I’m Dreaming Of A Mute Christmas

It’s that special time of the year where the sounds of well-worn Christmas hits from yesteryear fill playlists and people begin to debate whether ‘Fairytale Of New York’ really is the best Christmas song of all time.

With some help from my good friend and Mute afficionado Jorge, I here present a trawl through the back catalogues of Mute artists past and present to deliver an alternative compilation of seasonal songs; songs that range from the traditional, the just plain festive and on to the downright tenuous. Jorge has meticulously prepared a Spotify playlist containing everything we could get our hands on, though for some of the songs you may need to hope Santa brings you a Discogs gift voucher. For your optimal listening experience, Jorge’s should be listened to while wearing this year’s limited-edition Mute Christmas t-shirt and drinking one of the cocktails from Erasure’s Snow Globe box set. 

I often think of Erasure at Christmas, mostly because I remember receiving a 7″ of ‘You Surround Me’ in 1989 in my stocking. The year before, Vince Clarke and Andy Bell narrowly missed securing the coveted Christmas number one slot with Crackers International, an EP which led with ‘Stop!’ but also included the moving ‘She Won’t Be Home’ (renamed ‘Lonely Christmas’ on the slightly dubious The Erasure Christmas Gift 7″); elsewhere on the EP, the duo delivered a spooky version of the traditional carol ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ complete with authentic choir-boy vocals from Bell, while two years before the pair did a relatively throwaway take on ‘Silent Night’ for the US Yulesville promo LP. The limited formats of the ‘Am I Right’ EP (1991) featured a festive Me Company design of Christmas trees with a photo of a young boy holding presents, while Andy Bell co-hosted Channel 4’s Camp Christmas in 1993, with musical accompaniment from Vince. Andy also featured in a short film called I Hate Christmas as a market stall worker. 

2013 was the year that Erasure went all-out Christmas with the celebrated release of Snow Globe. The album collected a number of classic Christmas songs, including ‘Silent Night’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ in updated splendour, as well as some of Vince and Andy’s own tracks. The limited-edition box – or should I say the obligatory limited-edition box, since if Mute did one thing in 2013 it was to ensure that their avid fans went without their turkey after spending out a small country’s GDP on ever more elaborate and expensive box sets – included a bauble, balloon, a packet of sweets and some Erasure-themed cocktail recipes. 

Other artists who’ve covered Christmas songs include Echoboy, who released a special split EP with Six By Seven for a Christmas show in Nottingham in 1999 which included a very alternative version of ‘Silent Night’. Richard Hawley also delivered a very easy listening take on ‘Silent Night’ for a special one-track CD given away to people who attended his show in Sheffield in December 2006; during winter gigs and on radio Hawley has also covered ‘Blue Christmas’, made famous by Elvis Presley, but I haven’t heard a recording of that yet (if anyone feels charitable enough at this time of giving to send me one in the name of research, please get in touch). 

In the wake of their 2008 album Seventh TreeGoldfrapp found time to record a beautifully jaunty version of ‘Winter Wonderland’ for a US Starbucks compilation, while former Blast First act Sonic Youth recorded a sketchy and somewhat unpleasant version of Martin Mull’s ‘Santa Doesn’t Cop Out On Dope’ for a 1996 compilation, which is definitely one for completists only. 

For Can completists, the veteran Krautrockers put out an ultra-twee take on ‘Silent Night’ way back in 1976 on Virgin in the UK. The Residents launched their audacious avant-garde music career with Santa Dog in 1972, a double 7″ single mailed out to various people featuring four tracks by various pseudonymous artists, all of whom were actually The Residents themselves (whoever they are). The band have released several other versions of Santa Dog since 1972 – in 1978, 1998, 1992 (‘Show Us Your Ugly’), 1999 (Refused), 2006 and 2012 (SD12). Way back in 1956, occasional Blast First artist Sun Ra co-opted the alias The Qualities and issued the doo wop 7-inch ‘It’s Christmas Time’. Backed with the sincere blues of ‘Happy New Year To You!’ this curiosity remains one of the most surprisingly accessible pop releases in the expansive Ra catalogue, and proof that they celebrate teh holidays on Saturn just like they do here on Ra’s adopted home.

