As keyboard player for Bitter Defeat, I’ve sometimes daydreamed about being questioned regarding who my favourite synth player is. I haven’t yet, but my first answer would be a local – Grant Brodie, who played in Hamilton’s Dribbly Cat Attraction, Tweeter and Grok, and who I believe was largely responsible for giving these wonderful bands their distinctive sound. But if I was pushed for something more international, my answer would likely be Vince Clarke. My older brother had Depeche Mode’s 1981 debut album ‘Speak and Spell’, which included the song ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, which despite only reaching 29 on the New Zealand charts left a huge impression on little me. The next of Clarke’s songs to really resonate with me was the 1986 song ‘Sometimes’, with his synth-pop duo Erasure, which I had recorded off the TV and onto video tape, meaning I could play it over and over whenever the urge took me. But there was plenty more magical synth-pop that Clarke was responsible for that I discovered through time, from these bands, and by Yazoo in his collaboration with Alison Moyet.
Vince Clarke’s new solo album, Songs of Silence, is something entirely different from any of these, however. No Dave Gahan (Depeche Mode) or Andy Bell (Erasure) or Alison Moyet out front singing the songs – this album is purely instrumental, devoid of lyrics (…well, almost). And it certainly isn’t synth-pop. These songs are from the opposite extreme, being as ambient as they could possibly be.
Have you been to a planetarium? Or experienced its modern equivalent, where you explore space, planets and other celestial objects using virtual reality googles? Bandcamp describes the music on Songs of Silence as ‘evocative’; that is, they bring strong images, memories, or feelings to mind. It is that feeling of exploring the universe that this album largely evokes for me. I agree with the description given on Bandcamp, that the sound embodies a “synth generated, cosmic remoteness [that is] is often jolted by stark interventions”. On the song ‘Red Planet’, for example, I can see myself doing a close fly-by of Mars, or a similar coloured planet in another solar system altogether, taking in the serenity – which is broken occasionally by the odd volcanic eruption from the surface. Most songs are even more ambient than this, like sitting on the edge of the universe looking out into the nothingness, without any fear of explosions. Take a listen to ‘Last Transmission’, for example. But these are the things I paint onto these songs. You will likely create different imagery entirely.
One song that starkly takes you outside of the realms of space, and into a more explicit time and place, is “Blackleg”, which also – unlike the other songs – has words. The lyrics on this one are derived from the folksong "Blackleg Miner", written in the 1840s, which depicts the stance by unionized strikers from the coal mines against strike breakers (a.k.a., 'the Blacklegs’). The vocal delivery and meaning behind the folksong give this track an extra power. They also make me reminisce about a song from closer to home - ‘Miners Song’ by Hitler’s Kock, which provided backing to lyrics based on the poem ‘The Miner’ by Philip Larkin. It may also resonate with my roots, growing up as I did in a coal mining town.
Overall, this is not what I expected from Vince Clarke, but it is a very welcome surprise, nonetheless.