Duet Emmo
Photo: Angela Conway / Courtesy of Mute Records

Duet Emmo’s ‘Or So It Seems’ Is a Testament to Analog Electronic Music

Duet Emmo’s Or So It Seems is an experimental one-off between Wire’s Lewis and Gilbert and Mute Records’ Daniel Miller. Pedigrees don’t come much better.

Or So It Seems
Duet Emmo
Mute
19 August 2022

This reissue of Duet Emmo’s lone album, Or So It Seems, raises an interesting philosophical question. Can a newly-remastered (by musician Stefan Betke, aka Pole, no less), limited-edition, colored double vinyl edition lend an album a sense of import it doesn’t really deserve? Can putting enough fancy wrapping on any release give the impression it is something that it’s not?

The answers, of course, are yes. Anyone who peruses sites like PopMatters or follows their favorite artist on social media has probably seen examples of the dregs of their catalog dressed up and re-presented as art that fans must not only have but also pay premium money for. But there is the catch: The band or artist has to be beloved by a crucial mass of fans and/or critics. That number may be relatively small. Still, no one wants a remastered anything by a band they don’t care about and are given no reason why they should.

This issue of art versus commerce is especially pertinent to Or So It Seems because the members of Duet Emmo have pedigrees that should concern any fan of modern, post-punk music. Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert were from the seminal post-punk innovators Wire. In 1982, Wire were in the midst of an indefinite hiatus brought on by a lack of commercial success and the loss of their record deal, and Lewis and Gilbert were recording under the name Dome. Daniel Miller, meanwhile, was the founder and head of the fledgling British indie label Mute Records and was in the process of overseeing the ascendancy of Depeche Mode and Yazoo. He had also released soon-to-be-legendary underground synthpop under the names the Normal and Silicon Teens. Hindsight lends Duet Emmo (the name is an anagram of “Dome Mute”) even more historical weight: A couple of years after the release of Or So It Seems, Miller would sign and produce the reunited Wire for a successful second act that continues to this day.

In short, Or So It Seems has gravitas in spades. But there is another side to the equation. The album was recorded by happenstance when Dome and Miller crossed paths at Blackwing Studio in London and took a week to record. It has gone in and out of print and was never considered a major work by any of the parties involved. None of that means it isn’t worth revisiting. The music and non-music within, though, confirm the album as more of a curiosity than a major undertaking. It is also safe to say that Lewis, Gilbert (who has since retired), and Miller do not need a critical rejuvenation.

Or So It Seems consists of eight tracks. Several clock in at under two minutes and are more like snippets of manipulated voices, pulses, and, in the case of “A.N.C.”, an electronic digeridoo. Another, “Friano”, is three and a half minutes of analog synthesizers imitating a giant turbine engine. This is heavily electronic, experimental, almost incidental music. As such, it is certainly not lacking atmosphere. There is an industrial, subterranean, haunting quality to it. Soundtrack music comes to mind, and it would have worked brilliantly with a dystopian sci-fi noir like Bladerunner. “Long Sledge”, the 16-minute centerpiece, is certainly evocative. It starts with general rummaging around, followed by metallic clanging and white noise. There are a few ominous synth chords, and then a train goes by. Then it’s over.

A couple of tracks, though, have more structure and might be recognized as a proper song. The title track features repeating, interlocking sequencer lines that are signature Miller, while mournful synth and Lewis’ forlorn vocals add shade if not light. There has never been a sadder earworm of a song. “The First Person” is more urgent, led by a sequencer that is caught in a panicked gargle while Lewis unnervingly goes on about “a half-warm kiss”. This new edition appends a b-side remix of the title track, removing the vocals and adding some electronic drums.

Or So It Seems was recorded just before Miller discovered digital sampling devices like the Synclavier. Therefore, it is a testament to what could be achieved with analog instruments and recording technology. It has an earthy quality that does not sound dated. Interesting though it is for scholars of Wire, Dome, Miller, or Mute, it is nonetheless the type of ephemera that ensures the colored vinyl will age well, too, because it is not going to get worn out from playing.

RATING 6 / 10
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