Einstürzende Neubauten stalwart F.M. Einheit and Caspar Brötzmann recorded an album called Merry Christmas which Paul Smith‘s label put out in 1994, but it isn’t at all festive and, besides, it was released in May that year. Still, the album’s sleeve of a hand-drawn tank reminds me of troops putting down arms during World War II, so maybe there’s a connection to the festive season somewhere on this album after all. Mute US duo The Knife recorded a song called ‘Reindeer’ for their eponymous album in 2001; as if the song wasn’t festive enough already with its lyrics about Santa, The Knife issued a version with Christmas bells (renamed ‘Christmas Reindeer’) in 2006 as a free download. Holger Hiller’s eponymous last album for Mute in 2000 included the track ‘Once I Built A Snowman’, while Ben Frost’s 2017 album Music From Fortitude opened with ‘This Is Not Christmas’. 

Andreas Dorau, he of one-time Mute group Die Doraus Und Die Marinas, has recorded two Christmas songs. ‘Weihnachten Ist Auch Nicht Mehr Das Was Es Mal War’ is a bouncy electropop track that appeared on Staatsakt’s Santo Klaus sampler in 2016, and just over ten years earlier, he released the track ‘Weihnachten Im Wald’ as a limited-edition of 100 CDs for a Carhartt jeans promotion. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion‘s 1992 Sub Pop Singles Club 7-inch paired together two excellent tracks – the wild rockabilly gestures of ‘Big Yule Log Boogie’ and the ‘Blue Christmas’-esque ‘My Christmas Wish’.

Josh T. Pearson became the first Mute artist to deliver a whole EP of Christmas songs, with his maudlin Rough Trade Bonus disc getting released in 2011 as a Rough Trade shop exclusive accompanying his Mute debut, Last Of The Country Gentlemen. This year, Pearson issued a new song, ‘2020’s Silent Night Hindsight’ straight to YouTube, and a more perfectly cynical take on a shit year you will be hard-pressed to find. 

In 2012, Canada’s Ladan Hussein, variously known as Al Spx and later Cold Specks covered Mary Margaret O’Hara’s ‘Christmas Evermore’ for a Christmas compilation, complete with brass and obligatory messages of peace and hope and a bit of Diamanda Galás-esque tremulous wailing. The debut Cold Specks album, I Predict A Beautiful Expulsion (2012) also features the stirring track ‘Winter Solstice’. 

Looper‘s 2003 album The Snare features the haunting and evocative ‘New York Snow’, while the ‘Intro’ track on M83‘s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has dreamy lyrics about walking in snow. Way back in 1982, Yazoo‘s Upstairs At Eric‘s included the sparse ‘Winter Kills’ and an orchestral version of ‘Only You’ was used in a Boots TV ad in 2017. A year before Upstairs At Eric’s, future Mute artists A Certain Ratio recorded the irrepressable long-form funk track ‘Winter Hill’ for their To Each album, while, some twenty years later, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds released the wintery ‘Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow’ in 2001, regrettably the closest the songwriter has yet come to recording a seasonal song. Surely there’s a Christmas album in St. Nick somewhere? Moby‘s never done a Christmas track either, though he did remix arch-crooner Tony Bennett’s ‘I’m Coming Home For Christmas’ in 2007, but the track was only ever released as a promo. 

Maps, known to his parents as James Chapman, kicked off his pre-Mute career as Short Break Operator, including the haunting ‘Some Winter Song’ as the first track on his debut EP from 2003. In fact, of all the Mute roster, Maps is easily the most prolific Christmas-loving artists. He recorded the frosty ‘Sparks In The Snow’ for his second single, went on to cover East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’ for a promo CDr and released ‘Merry Christmas (My Friend)’ straight to Soundcloud in 2013, which is among the most atmospheric things Chapman has ever recorded. 

Later still, 2016 Chapman’s collaboration with former Mute artist Polly ScattergoodOn Dead Waves, yielded two Christmas songs in the form of a cover of ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ and the track ‘Winter’s Child’ that closed the duo’s only album together. This year, Polly Scattergood released her own Christmas track, ‘Snowburden’, which followed this year’s career-defining and intensely personal album In This Moment. The new song found the singer somewhere between Laurie Anderson-esque sound art and sensitive balladeering. 

