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Vince Clark & Paul Hartnoll
2Square Ned Raggett , August 12th, 2016 09:09

It might be strange to think of it, but arguably Vince Clarke never really stopped the Assembly, he just put it on pause and switched from singing partners to fellow instrumentalists. Even while Erasure keeps on as an institution running three decades plus, over the years Clarke has collaborated with peers like Martyn Ware, via the Clarke and Ware Experiment, and his former Depeche Mode bandmate Martin Gore with VCMG, all of them entertaining, vibrant examples of someone always dedicated to the sound of electronics over time.

With 2Square, which definitely feels like a more light-hearted version of VCMG’s Ssss at points, Clarke works with a partner who arrived in the field a little after his own initial splash: Paul Hartnoll of Orbital. No stranger to numerous collaborations and experiments himself, Hartnoll’s work here is also his first album length effort under his own name since his 2007 solo debut The Ideal Condition, as well as what is purportedly Orbital’s final pause in activity as announced two years back. The result is, on the one hand, just about what you would expect from the artists in question - and on the other is fantastic for just that reason. The exchange of surprise for guaranteed pleasure is something I’ll take every time.

Hearing which artist brings what to the eight songs is a bit of a mug’s game — that both love their gear, bubbling loops, crisp percussion and hyperactive energy is a given, that both also use pop as their cover to explore approaches that most of human history would have found utterly alien sounding is a reminder that we’re still not that far removed from the invention of recorded sound to start with. The press release says the duo call it ‘home house’ for, indeed, at-home dancing, and talk up being middle-aged dads messing around for the heck of it. And, while there’s no attempt to pretend otherwise -- it is knowingly called 2Square, after all — it’s also the sound of contentment that never sounds boring.

So on songs like ‘The Echoes’ and ‘The Shortcut,’ there’s the sense of that bright future just over the horizon, whether signalled by memories of synth-pop’s rewriting of expectations or all-night raves into the infinite, comfort food to some but still pulsing with a sense of drama and promise. The opening song (and single) ‘Better Have a Drink to Think’ sets a brisk pace and tone for the album with its chopped-up brief vocal snippet as hook and title, a sentiment and approach repeated on songs like ‘Do-a-Bong’ and, with lengthier sampling, ‘All Out.’ The whole thing’s over in under forty minutes and when it bows out on the slightly slower-paced dreaminess of ‘Underwater,’ it all feels just right.

In the end I like imagining which straight-down-the-synth-hook might perhaps be more Clarke’s than Hartnoll’s, or which shimmering texture and frenetic rhythm might be more Hartnoll’s than Clarke’s, but either way it really doesn’t matter — something like this just emerges and what is more one or the other’s disappear in the joy of it all. That there are other sonic approaches to electronic dance that have emerged and enriched the field in this new millennium is obvious, that there’s still room for this kind of play and pulse equally so.