The Depeche Mode man delivers a solo instrumental album from his Santa Barbara home studio
Instrumental music isn’t exactly a new thing for Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore. For a start, there’s the small matter of ‘Ssss’, his 2012 collaboration with Vince Clarke that reunited the two school friends and Mode founders after almost 30 years. Beyond that, instrumental interludes have been a feature of Mode albums going right back to their 1981 debut. One of the two Gore tracks that appeared on the mostly Clarke-penned ‘Speak & Spell’ was his instrumental ‘Big Muff’, with other tracks also making appearances as either B-sides or short connecting pieces on other albums.
‘Big Muff’ or ‘Oberkorn’ this isn’t. Neither is it a techno album, which seemed an obvious area of interest given Gore’s minimalist stylings with Clarke, his DJ sets, and the music he chooses to have played before Depeche Mode’s stadium shows. The closest that ‘MG’ gets to techno is the dark buzz of ‘Brink’, a more maximalist take on the type of track that appeared on ‘Ssss’.
Though some among his main band’s Black Swarm of hardcore fans will inevitably be disappointed that this isn’t a third volume in Gore’s sporadic ‘Counterfeit’ series of covers albums, the parallel with his vocal work is there in what is a generally sensitive, brooding collection of 16 tracks. On the epic ‘Elk’ and ‘Europa Hymn’, you can almost imagine the tortured themes of religious introspection, disappointment and soul searching that accompanying lines of lyrics might provide, most likely delivered with Gore’s latter-day penchant for gutsy Weimar Republic cabaret grandiosity. Perhaps the greatest achievement of ‘MG’ is to capture the essence of what makes Depeche Mode music so immediately recognisable, but without vocals from Dave Gahan or Martin Gore, or indeed Gore’s guitar playing, as part of the equation.
There are segments here that feel like they are offcuts from the Blackwing or Hansa studio sessions way back in the 1980s, carrying the same noisy inventiveness of a long-lost era when Gore, Alan Wilder, Daniel Miller and Gareth Jones used the technology of the day like some massive science experiment. Other pieces owe a debt to the clanking post-industrial soundscapes of Autechre or Aphex Twin, all detuned beats, hiss and hum, while the likes of ‘Islet’ have the same sawtooth melodic edge that more recent Mode synth work has embraced.
It’s inevitably shadowy and cloying, as a lot of Gore’s material has tended to be over the years, and the tracks that share that style have a very distinctive Gore sound to them. Elsewhere, the sky-scraping atmospherics of ‘Hum’ take his oeuvre off into exciting new dimensions, having more in common with an astral, almost proggy ambience than anything he’s done before.
Martin Gore has said he finds himself heading into his studio to fiddle with songs and concepts most days, which gives rise to perhaps the only criticism that can be levelled at ‘MG’. Like a number of side project albums, some of these pieces do occasionally feel like home experiments, private sketches even, ideas that should perhaps have been allowed to develop more fully before being released.
That said, ‘MG’ is generally a very engaging instrumental electronic record. If you’re a member of the Black Swarm, you’ll no doubt consider it to be the best release of its kind since Alan Wilder’s last Recoil album. With the thrilling, mechanistic, jerky ministrations of ‘Spiral’ and ‘Stealth’ or the Kraftwerky melodic hook on ‘Crowly’, it’s hard to argue with that view.