Also this year, one of Mute’s longest-serving sons, David Baker – one half of I Start CountingFortran 5 and Komputer – released ‘The Lights Of The Pub’, a charity single under his Joanna-tinkling alias Dave The Keys in aid of his local London boozer, The Lamb on Holloway Road. Inspired, in part, by ‘Fairytale Of New York’, ‘The Lights Of The Pub’ has the requisite mix of memories, festive bells and a Dickensian air of that which has been lost. Read more about ‘The Lights Of The Pub’ here

Speaking of charity, here’s a shameless plug: in 2012, Documentary Evidence compiled MuteResponse, a double download charity compilation album intended as a tribute to Mute’s legacy, and also to rule off the first ten years of writing this very site. On MuteResponse #1, I was able to include one-time Credible Sexy Units act Vic Twenty‘s ‘Christmas In Korea (New Year In Japan)’. Angela ‘Piney Gir’ Penhaligon and Adrian Morris recorded the track years ago but it was never officially released until the MuteResponse compilation. I first heard this track years ago during an interview with Morris, and I always wanted to make sure that others would get to hear it, and so I was delighted to let the song see the light of day. Incidentally, Piney’s done plenty of other Christmas songs, one of my personal favourites being the lovely ‘For The Love Of Others’ in 2009. You can find MuteResponse over at Bandcamp

So we’ve surveyed the traditional and the festive – what about the tenuous? Look no further than Mute’s most bankable act, Depeche Mode, whose only obvious Christmas connection was Dave Gahan delivering a festive message on the aforementioned Yulesville compilation. However, a year earlier, Depeche’s Alan Wilder and Martin Gore penned the track ‘Christmas Island’ as the B-side to ‘A Question Of Lust’; it isn’t remotely festive, it was released in May that year, it’s named after an island in the Indian Ocean, but it’s got the word Christmas in the title and so, dubious though it is, onto the Dreaming Of A Mute Christmas playlist it goes. 

Christmas is supposed to be fun, and so here’s a version of The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’ by The Bombshelter Brigade, re-titled ‘Merry Christmas’ and taken from the 1988 compilation Christmas At The Bombshelter.

Happy Christmas to Mute fans everywhere. 

Words: Mat Smith 
Spotify playlist and Mute Navidad nous: Jorge Punaro 

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence & Jorge Punaro. Earlier versions of this feature were published in 2012 and 2013. If we’ve missed anything let us know and we’ll get them added in.

Spirits In The Forest: Depeche Mode’s Complex Fan Culture (Clash feature, 2019)

Anton Corbijn‘s new film about Depeche Mode fans, Spirits In The Forest, is released in cinemas for one night only on Thursday November 21.

Ahead of its release I wrote a feature for Clash anticipating Corbijn’s film through two previous films – D.A. Pennebaker‘s seminal road movie 101 and the never-officially-released Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode, directed by Nick Abrahams and Jeremy Deller – as well as my own personal experiences of being a fan of this enduring Mute group.

Read the Clash feature here. Read my review of Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode here.

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence for Clash

Depeche Mode – The Singles 81 – 85 (Mute compilation, 1985)

Depeche Mode ‘The Singles 81 – 85’ original artwork.

The Singles 81 – 85 was Depeche Mode‘s first UK compilation album, gathering together all their singles up to that point in sequential order, tacking on the new tracks ‘It’s Called A Heart’ and ‘Shake The Disease’, the latter of which has become something of a live staple for the band and a firm favourite among fans. Both tracks were released as singles to support the compilation.

The Singles 81 – 85 was also the first of a sporadic series of artist compilations issued by Mute, the catalogue codes for these albums ditching the familiar STUMM tag in favour of MUTEL. The idea was to cheekily reference the K-Tel budget collections of yesteryear but most people didn’t get Mute’s in-joke. The track list on the reverse reflected each track’s success in the singles charts rather than being in the order they were released in, a strategy Mute used again on the first Inspiral Carpets collection ten years later.

Even if you’re familiar with the Depeche Mode journey from Basildon synth-pop boyband to the stadium-conquering electronic rock act they became toward the end of the Eighties, listening to the singles in order, the band’s rapid progression still feels remarkable. There are just two years between the trio of Vince Clarke-penned singles and the ambitious recording techniques and early sample experiments that birthed songs like ‘Love In Itself’.

While you could argue that the band simply benefited from having access to some seriously cutting-edge technology and talented, forward-looking producers in Gareth Jones and Daniel Miller, that would fully ignore the huge leaps forward in terms of arrangements and Martin Gore‘s songwriting.

