When you review an album, you usually get a bit of spiel from the PR company telling you a bit about the background of the artist and some details about their new release. The second line threw me as it stated this was Vince Clarke's first solo album. No. That can't be right, can it? He's been a fixture in the music industry for over forty years. Surely, he's released his own work before.
Turns out he hasn't. I was amazed by that. We know Vince Clarke has an impressive musical history with Depeche Mode, Yazoo and Erasure as examples of his innovative, electronic pop music. However, this is his first foray into being a solo artist. But what does he bring to the table regarding this new adventure?
The album is purely based around Eurorack – a modular synthesizer system. As has been commonplace in the last year or two, this album came about due to the pandemic. Clarke decided to get to grips with this system and learn a few new skills to keep himself busy. The result is Sound of Silence. "I was just enjoying the process so much and wasn't thinking about anyone else hearing it. I was shocked when Mute said they wanted to release this album," explains Clarke.
Making this album, Clarke set himself two rules: Firstly, the sounds he created could only come from Eurorack. Secondly, each song would be based on one note. This is not a traditional album. Not even close. These ten instrumental tracks merge to create something more than a record. Pardon me for sounding like a pretentious twat here, but it is more akin to an experience, an immersive artwork that you become part of. As a result, I warn you that this review gets a little weird. Why? Because I cannot review this like a traditional album of songs. I found myself making notes like a stream of consciousness pouring from the recesses of my mind and the corners of my soul. With that in mind, strap yourself in, hold my hand, and let's wander through Sound of Silence.
We creep into the first track, 'Cathedral'. A low note reverberates throughout, creating a feeling of unease. I feel like I am in a sci-fi movie where aliens are arriving on Earth. Think Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds. Occasionally, you hear an unfathomable choppy, distorted voice (is it a voice?) as if a pilot is making a distress call as their radio begins to fail.
'White Rabbit' hits me next. An array of electro-blippy bloppy sounds swirl around the soundscape as a bass note pulses. The layers build with the sound like an explosion coming at you unexpectedly. Flares fire off into the atmosphere. A stabbing beat appears, jabbing like a marching band turned up to 11. It now feels like astro-tribal music, should such a thing exist. The song is based around a friend of Clarke's who is always on the go. That's the sensation you get with this track – it has a frantic feel to it.
'Passage' – think of the music played when Steven Seagal goes all spiritual in his movies—a voice soars above, provided by Caroline Joy. The track moves on, and we could be listening to the soundtrack of the TV show Shetland now. It has a Celtic/Native American feel. It's rather unusual. Woah, the big echoing pounding bass drum-esque prominently beats as the vocal again soars above like an eagle wheeling in the thermals. It feels as if the song has or is a heartbeat.
Are you keeping up with me? Let's march onward. You listen to 'Imminent', and you think this will be a long drone noise with a cello sound reverberating throughout, but then the occasional sound comes to dance around the drone like the fairies have come to play. You sit and wonder where the next one will come from and what it may sound like. As the song concludes, these noises become more frequent, as if the fays have assembled for a party.
Clarke states these songs have a sense of sadness, of things going bad, things crumbling. This makes sense, knowing when the music was created. However, there are moments where there is a juxtaposition to this. 'Imminent' is an example of this. Or is it? I believe this album will bring different feelings to different people at different times. It is anything but one-dimensional.
We approach the halfway mark with a steady pulse that prods away in 'Red Planet'. A fantastical sound begins to sweep past you. The cry of an angel followed by harsh, distorted electro sounds that rampage through your head. A hollow, distant sound starts to build and is quickly surpassed by that harsh sound again, like twanging an electronic elastic band. I feel like something is creeping up on me, poised for attack. It is a tad unnerving.
'The Lamentations of Jeremiah' assumes the position next. A haunting cello plays over a bagpipe-like drone. The sensation is of call and response. This seems fitting, as Reed Hays received the track from Clarke and added his musical interpretation. This would be a fantastic addition to a film soundtrack to set a mystical, eerie mood. It takes you to a place of mystery, savagery, love and sadness.
The next track begins with a fizzing sound like a blue bottle trapped in a living room. It is soon replaced with a scientific sound – like a machine doing calculations in a 60s B-movie. Something is happening as the tempo increases as if something is starting to grow. Sounds occasionally pierce the pulsating wall of sound as if new life is springing from this pulsating mass. It reminds me of what happens when you get a Mogwai wet. Clarke called this track 'Mitosis' by comparing it to cells multiplying before you at super speed. That is precisely how it feels. Grab your lab coat and get to work!
My favourite track on this album is 'Blackleg'. It is built around a recording of the 1844 anti-scab folk song 'Blackleg Miner'. The layers of synths create a sensation of being underground, cloaked in darkness where the scab digs away for coal tainted with betrayal. The vocal sample of 'Blackleg Miner' is a male voice (possibly Geordie by the way he says 'dorty' instead of 'dirty') and sounds more like an angry and betrayed miner as opposed to the iconic vocals of Maddy Prior, who sang on the prevalent version of this song with Steeleye Span. The voice seeps out of the sonic wall of sound, scratching at your eardrums like the miner scratching at the coalface. This is a superb piece of music. It evokes an emotion in me that very few songs have ever done. Wow.
'Scarper' confronts you like fireflies dancing in the evening breeze. Look out, folks, here come the animal kings of this land, prowling, slinking, surveying. What are they searching for? Prey? A mate? Fun? They disappear – we will never know.
Ooh, there's the fax machine going off on one. Here comes someone, or something, searching in an unfamiliar space. It is probing, trying to comprehend this new world it has entered. It is exciting, yet unsure. Courageous yet fearful. Eventually, it creeps away, unseen, unheard. It retreats to safety, allowing it to compute what it has just experienced. That is 'Last Transmission' in a very odd nutshell.
You've probably read this review and are wondering if I've been taking something. I get it. I do. When listening to this album, I just felt the need to write my thoughts, feelings, emotions, and interpretations like I was channelling a spiritual presence with Derek Acorah nearby in case of emergency. This has been a ride and a half, folks. I did not see it coming, just like the demise of Caramac bars.
This is not an album you will play every day. You won't pop it on the turntable when you've come home from work after a crappy day and want to be cheered up with some upbeat pop or rock. It will be something you turn to from time to time and hear something new or feel different emotions compared to when you last listened. Playing it through headphones or speakers also makes a difference. Speakers made me feel as if the soundscape draped over me like a large high thread count bed sheet – silky, delicate and almost womb-like. Headphones had me placed in the centre of this sonic universe where I was a central character – immersive, vast and sometimes unsettling. I await its debut as an art piece in the future.
Mr. Clarke, I think you have made something truly unique here. I have listened to it numerous times, trying to understand my feelings towards it. I couldn't fathom if I liked it or not. Because it has completely blown my mind in a way I've never experienced, I have come down on the side of bloody brilliant. I'm now off for a lie down in a dark room with a Double Decker and a coffee while I try to reset my brain and come to terms with my sonic abduction.