive melodies, with a tribal pulse beneath it all. I didn’t like this track at first but it grew on me with subsequent listens. Not really overtly danceable, but kickass workout music. That is, if you enjoy working out in a dungeon.
  7. Skip This Track – (no, really–that’s the name of the track.) This is a bit more along the lines of what I might expect from a collaboration between these guys. The track is a bit sparse but holds my interest nevertheless. A swarm of electronic locusts descends in a few spots, but most of this is straightforward cold, hard beats.
  8. Aftermaths – Sounds like a funky mashup of a phone dialer, some glossy keyboard chords, a robotic menagerie of frogs and cicadas, and someone stomping around while beating on an aluminum baking sheet. Covering Erasure. (I mean this in the best possible way, of course.) This melodic cacophony gives way to a wall of chords with a bunch of cute little drops scattered throughout. Gore’s laser gun makes an encore and then assaults my ears with an array of weird noises. Total aural fixation.
  9. Recycle – Bass-heavy, rhythm-fixated track with fascinating textures and organic sounds that remind me of scratching, slapping, fingerpopping, and the sound a fork makes against the bowl when you’re beating an egg. Occasional space sirens and whooshy synths initiate promising buildups, but then quickly abandon them. But somehow this frustration is sickeningly satisfying, so I keep listening. Lots of stuff going on here. Very ADD. But I kinda like it.
  10. Flux – This track came out the most like what I was expecting from this collaboration. It’s as if Vince took a Depeche Mode hook, looped it, sped it up, ran it through a filter, threw in some spacey effects, and laid the whole shebang over a sassy progressive house beat. Complete with wet-sounding handclaps and a perky zippery squelch. More of the dorky Kraftwerk robotics at times. Catchy!

Final takeaway? This isn’t quite the earthshattering collaboration I expected it to be. I’m not dancing on top of my desk. But I am sitting here hanging on every note. ‘Ssss’ is an enjoyable and intriguing listen that is also danceable. And nothing short of fascinating.

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