Thirty years after Speak & Spell, Depeche Mode co-founders join forces for a techno project. Triumph, embarrassment, or somewhere between?
You almost have to treat Ssss as two different albums, from two different perspectives.
From one perspective, if you are a fan of vintage electronic pop music, the album is an event of historic proportions. You have two of the most successful, not to mention influential figures of the synth-pop era together for the first time in 30 years. When Vince Clarke left Depeche Mode in 1981, it was not without animosity. Clarke was the band's main songwriter, and the remaining members felt more than a little abandoned. That was, until Martin Gore stepped up and Depeche Mode eventually became a global juggernaut.
For his part, Clarke scored huge hits with the Assembly, Yazoo; and, since 1985, Erasure. Though they mended fences some time ago, Clarke and Gore have not worked together since Depeche Mode's 1981 debut, Speak & Spell. That's a long time, and Ssss represents a reunion most figured would never happen, not least because neither party really had a reason for it. It's not like Clarke and Gore need the money, and their respective day jobs are still going concerns.
But before you get your oscillators all worked up, synth-pop fans, there are a couple caveats. First, Ssss is a most 21st century-type collaboration, if "collaboration" is even the accurate word. Clarke and Gore never actually shared studio time. Rather, they exchanged sound files and notes over the internet, building on one another's work until they deemed the tracks finished. It's not like they were twiddling knobs side by side, like in the old days. They were hunched over their respective laptops, alone. Second, Ssss is a techno album, and a strictly instrumental one at that. You'll hear no attempt at the melodies both these men are famous for. Nor will you hear guest singers, from Erasure, Depeche Mode, or anywhere else. Clarke and Gore are into more minimal, obscure, European house music, and the ten tracks here reflect that.
Which brings up the second perspective. This is a techno album made by two 50-year-old men who have never made techno music before. Both have been widely credited with influencing modern house music, sure, and both have spent time behind the decks. But creating this music in a credible fashion is something else. Two 50-year-old British guys, who would be the first to admit they are not exactly at the pinnacles of their careers. Is that the first place you would look if you were after some fresh new techno?
Yes, Ssss would seem to be potentially disappointing from either angle.
Alas, it's not, as long as you keep your expectations in check. Especially on the album's first half, Clarke and Gore pull off the minimal techno thing surprisingly credibly. This was a chance for them to haul out their extensive collections of vintage analog gear, and it's all on display here. "Lowly" is probably the best thing on Ssss, all menacing bassline and distorted minor-key synths. The pulsing breakdown in the middle could almost be vintage Depeche, as could the propulsive synth bass on "Zaat". The three-note alarm and drilling synth effects, though, are purely contemporary. "Spock" rounds out the opening trifecta, a hard-edged track with loud, echoing synth tones and a mean whipping sound going through it. Dads at the disco, this is not.
Ssss also exhibits a more playful side on the likes of "Windup Robot" and "Recycle". One game you can play if you are an old-timer is to try and figure out who did what. The guess here is that Clarke provided the basic rhythms and Gore added tones, effects, and synth lines over the top. The evidence is in the spindly, pulsating bass and sequencer lines you can hear on several tracks. These dated, rather than vintage, noises are proof you can take Vince Clarke out of Erasure, but you can't always take Erasure out of Clarke.
As the album winds on, the material loses the sharp consistency of the first few tracks. Closer "Flux" has a nice, worried-sounding arpeggio that is vintage Gore, but sometimes you get the impression he and Clarke added bits of noise and dissonance simply because they felt they should, or were unsure about what else to do.
Admirable for the uncompromising way it eschews its creators' million-selling pasts, Ssss will sound at home alongside artists half their age in the world's house and techno DJ sets. Really, then, regardless of your perspective, it's a solid "pretty good".