Gore’s lyrical development from ‘See You’ (a cutesy, endearing single penned as a teenager) to the harrowing introspection of ‘Shake The Disease’ showed a dizzying level of maturity in the briefest of timeframes. ‘Somebody’ (excluded from the LP edition, presumably because of space) remains Gore’s most powerful, fragile ballad, his tender lyrics interspersed with darker considerations and ruminations; elsewhere, tracks like ‘Everything Counts’, ‘People Are People’ and ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ were casually and effortlessly cynical, the latter getting the band into hot water with the Church of England given its pondering about the existence of a cruel God.

The Singles 81 – 85 was re-released in 1998 with a different sleeve to tie in with the the branding of the follow-up singles collection, the LP edition restoring ‘The Meaning Of Love’ and ‘Somebody’ to the collection and making it a double, rather than single, album. That new version tacked on the extended Schizo Mix of ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ and the version of ‘Photographic’ from the Some Bizarre compilation. The newer version might look more modern, but for me I still prefer the slightly garish and simplistic T+CP sleeve from the 1985 edition. Mute also released a three CD boxset containing both compilations in 2001.

Depeche Mode ‘The Singles 81 – 85’ reissue artwork.

Over in the US, Sire had released a compilation of Depeche Mode tracks the year before called People Are People, while a compilation using more or less the same sleeve as the UK Singles 81 – 85 album was issued in 1985 as Catching Up With Depeche Mode, featuring a totally different tracklisting. That edition also included the old photos of the band from the gatefold sleeve of the UK LP (something the UK CD didn’t include) and in among those are some lovely, candid – but too small – photos from the formative years the original band members spent at Southend Tech.

Personal recollections

The Singles 81 – 85 has a special place in my memory for a couple of reasons.

I first came upon the CD in my local library in Stratford-upon-Avon in the summer of 1992, right at the start of my exploration of the Mute back catalogue. Up to this point my only interest in Depeche Mode was with the early Vince Clarke years. I hated Depeche Mode at that point, detested ‘Personal Jesus’ and the band’s image, resplendent on the folder of a girl in my English class called Sarah.

If it wasn’t for the Documentary Evidence brochure that fell out of my 12″ copy of Erasure‘s ‘Chorus’ the year before, I may never have bothered borrowing The Singles 81 – 85 from the library. Given how much I detested the band, finding out through that pamphlet that Vince had been a member of Depeche Mode in their early years made me groan, as all of a sudden I felt obliged to listen to a band that I had decided I didn’t like. Looking back, it’s no surprise to me that I started my collecting of Vince’s other music with a copy of Yazoo‘s Upstairs At Eric’s, bought on cassette from my local Woolworths, instead.

So The Singles 81 – 85 represented my first real exposure to the music of Depeche Mode and for a while I’d deliberately only play the Vince Clarke singles; I couldn’t bring myself to put on the other tracks. When I eventually did, I wanted to be cynical (I initially sneered in agreement with the self-deprecating display of journo quotes included in the sleeve against each song), but I more or less instantly fell in love with those songs and kickstarting the process of building up a collection of Depeche Mode albums that meant, by the time of Songs Of Faith And Devotion the following year, I considered myself a fan. My bedroom walls were quickly adorned with posters bought from Athena of the band circa the Violator era – something of an irony given how much I’d loathed the similar images on Sarah’s folder.

The other reason I have fond memories of this compilation is because of a girl. In 1992 I was a shy, unconfident 15-year old besotted with a girl called Katie that I couldn’t even talk to, let alone ask out.

I was listening to The Singles 81 – 85 in my dad’s favourite armchair one evening during the two week hire of the CD and Katie walked past my lounge window with another girl I knew from school. Katie lived way out of town, so her appearance outside my window was sort of strange. I don’t think it was intentional, as I don’t think she knew where I lived, but that didn’t stop me thinking that it was. For days after, I resented myself for not rushing outside as she walked past to say hello and talk to her.

From that moment, I began to latch onto Martin Gore’s lyrics to help me understand myself to some degree. Through his introspective words I was able to accept that it was perfectly okay to be the quiet kid at school, and from then on I found inspiration in his lyrics whenever it felt like events or people (or just my own thoughts) were conspiring against me.

First published 2013; edited and re-posted 2019.

