What was the lockdown album? Vince Clarke’s debut solo release could well be the last of this short-lived typology to see the light of day: a collection of cooped-up, minimalist instrumentals produced at home – in this case on a modular synthesiser, with sparing touches of cello, soprano and folk balladry. Modular synths are a notorious time-sink for electronic tinkerers, so the empty days of lockdown were the perfect opportunity for Clarke – one of our great synthpop songwriters, via his work with to Depeche Mode, Yazoo and Erasure – to get stuck into the vast world of Eurorack YouTube tutorials. (Even the cat got bored with hanging out in the studio listening to drones, Clarke reports.)
The anxious background hum of Covid courses through the record, which switches between tectonic oscillations fit for a Ridley Scott epic to fluttering kosmische patterns in the paranoid 70s style. On The Lamentations of Jeremiah and Passage, the mood grows portentous in the extreme, a sci-fi sensorium heightened by Reed Hays’s thick bolts of cello and Caroline Joy’s mountaintop soprano. There’s no obvious storyline to Clarke’s cinematic adventure, just the same note of dread ringing throughout. But the righteous Blackleg provides an emotional hinge to this largely wordless album, setting a scab-bashing miners’ song from 19th-century Northumberland to a pitch-dark chasm of drones. “Take yer tools and yer duds as well, and hoy them down to the pit of hell,” sings our uncredited union man, “down you go, and fare ye well, you dirty blackleg miner.” A timeless sentiment.