Depeche Mode


[Delta Machine sleeve]"Delta Machine" (Album, 2013)

Columbia

When the title to Depeche Mode's thirteenth studio album was unveiled, like many others who have followed them for decades, I admit my appetite was well and truly whetted and expectation levels set to optimistic. A simple combination of words resulting in a classic-sounding album. It's only upon listening to it that you realise there really is nothing deeper than Delta=blues and Machine=synths. Blues done on synths. Simple as that. Something they've been doing for years. There's nothing approaching a coherent suite of songs let alone an overarching conceptual approach. And that's a major handicap. But it's still a great title. 

Criticised for lacking 'oomph' for a single release, Heaven is nevertheless an honest introduction to the album as a whole. It could even be called low-key but as a sampling of Gore's present writing style it is a good example of what he (and Gahan's vocal contribution) are delivering today. Personally, it's one of my favourite tracks not least because the strength of Gahan's voice is utilised at its best, with Gore's counterpoint backing vocals creating the kind of harmonic synchronicity that characterises their best work. 

Cynics could quite fairly label a good half of Delta Machine as DM by the numbers (yet again). When Gore jokes on TV that he has only ever written three types of song and has just been repeating them for years it isn't funny because it's been too close to the truth for too long. The repetition of previously well-mined ideas is hard to get excited about some twenty years on (since Songs Of Faith and Devotion – errr... hang on, wasn't that the last album Alan Wilder was involved with?... Don't go there.) Gore badly needs an editor or at least a creative critic he listens to. Lyrically an musically it's very hit and miss. Angel is the current Gore archetype and I simply cannot listen to it. It is so formulaic as to be tedious. Gahan too though has to shoulder some of the blame. His vocal patterns on this album are more staccato than ever before making for awkward listening, leaving you begging for more of the soaring vocal style he used to excel at. It's hard to get excited about an album half of which is merely reworking familiar elements from the previous twenty years, and Slow is first class filler which would be lucky to deserve a place on the b-side of an old 7”.

The bit I don't understand about this and the last few Depeche Mode albums is that, as the main songwriter, Gore appears to have an incredibly limited view of the world and this is directly reflected in his songwriting (be it music or lyrics). He appears impervious to everything that has been going on around him in electronic music in recent years. The inventiveness that relying heavily upon electronic instrumentation affords the creative composer seems to have bypassed him altogether. It's as if he listens to nothing but his own back catalogue for inspiration. Even his much-anticipated collaboration with original Depeche Mode member Vince Clarke as VCMG last year – created as a purely electronic project – resulting in the album Ssss was a huge disappointment yielding little of distinction. 

Best tracks are those that flow, giving Gahan the platform for his best vocal lines. BrokenSecret to the End, both of these captures various aspects of DM that down the years have served us so richly but does so in a standalone coherent manner. Alone has some lovely moments – largely thanks to an arrangement that means the synths actually contribute a great deal to defining the song. Otherwise, the synths (much-touted before the album's release) are too often pointless fiddlings or, the detail (and therefore benefit) of which is lost in some slightly odd decisions on the mix. Soft Touch/Raw Nerve at less than three-and-a-half minutes is just a bit of fun, and the sneak preview seen on Letterman Live suggests this could have been a live highlight of the new material – except it hasn't yet appeared in their set list having just kicked off the world tour. These songs each share moments of distinct Depeche magic but none really carry the DM flag firmly forward. As Jonathan Ross so sharply put it (on his TV show in response to Fletch saying pretty much everywhere liked DM except the UK): “Suck it up, write another hit, and move on!”. This, it seems, frustratingly, is still very much beyond their combined skills. Indifference is not a good reaction to have to any art. Sadly, that's the overwhelming one I have with too much of Depeche Mode's output these days. 7/10

Rob Dyer (May 2013)

[Tour of The Universe sleeve]"Tour of The Universe" (2xDVD/2xCD, 2010)

Mute

This is the best presented Depeche Mode DVD/video release to date. On those terms alone, a couple of very annoying niggles aside (more upon which later), it is impressive. Content wise, there is lots of it (this is a 2CD+2DVD quadpack) and the image and sound quality of that content (at least on the DVDs) is about as high as anyone could reasonably ask. It's just a shame that the music within is predominantly Depeche Mode today and not Depeche Mode between 1984 and 1991 (i.e. Some Great Reward through Violator). True, songs from that era do appear, but looking back to previous, early live releases like the The World We Live in and Live In Hamburg video from 1985, or the bands fractious but creatively unmatched Anton Corbijn-directed videos Strange and Strange Too it's almost impossible to imagine they will surpass (or even match) that golden era.

