Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Depeche Mode Through the Years

The upcoming release of Depeche Mode’s "Sounds of the Universe" marks nearly three decades of existence for the band as a venerable and influential popular-music institution. Slowly but surely metamorphosing from an earnest and slightly fluffy New Romantic pop outfit to become one of the most recognisable purveyors of electronically-based pop music, Depeche Mode have well and truly earned their credentials as one of the most acclaimed and revolutionary trendsetters in the industry. While the band has largely maintained their fundamental synth-pop template throughout the years, there have been some notable cosmetic changes done on specific albums, which is enough to warrant a reappraisal of these records.

Their debut album is a rather underdeveloped and undefined work that found the young band still searching for a distinct artistic identity, and is very much an early-1980s artefact, with its surfeit of plinkety-plonk analogue-synth sounds. However, there are enough poppish moments here to make this a rather promising record, like the gleaming, Human League-like "New Life", and the evergreen sing-along "Just Can’t Get Enough", which boasts one of the most distinctive synth hooks of all time. The only letdown here is the trifling throwaway "What’s Your Name", surely one of the most lyrically inane trinkets in the band’s repertoire.

The departure of chief songwriter Vince Clarke meant that guitarist Martin Gore had to step up to the plate, and he brought a more mature, calculating sensibility to the lyrics. The band also altered their instrumental palette slightly, moving from analogue synth tones to take full advantage of then-embryonic digital sampling techniques. This resulted in a work that boasted a more worldly and distinctive identity, as embodied in the durable anti-capitalist tirade "Everything Counts", the environmental cautionary tale "The Landscape is Changing" and the mockingly serious examination of the less savoury aspects of affection that is "Love in Itself".

Deepening the sample-laden textures of the few previous albums, "Black Celebration" took on a more virtuosic creative approach, mixing real instrumentation with ever more innovative synth figures. The cavernous title track practically defines the much-overused term “sonic cathedral”, while "A Question of Time" is an engaging electronic power-pop number that displays a new dramatic aggression. The real highlight here has to be the complexly constructed "Stripped", which makes full use of clanging industrial samples, portentous synth strings, and an upfront, confident vocal from Dave Gahan.

Depeche Mode’s long-awaited commercial breakthrough doesn’t disappoint on any level, as they became world-beating pop stars capable of selling out any given venue at a moment’s notice. The self-assured electro-blues swagger of "Personal Jesus" is still one of the most realised moments in the band’s history, the majestic "Enjoy the Silence" still awes with its extraordinary orchestral-synth arrangement, and the sleek, streamlined "World in My Eyes" makes for the best opening to any Depeche Mode album. Other high points here include the edgy, ominous "Halo" (with its pizzicato synth-string arrangement), the down-tempo nocturnal crawl "Waiting for the Night" and the electro-funk monster "Policy of Truth". It’s certainly no hyperbole to say that the band would never be as inspired again as they were on this magnum opus.

Influenced by the then-prevalent grunge-rock movement, "Songs of Faith and Devotion" is arguably the most visceral and immediate album in the band’s discography. It still sounds like a Depeche Mode record, albeit dressed up with some newfangled sonic trickery and more pronounced guitar riffs. "I Feel You" constitutes the group’s most assertive single, with its shards of guitar feedback and grungy one-chord structure, while "Walking in My Shoes" is a Catholic confessional done up as a mournful Goth-rock composition. Elsewhere, "Condemnation" tries on an a-cappella chain-gang aesthetic with mixed results, and the menacing "In Your Room" is a noirish, cinematic tone poem that conjures up copious amounts of musical atmosphere and mystery.

ULTRA (1997)
The departure of multi-instrumentalist and production genius Alan Wilder means that the band is forced to seek outside help. This came in the form of techno-dance maven Tim Simenon, who infused the proceedings on "Ultra" with a murky, subterranean sonic sensibility that pulses with an unearthly energy. The opening "Barrel of a Gun" is one of the tensest Depeche Mode tracks ever, with its distorted, groaning guitar lines and scuzzy percussion patterns, while "It’s No Good" harks back to the "Violator" era, a slow-burning synth-rock mood piece with sweeping synth strings. However, the rest of the album seems rather anaemic and underwhelming (things like "Useless", "Sister of Night" and "Freestate" are half-baked musical experiments at best), leading to a dishearteningly inconsistent overall quality.

A noticeable improvement after the listlessness of recent years, "Playing the Angel" is thankfully a competent and tangible recapitulation of the band’s traditional aesthetics. It might quote liberally from past masterworks like "Black Celebration" and "Violator", but the necessary updating tweaks are firmly in place to make it a self-contained summation of the archetypal Mode sound. The retro synth-pop of "Precious" is classic Depeche Mode, while the insistent "John the Revelator" sounds like a new-millennium update of "Personal Jesus", although it does bristle with more blues-guitar hooks. Analogue synths are brought back into the mix for the sardonically titled "Suffer Well", and the mechanised robo-groove of "Lillian" is just begging for a dencefloor-bound remix. The closing, dirgey ballad "The Darkest Star" is a veritable mini-epic, towering over it all with its dramatic, discordant minor-key chords, insectoid samples and thick-cut synth stabs.


Post a Comment

<< Home