With thanks to David McElroy.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Mute 4.0: VCMG – Ssss (Mute Artists album, 2012)

vcmg_ssss2

As part of Mute‘s fortieth ‘anti-versary’, the label is making available very special limited edition vinyl versions of selected releases from their four decades of releasing and curating incredible music. To celebrate this element of Mute 4.0, we’re re-posting reviews of those special albums from the depths of the Documentary Evidence archives. Full details on the releases can be found here.

Ssss is the minimal techno album collaboration devised by Depeche Mode‘s Martin L. Gore with original Depeche songwriter Vince Clarke, arriving over thirty years since the pair last worked together.

Vince was, at that time, one of the founding members of Depeche Mode who, in 1981, released Speak & Spell, one of that defining year’s great synthpop albums. Clarke’s departure from the band left Gore in charge of songwriting duties, a role that would allow him to move the band into far darker territory toward the dark electro-rock they are purveyors of today, while Vince has produced – with Alison Moyet as Yazoo and Andy Bell as Erasure – some of the best pop music of the last thirty years.

The idea of Clarke and Gore working together again seemed remote until Vince started mentioning their collaboration on Twitter. That project stemmed from Clarke listening to a lot of minimal techno – which itself seems remote until you consider the remixes of other artists Vince has submitted recently – and asking Gore if he’d like to work with him on a project in that style; he wanted it to be something casual, with no deadlines and no major expectations. Gore himself is a fan of the genre, as anyone who has heard his DJ mixes or heard the tracks he selects to be played just before Depeche Mode take the stage at one of their huge arena shows (always a strange thing to hear barely-there techno over the speakers at somewhere like the O2). Vince went out to his Twitter fanbase and asked what they should call the project and whilst I don’t know if the moniker VCMG was a tweeter’s suggestion, it nevertheless fits the project perfectly (personally, I liked my suggestion of calling themselves Speak & Spell in reference to the last time they worked together, but I’m not bitter).

Ssss was produced by Gore and Clarke and mixed by California’s Timothy Wilkes who goes under the moniker Überzone / Q. Wilkes’s involvement – and Stefan ‘Pole’ Betke’s mastering – adds a certain credibility to what could be seen as two long-in-the-tooth veterans dabbling in a genre that neither have a particular pedigree in.

Opener ‘Lowly’ starts with some chords that feel like they were borrowed from ‘Enjoy The Silence’ or ‘Never Let Me Down Again’ before a dark energy takes over, all buzzing, clamouring synths, solid beats and crunchy percussion. Some nice synth pads heighten the bleak, almost symphonic mood while some very Kraftwerkian pulses and squalls pop up in the background. ‘Lowly’ feels like one of the few tracks on Ssss where Gore slips into the pensive negativity that often creeps into his songwriting. ‘Windup Robot’ starts as one of the strongest tracks here, a shiny, sleek bass-heavy monster although it would have benefited from a touch of 303-style madness somewhere along the way.

‘Bendy Bass’, as its name suggests, has a bendy bass sound, crisp beats and some spinning, elastic synth sounds. The droning synths and wonky, hollow lead riff may be a bit overbearing for this to work on the dancefloor, but it’s engaging enough. The second half introduces a partial riff which reminds me of one of the 12″ remixes of Erasure’s ‘Chains Of Love’. ‘Recycle’ has a slowed-down, subtle sensuality to it, a throbbing bass sound and some neat synths that sound like Kraftwerk’s vision of what pure of electricity might sound like. The vaguely orchestral stabs and the dramatic section at the centre are a bit unnecessary, but ‘Recycle’ is nevertheless one of Ssss‘s best moments. Closing track ‘Flux’ features some nice, emotional riffs that wouldn’t go amiss on some of Depeche Mode’s more poignant moments, offset by percolating synths and hissing percussion.

As a purely ‘listening’ album, Ssss is not a disappointment; whether it would work in a Richie Hawtin club set is debatable, but as a collaboration between two electronic music stalwarts it is interesting and engaging stuff, and there’s no denying the quality of the synth design at work here. At times you do long for a more song-based collaboration, a chance to hear how Clarke would have wrapped his synths around Gore’s mournful lyrics, a Depeche Mode that never was, but that was clearly never the premise here (particularly as Gore is hardly the most prolific lyricist in the world). Nevertheless, there is a distinct sense of two musicians challenging each other by operating outside of their comfort zone, with very fine results indeed.