Still, back to the positives - of which there are plenty. The DVD half of the package is built around a 2 hour performance filmed in Barcelona last year. Although some have expressed frustration and disatisfaction with the stylistic choices on the filming, for me the artistic and directorial decisions inject some much needed freshness into the Depeche Mode franchise. So playing down the quirky Corbijn approach of years past we get a plethora of uncommon and varied camera angles including shots from behind the stage looking through the staging behind the band, viewing Dave's back as he carries out his trademark slinky moves and forward further still into the admiring faces and adoring eyes of fans facing the hidden lens. The other shots I liked were those shot from way back - like they were shot on fan handicams from the floor - complete with thousands of followers making their own mini-movies on their mobile phones. Where I do miss Corbijn's touch (and you can call me old fashioned) is in the tradition of utilising backing visuals (or promo videos) that have a narrative structure. Instead of those there's a range of often abstract images or clips that look more like installation pieces from regional art galleries than what we fondly remember from before. The limit of their appeal is laid bare in the (otherwise very welcome) bonus features that enable the viewer to listen to selected tracks whilst watching only the visuals used for the back projections.

But this then brings us back to the package's shortcomings because nice though it is to have the option to watch these projections there's no option to 'play all' - why not?? You've just enjoyed the main feature, now want to extend the pleasure by watching these clips in succession but can't. At their heart all filmed live concerts are just another means by which you can hear the music you like. Moreover, if you're playing it as a suite of music (as you may have a want to do!) then having to keep going back to the DVD player every five bloody minutes to start the next song is both stupid and irritating - to say nothing of not necessary! Same individual play only restrictions apply to a number of 'bonus tracks' different songs performed on different nights, and for the two (excellent) rehearsal songs. AAAAGGHHHHH!! A modest, but immediately insightful documentary pulled together from a series of intimate one on one interviews with each of the band members is better than the average tour filler for its candid nature and the candor of the subjects. Straight from the off it delivers with lead singer Dave Gahan making it clear that he just can't keep up at the pace and the only way to manage it is to rethink his entire approach to touring. (It suddenly becoming apparent that those increasingly frequent and lengthy passages during which Gahan leaves it to their still enthusiastic audiences to sing on his behalf are in part due to his flagging energies.)

For me, its the DVDs wherein the most interest lies, but included in the package are two live CDs. These follow exactly the same set list as the DVD - simply split down the middle and spread across two discs. But unlike the DVDs these are seriously underwhelming. Especially on the choice of sound recording. I've no idea how it was captured but the sound lacks punch, clarity and dynamic range sounding as if it was recorded from microphones placed way back in the arena rather than either exclusively coming from the mixing desk or even a combination of mixing desk and venue mikes. I'd imagine it was the latter but the finished product is decidedly weak and having studiously listened to both a couple of times through just for this review I definitely won't be returning to them any time soon. Oddly, the minimalist live version of Home, a song I've never had much love for, particularly in its original album incarnation, stands out even more on CD and is a highlight (probably as it suffers least from the recording/mix style). On balance then -diluted greatness.  7/10

Footnote: Potential purchasers be warned, it took me three goes to get to one that didn't suffer from production glitches. One simply didn't play properly, and its replacement had menus wired incorrectly (i.e. you'd choose one menu item only to be taken to a different one!).  Final footnote: Just discovered (on a second, comprehensive viewing of the DVDs again for this review) that there's still a playback problem with one of the bonus tracks. But I won't be sending back for a 4th copy - I'm just not that bothered. 

