Deep in the bowels of Holborn, the archetypal keyboard shadowlurker shrouded himself once more in comforting technology. Vince Clarke might be the synthpop genius who founded Depeche Mode, Yazoo and Erasure, but ever since he relinquished the singer’s spot in Depeche to Dave Gahan in 1980 he’s hidden behind side-of-stage synthesisers while colourful and charismatic singers such as Alison Moyet and Andy Bell razzle-dazzle his music for him.
In showcasing his first ever solo album – the drone-based, avant-tronic Songs of Silence – though, there was nowhere to hide but inside the machine. Encasing the London School of Economics’s basement venue in digital screens blazing geometric fractals from every wall, Clarke and his similarly bald, besuited sidekick Reed Hays sequestered themselves behind a large monitor centre stage, beneath an attention-drawing film screen. “It’s weird doing this without Andy because he fills in the gaps,” Clarke said, admitting to crippling nerves at fronting what often felt like a deeply immersive PowerPoint presentation.
Opening track Cathedral was spent conjuring a state of timelessness: images of classical religious paintings, 1930s movie starlets and Terminators accompanied ambient tones that gently surfed the cosmic waves. A fitting intro for an album born when time stood still. Clarke has quietly been “doing an Eno” (as it’s known in the trade) for over a decade, putting mainstream pop behind him to create minimalist experimental electronica in VCMG (his early-2010s band with Depeche’s Martin Gore) or alongside Jean-Michel Jarre. Then during lockdown, YouTube tutorials about the sonic possibilities of the Eurorack modular synthesiser were his Joe Wicks, and Songs of Silence his Couch to 5k.
In performance, the visuals were as vital as the one-note soundscapes – adorned with looping Kraftwerkian kosmische [cosmic music] touches and rooted in the dark throb of Covid paranoia – themselves. Some films accentuated the theme of a track: the CGI footage of Martian landscapes and crashing meteorites accompanying the sci-fi pulse of Red Planet, say, or the Super Mario game playing out to the 8-bit techno blips of Scarper.
Others strived to draw profound human truths from these elemental sounds. White Rabbit came with an animation of a world consumed, bored, brutalised and dislocated by technology, its tribal dance coda kicking in to images of copulating cartoon iPhones. And as Hays took to the cello to add notes of keening melancholy to the corroded, warlike The Lamentations of Jeremiah, footage of deserted Eastern European hallways set to the sounds of distant electronic bombs evoked the horrors of the Ukrainian conflict, as witnessed from afar.
Occasional vocals enhanced proceedings. Opera singer Sarah-Jane Dale brought grace to Passage and a crackly recording of a 19th-century miner’s folk song made Blackleg sound like the ghosts of an oppressive old England returned for vengeance. But Andy Bell appearing in a devil horn cod-piece for an ambient rendition of Oh L’Amour would have shattered the spell.
“I know it’s not a disco banger,” Clarke apologised ahead of space echo closer Last Transmission but, sporadically, this was an experience as transportive as any pure pop high. Respect – and more than just a little – due.