For Mute 4.0, Ssss is being reissued as an orange double LP edition.

First posted 2012; edited 2018.

MUTE4.0_V3

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Depeche Mode – The O2 Arena, London 22.11.2017 – photos by Andy Sturmey

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(c) 2017 Andy Sturmey for Documentary Evidence & This Is Not Retro

People Are People – The Politics Of Depeche Mode (Clash feature, 2017)

“If ‘Where’s The RevolutIon?’ is any sort of bellwether of what Spirit will sound like, it suggests that Depeche Mode are ready to stop dealing in vagueness, the cryptic and the shrouded, and instead feel inclined to go for a more direct approach to the message they’re trying to get across.”

Clash, 2017

Ahead of the release of the new Depeche Mode album Spirit, I wrote a feature for Clash that explores the political messages within first single ‘Where’s The Revolution?’.

As a rule, I try to steer clear of politics if I can help it, but in the last twelve months that’s been pretty hard to do. And rightly so; to say we live in interesting times is a huge understatenent, and if there’s ever been a time to take notice of politics, amid the chaos and uncertainty in the wake of the votes against the status quo represented by Brexit and Donald Trump, now is most definitely that time.

Even so, this was a piece that I felt ill-equipped to write, until I got started. The piece was written in the second week of a fortnight spent working in the US, initially on the East Coast, then in the Mid-West, then from the East Coast ahead of returning to the UK, and maybe a sense of proximity to what’s going on over there allowed the piece to come together slightly easier. That and taking the opportunity to trawl back through the entire Depeche Mode catalogue in a bid to see whether the political dimension the band were showcasing with new single ‘Where’s The Revolution?’ was really that new after all.

My feature for Clash can be found here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

MG – Europa Hymn (Mute Records single, 2015) – Official Video

Mute Records today revealed the animated video for ‘Europa Hymn’, the first single taken from the forthcoming Martin Gore album MG which is released in April.

I had the great pleasure of getting to interview Martin earlier this month; that interview will be published online ahead of MG‘s release.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Gwen Stefani – Wonderful World (Interscope, 2006)

Gwen Stefani 'The Sweet Escape' CD artwork

The Sweet Escape album | Interscope | 2006

Mute alumni Martin Gore and Richard Hawley appeared on this upbeat closer to Gwen Stefani’s The Sweet Escape, both adding their guitar talents to a song which sounds suspiciously like Stefani trying to cover Depeche Mode‘s ‘Enjoy The Silence’ via Black’s song of the same name. Hawley and Gore’s contributions are quiet and not exactly distinctive: Hawley seems to offer ruminative slide guitar wheras Gore’s playing seems to be the kind of simple but devastating melodies he’s made his own. Unfortunately, they’re both just drowned out by the garish high energy pop of this Linda Perry-penned tune.

First posted 2013; re-posted 2014.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Recoil – Bloodline (Mute Records album, 1992)

Recoil 'Bloodline' LP artwork

mute records | lp/c/cd stumm94 | 04/1992

Released in 1992 between Depeche Mode‘s Violator and Songs Of Faith And Devotion, Recoil‘s Bloodline found Alan Wilder collaborating with Moby, covering The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s ‘Faith Healer’ with Nitzer Ebb‘s Douglas McCarthy and deploying the vocals of Curve’s Toni Halliday; nicking swathes of vocals from bluesman Bukka White, and even dropping in a spoken word prayer from Diamanda Galas.

Unlike Wilder’s previous two releases as Recoil (1986’s 1+2 and 1988’s Hydrology), Bloodline showcases a more uptempo, song-based album; whilst his painstaking studio endeavours and long-form sound designs are in evidence across Bloodline, what emerges is an album that benefits from having the various vocalist contributors add their respective sections, even if at times it’s more pop than one might have expected. Then again, if there was one criticism of Wilder’s two previous releases, it was that they didn’t fit into any particular electronic genre – too pop to be ambient and too organic at times to be suited to the electronic music purist; clever, certainly, but somewhat impenetrable.

I like to think that Recoil showcases a certain ‘big budget’ electronic music. It’s the difference between a big Hollywood picture with all the special effects you can imagine and a tiny indie flick. Sonically, it feels like Wilder had access to all the best kit and equipment because of his role in one of the biggest bands in the world; in the hands of a bedroom-confined electronic musician the result would have been different and perhaps a little edgier, a touch grittier maybe. According to Wilder’s helpful Q&A on his website, the reality was somewhat more toward the ‘small’ end of the studio spectrum compared to his later studio, with Bloodline put together in the back room of his London home. Nevertheless, Bloodline still has a glossy high-end sheen to most of the tracks.

