Tuesday, April 08, 2008

An Appreciation of Depeche Mode's Violator

"Violator" has long been regarded as the pinnacle achievement of the classic Depeche Mode line-up, and it’s not difficult why the landmark 1990 album is perennially held in such high adulation, and have attained triple-platinum status in the US, moving more than three million units in the world’s biggest music market. Prior to the release of "Violator", Depeche Mode had quietly but steadily shaped their distinctive synth-pop sonic blueprint into a sleek, sober yet user-friendly entity, judiciously dosed with Goth-rock lashings, white-noise aesthetics and industrial-pop textures. Impressive albums like "Some Great Reward", "Black Celebration" and "Music for the Masses" were merely the logical predecessors to this career maker of an album.

However, it is on "Violator" that Depeche Mode finally realised their full artistic potential: the melodies are tighter, punchier and more accessible, the studio work by production prodigy Flood impeccable and full of character, and the arrangements well thought-out and sharper than before. There is also a noticeable current of creative consistency running throughout "Violator", an element conspicuously absent from earlier efforts. Mention must also be made of the band’s decision to finally use the electric guitar as a more upfront and prominent instrument, which lends newfound nuances to an already remarkable musical framework.

But perhaps the most telling indicator of the popularity of "Violator" comes in the often-told anecdote of how 17,000 fans nearly turned downtown Los Angeles into a riot zone in February 1990, when Depeche Mode turned up at the Wherehouse record store there for an autograph-signing session. In terms of modern-day incidents of mass hysteria engendered by pop-culture icons, that event is perhaps only overshadowed by the infamous impromptu U2 rooftop performance of "Where the Streets Have No Name" in New York City in 1987.

Therefore, it is understandable why "Violator" is the most renowned creature in the current Depeche Mode album remasters campaign, standing out from all the other records. Of course, any re-release has to come with the obligatory bells and whistles, and the new-look "Violator" is no different: a snazzy new remastering job, a bonus disc of the original tracklisting in authentic 5.1 surround sound, and a handful of additional tracks from the relevant era to round off the package. However, it’s the original album that’s the real highlight here, and for that reason alone, it’s worthwhile to go through the tracks once again to understand why the reasons behind their brilliance, even after more than a decade from its initial release.

The virtuosity of ‘Violator’ is apparent right from the start, with the supercharged, insistent "World in My Eyes". Whereas past album-openers like "Black Celebration" and "Never Let Me Down Again" took their time in building up a full head of steam before launching into the proceedings proper, "World in My Eyes" kicks straight into action with its precise electro-bass measures, accurately timed samplers and straightforward synth stabs. The following "Sweetest Perfection" is a slower, darker proposition, a shuffling behemoth ensnared by synth-string swoops and snarling guitar riffs.

And it’s true that Depeche Mode really did revolutionise their sound on "Violator" by giving in to the use of electric guitars, and the application of axes bore wonderful results on the massive smash "Personal Jesus". One of the few Depeche Mode singles to make it to genuine hit-list status, thanks to comprehensive MTV coverage, "Personal Jesus" rides along on a bluesy, slightly electronically modified guitar lick, an enormous stomper of a backing rhythm, and shrewd use of vocal echoes, making for an indisputable standard in the band’s repertoire.

Theatrical orchestral strings (albeit played on a sampler) form the backbone of the next track, the edgy but vaguely optimistic "Halo", which could have made for a terrific single, if only the band had not already issued four singles already from this nine-song collection. "Waiting for the Night" is a down-tempo, nocturnal crawl, enhanced by spooky insect samples and subtle digital notes, a welcome interlude in the hitherto unrelenting scheme of things.

However, the pace is picked up again with the other big single from the album, the almighty, wide-screen tour de force "Enjoy the Silence", with a simple, austere two-chord guitar riff anchoring the active synth underpinnings, constituting perhaps the most approachable instance on "Violator". "Policy of Truth", meanwhile, is a fascinating hybrid of electro-funk and Gothic-informed electronica, a mid-tempo number that remains am invariable fan favourite. "Blue Dress" is a slowed-down ballad that makes good use of shuddering slide-guitar twangs, and the concluding "Clean" is a wonderfully ominous closer, consisting of pounding drum-machine cadences and eerie electronic reverberations.

The bonus tracks included here are notable in their own right, although none of them can be remotely considered the equivalent of anything from the parent album. "Dangerous" is an identikit synth-pop number that sounds like an outtake from the previous "Music for the Masses" record; the oddly titled "Memphisto", "Sibeling" and "Kaleid" are a triptytch of portentous instrumentals that work quite well as horror-movie soundtrack cues; and "Happiest Girl" and "Sea of Sin" are academically interesting, if not wholly successful experiments in the then-burgeoning trance movement.

In short, everything about "Violator" that made it so exceptional in the first place is doubly confirmed here: the inspired songwriting, the atmospheric production, the virtuosic performances: all present and accounted for, and then some. While Depeche Mode might never make another record as compelling and epochal as "Violator" again, Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher (not forgetting the departed Alan Wilder too) can still take pride in the undeniable fact that they have created rock-music history with its release. Nothing else in its class can come close in the least bit. A terrific revisit of a synth-pop masterpiece that is still yet to be bested.


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