Rob Dyer (April 2011)

[Sounds of The Universe sleeve]"Sounds of The Universe" (Album, 2009)

Mute

The Mode's 12th studio album is an album of two halves. One half contains some of their best writing in more than a decade, the other half sees them (unconsciously or otherwise) on cruise control - again! Only those 'halves' are mixed together throughout the entire album. Good job then the days of linear vinyl listening are behind us, because if you take the trouble to program out the weaker entries there's a terrific Mode album in this bloated bunch struggling to be considered on its own relatively impressive terms.

Juicy, fat, old analogue synths are one of the albums most immediate and welcome features (Gore confesses to rabidly spending some of his royalties on buying up museum-worthy kit on eBay). Ironic then that this is certainly one of their most progressive developments really given that many will see this as merely a fashionable, retrograde step back to the start of the 1980s and their very first releases. There is some indulgent dabbling like the intro to opener In Chains, which is fun stuff, but it hardly adds anything to the song itself which otherwise doesn't rely on the retro generated sounds.

(Presumably to keep him playing ball) Gahan gets to pen three songs this time around (with help from Christian Eigner). Come Back in particular gets irritating before it ends. (Worryingly Gahan has said that this is his favourite track on the entire album.) But the bigger faults lay more with main songwriter Martin Gore and his increasingly self-referential, even predictable writing. Once again we get lyrics, music even song titles that each sound like half a dozen other Gore penned catalogue entries. I can't even sit through Jezebel not because it's so bad (it isn't per se) its just so irritatingly familiar - like someone has used a 'composition by numbers' computer program that uses complex algorithms to reproduce a typical 'Martin Gore song'. Gore said he had fifteen songs he thought worthy of inclusion, finding the thirteen they've gone with a difficult choice. For my money, they could have easily lost four or five tracks, what's more, the finished album would have been better too.

Thankfully, it's not all substandard. There are some gems on Sounds of The Universe, and there's a decent number of them too: Wrong, Fragile Tension, Peace, Perfect, and Miles Away/The Truth Is (the latter penned by Gahan, Christian Eigner and Andrew Philpott) and they're all of a kind too. If the whole album had stuck with this style then it could have been essential listening for all. Program that lot in sequence and you'll hear Depeche Mode getting closer to their Music For The Masses, Violator and Walking In My Shoes era creativity. Someone may have spiked my milk, but I can definitely hear The Beatles in moments of Peace, whilst Gahan's vocals on Perfect seem, very oddly, to be channeling The Monkees through some strange Fad Gadget Lady Shave time warp synthesizer filter.

In Sympathy sounds like a leftover from last album, 2005's Playing The Angel. Perfectly adequate but typical of Gore when he's struggling to develop as a songwriter. On balance then, there are enough solid, even exciting songs to make it foolish to write off Depeche Mode as a worthwhile creative force yet. Wrong was a daring choice for first single from the album but well-chosen to standout with its restricted musical and lyrical palette (aided immeasurably by a creepy Radiohead-ish video that won't be easily forgotten). The similarly minimal Peace for me is perhaps the pinnacle of the album. Interesting, as my wife, a seriously hardcore DM fan of many years, thinks it is the weakest. Go figure. True to form though, this latest long player is definitely another grower that improves with repeated airings.

Whilst a decent rating is deserved, there's too much that just isn't memorable enough to push this into the premier league. Nevertheless, Sounds of The Universe is an improvement over the last two albums for sure; and those who haven't bothered buying either of those who opted to pick it up could be pleasantly surprised. 7/10

Released in several versions. The Special Edition CD comes with a second (DVD) disc which contains 10 minutes of 'making-of' interviews with all three band members, three typically 'take 'em or leave 'em' remixes plus the promo video for Wrong. There's also a OTT fanboy box set retailing for around 60 that chucks in a couple of books by long time visual collaborator Anton Corbijn , a 1 hour 45 minute film of the band, 1 remix CD, 1 earlier demos CD and 1 extra tracks CD, plus the usual pointless collectables like a poster, badges, 'art cards', etc, etc. all in a huge, vinyl album sized grey box.

Rob Dyer (June 2009)

See also:

And One
De/Vision
Elegant Machinery
David Gahan
Martin Gore
Recoil


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