One of the most surprising (and most adventurous) tracks is ‘Curse’, which features Moby – at this point still in his pre-Mute Instinct days – rapping desperately about social and moral issues. I say surprising, because Moby hasn’t ever been known as a rapper; he’s clearly dabbled in a whole spectrum of different musical genres from ghostly ambient stasis to thrash metal but actually rapping remains something of an oddity. To confound things yet further, ‘Curse’ finds Moby’s vocal pitch-shifted downwards, giving his contribution a dark, aggressive quality, even if it means that his voice is unrecognisable. Wilder drops in slowed-down wheezing sounds, beats that sound like they originate from a steam-powered production line and liquid electro bass riffs. In keeping with a number of other tracks on Bloodline, ‘Curse’ is lengthy, the second half here being dominated by a more robust beat and samples of a manic orator delivering a religious protest speech.

‘Electro Blues For Bukka White’ proves categorically that Moby’s sampling of old blues records and hitching them to more modern soundscapes wasn’t necessarily all that innovative on Play, Wilder here doing the same with lengthy a cappella section of White’s vocal while a throbbing electro rhythm and some meditative bass noises drift along underneath. At times it feels like Depeche’s ‘Waiting For The Night’ from Violator only with a more pronounced beat. Neat symphonic strings add an unexpected emotional quality to this song, highlighting just how adept Wilder has always been at forcing out the emotions in a song. A similar effect is achieved on the closing track, ‘Freeze’, which has an austere sound, not dissimilar from some of Wilder’s more grandiose classically-informed work with Depeche at the time of Music For The Masses.

One of the best tracks on Bloodline is ‘The Defector’, a pulsing and mostly instrumental electro track that was Wilder’s self-confessed homage to Kraftwerk; that’s certainly evidenced in the thippy electronic sounds and clattering industrial beat reminiscent of Trans-Europe Express-era Kraftwerk. That said, ‘The Defector’ retains a robustness to its rhythms and synths that Kraftwerk have never quite been able to deliver. The two tracks featuring Toni Halliday (the languid ‘Edge To Life’, mooted as an ultimately abandoned second single, and the harder ‘Bloodline’) are among the most ‘pop’ tracks here, Halliday’s strained vocals for some reason getting a little too close to Madonna for comfort. Wilder’s backdrop, particularly on the twitchy ‘Bloodline’ has an edginess, an definite apocalyptic tone, but on the whole, while they’re undoubtedly clever sonically, there’s something vaguely disappointing about these two songs that I can’t quite put my finger on. ‘Bloodline’s saving grace is the dense middle section featuring lots of wordless singing from Halliday, dubby guitar plucks a la ‘Policy Of Truth’ and all sorts of drama, not least from Jenni McCarthy (Doug McCarthy’s daughter) who provides an unsettling vocal section.

Bloodline also includes two unnamed link tracks, one between ‘Electro Blues For Bukka White’ and ‘The Defector’ and one between ‘Curse’ and ‘Bloodline’. The former is a short atmospheric piece with a threatening, claustrophobic quality, a little like being surrounded by looming clouds of noxious electronics; the second features a heavily-processed Diamanda Galas delivering the Lord’s Prayer, creating a similarly unsettling effect.

Galas’s religious contribution, whether you can make it out or not, as well as the occasional use of preacher samples, highlight a vague theme that exists at various points during Bloodline. The album’s sequencing, from the possessed sounds of a man speaking in tongues at the very start of ‘Faith Healer’ through to the redemptive, elegiac sound of ‘Freeze’ creates the impression of someone moving from darkness to light, a theme that Wilder’s bandmate Martin L. Gore would use to devastating effect time after time in his writing for Depeche Mode. If anything, Wilder’s approach to enlightenment and salvation on Bloodline is more subtle and somehow all the more dangerous for it.

***

I bought this album whilst on holiday in Southend-on-Sea during Whitsun week in 1992, a few weeks before my mock GCSEs, along with Mute’s International compilation and Nitzer Ebb’s Belief. As it’s Whitsun this week, I decided to head down memory lane and re-post this review from 2012.

Thanks to Andy, Lyn and Jonathan for their help with this review.

Track listing:

lp/cd/c:
A1. / 1. Faith Healer
A2. / 2. Electro Blues For Bukka White
A3. / 3. The Defector
B1. / 4. Edge To Life
B2. / 5. Curse
B3. / 6. Bloodline
B4. / 7. Freeze (cassette and CD bonus track)

First published 2012; edited 2014

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Martin L. Gore – Counterfeit (Mute Records, 1989)

Martin L. Gore 'Counterfeit' LP artwork

mute records | lp/cd/c stumm67 | 06/1989

Counterfeit was Martin L. Gore‘s first solo release outside of Depeche Mode. A collection of six covers ranging from The Durutti Column to Sparks, Gore’s voice is here allowed to shine through rather than being relegated to backing vocals or only appearing on the more poignant ballads of the Depeche back catalogue that were less suited to nominal frontman Dave Gahan‘s vocal style. Counterfeit was produced by Gore and Rhythm King stalwart Rico Conning, and released by Mute in 1989 while Depeche Mode were on downtime between the Music For The Masses and Violator albums. Never a band to go for cover versions (off the top of my head I can only count three, including one Beethoven piece), hearing Gore delivering other people’s songs is something of a rare, and absorbing, proposition.

Opening with a cover of Joe Crow’s ‘Compulsion’, things start off in relatively upbeat territory. Sometime Nightingales member Crow’s solitary and pretty obscure Cherry Red 7″ is here delivered as an affirming, strident track, all upbeat pianos, pulsing percussion and melodica-style synths. I used to listen to this occasionally after disappointing events took place (usually getting dumped by a girl), the ‘got to move on sometime’ refrain and the gentle piano somehow allowing me to transcend whatever I was feeling miserable about. Nearly twenty years on from when I first bought this, it still never fails to work. ‘In A Manner Of Speaking’ was originally recorded by Tuxedomoon and appeared on their Holy Wars LP. Gore’s version includes a vaguely Latin rhythm in the style of Depeche Mode’s ‘To Have And To Hold’ from Music For The Masses, underpinned by a dark synth bass pulse. ‘In A Manner Of Speaking’ is filled with a theatrical drama, and to add to the mood Gore speaks his way through the final section, its elliptical lyric about telling someone everything by saying nothing making a level of sense on an emotional level.

The cover of Factory Records’ stalwart Vini Reilly’s ‘Smile In The Crowd’ again opts for a Latin-style arrangement, a thin, pondering guitar line running throughout most of the track. This cover of the Durutti Column song is perhaps the closest Counterfeit comes to the bleak, inward-looking balladry that Gore’s own performances on record tend to lean toward. Meanwhile ‘Gone’, originally delivered by The Comsat Angels, has a cloying urgency, mining the same vibe of danger and helplessness that powered ‘A Question Of Time’, riding forth on a pulsing beat marked by thick bass notes and industrial tension.

Gore’s cover of Sparks’ ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’ finds Gore taking Ron Mael’s beguiling, simple ode to the planet we live on and maintaining that sense of grace over a fragile, gentle backdrop of acoustic guitar and shimmering percussion. Tempted to make this plaintive song a whole lot darker though you might have expected Gore to be, instead the sense of wonderment of the Sparks original is maintained, Gore even having a decent crack at Russell Mael’s falsetto, highlighting the lead Depeche Mode songwriter’s strong vocal range. Gore saves the darkness for his take on the traditional song ‘Motherless Child’, here cast as a edgy jazz number, the dark swing of Gore’s introspective vocal delivered like an unused track from Cabaret.

Counterfeit is a relatively unassuming record, considering how big Depeche Mode had become by this point. Gore’s emotional outpourings have always been popular with fans (check out the deafening cheers after one of Gore’s solo performances in the middle of a Depeche Mode stadium show), and hearing his effortless ownership of these six songs is one of the genuine highlights of his body of vocal work. A follow-up to this EP would be released by Mute in 2003 containing more unexpected reworkings of other bands’ material.

Track listing:

lp/cd/c:
A1. / 1. Compulsion
A2. / 2. In A Manner Of Speaking
A3. / 3. Smile In The Crowd
B1. / 4. Gone
B2. / 5. Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth
B3. / 6. Motherless Child

First published 2012; edited 2014

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence