Sunday, March 31, 2013

Depeche Mode

Depeche Mode has successfully sustained three full decades of existence as a venerable and influential popular-music institution, notwithstanding the myriad challenges that the band has faced along the way. 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, and this positive propensity continues on the freshly minted 'Delta Machine', incredibly, their 13th overall studio endeavour. At this landmark juncture of the group's extensive, colourful career, it would seem that a reappraisal of their key records is fully warranted.

The debut album is a rather underdeveloped and undefined work that found the young band still searching for a distinct artistic identity, and 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 sleek, gleaming, Human League-like 'New Life', and the evergreen singalong '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, calculative 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 lament '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' (which was a huge seller throughout continental Europe) took on a more virtuosic creative approach, mixing real instrumentation with ever more innovative synth figures. The highly portentous title track practically defines the much-overused term "sonic cathedral", 'Fly on the Windscreen' bristles with all manner of icy, gloom-laden tones and spookily anxious vocal samples, 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, a bedrock of piercing, evil-sounding synth strings, and an upfront, confident vocal from Dave Gahan.

Emboldened by the unexpected European success of 'Black Celebration', the group went in firing on all cylinders on the cheekily titled 'Music for the Masses', starting with the loudly confident 'Never Let Me Down Again', with its compressed guitar riffs, massive, slamming percussives and cavernous synth-orchestral structure, and effortlessly easing into the insistent, brash pop hooks of lead single 'Strangelove'. Elsewhere, the mock chamber-pop of 'Little 15' appropriates elliptical synth-string ostinatos from the Michael Nyman songbook, while the hypnotic motorik of 'Behind the Wheel' is an overt tip of the hat to Kraftwerk. The outrageous Teutonic-opera chanting of 'Pimpf' aptly ends the proceedings on a dramatically over-the-top note.

Depeche Mode's long-awaited American 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 highpoints 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 will 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 the cinematic 'Walking in My Shoes' is a Catholic confessional dressed up as mournful Goth-rock. Elsewhere, 'Condemnation' tries on an a-cappella chain-gang aesthetic, 'Mercy in You' incorporates street-level hip-hop scratching 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 meant that the band was 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. The opening 'Barrel of a Gun' is one of the tensest, most downbeat Depeche Mode tracks ever, with its distorted, groaning guitar lines and scuzzy percussion patterns, while 'It's No Good' is a menacing love letter, a slow-burning synth-rock mood piece with swathes of sweeping synth strings. The rest of the album had the band dabbling in various styles, ranging from mid-paced Nine Inch Nails-style rockers ('Useless') and creepily nocturnal trip-hop ('Sister of Night') to country-influenced electronic torch songs ('Freestate' and 'The Bottom Line'), with mixed results.

This Ben Hillier-produced effort 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-modelling synths are brought 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, buzzing  insectoid samples and thick-cut synth stabs.

Even more of a tangible recapitulation of the band's traditional aesthetics, 'Sounds of the Universe' reaches even further back than the preceding 'Playing the Angel', looking to the pre-sampler textures of their early-1980s days for inspiration. This has resulted in simpler song structures, more focused songwriting and less of a reliance on digitalised synth tones, evidenced in things like the almost primitivistic chant-along 'Wrong', the consciously poppish 'Peace', and the consciously minimalist 'In Sympathy', which abounds with compressed keyboard squelches directly beamed in from the 'Speak and Spell' era.

The latest undertaking sees them taking a bit of a leftfield approach, with a more impromptu, rough-and-ready sensibility apparent in the overall scheme of things. The opening 'Welcome to My World' flirts with glitch patterns, but is later underscored by a typically forthright Depeche Mode chorus, while the strutting, industrial-edged 'Angel' features Dave Gahan's strongest vocal in a decade. First single 'Heaven' constitutes 21st-century electro-blues par excellence, while the lecherous 'Slow', well, slows things down for a dramatic, Nick Cave-approximating groove. The band's mid-1980s heydays are rightfully acknowledged in the throbbing analogue-synth tones and clipped drum-machine beats of tracks like 'Secret to the End' and 'Soft Touch/Raw Nerve', while the pounding 'Soothe My Soul' assuredly updates the calculated bluster of 'Personal Jesus'.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

The recent reformation of 1980s British synth-pop pioneers Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark came as a pleasant surprise, given the original line-up's virtual dormancy for the past two decades or so. After the four-member band went their separate ways in 1988, frontman Andy McCluskey did soldier on for three more studio albums, using the commercially viable OMD moniker, but failed to make the sort of significant chart impact that the previous incarnation enjoyed.

However, in early 2006, McCluskey announced plans for a regrouping of the classic group for a full-scale tour to promote a newly remastered version of the 1981 magnum opus 'Architecture and Morality'. Responses to the tour were unexpectedly and overwhelmingly positive, with most venues registering sold-out ticket sales and fan forums and music sites notching up rave reviews.

More good news came in the form of a brand new album, released in in 2010 and the first one since 1996's 'Universal'. 'History of Modern', their eleventh proper studio endeavour, was a brilliant recapitulation of OMD's inherent artistic values, and the subsequent reception from all quarters were positively rapturous. McCluskey recently announced even better tidings: the group has been working assiduously on the follow-up to 'History of Modern', titled 'English Electric', due for release in April.

Therefore, at this juncture of the group's lengthy 33-year career in the business, it does seem timely to go over their back catalogue and highlight the more prominent works.

The band's debut album was a perfect example of how inventive a band could get with a couple of ancient analogue synthesizers and a basic drum machine. The zippy, legendary 'Electricity' was of course the lead track, but there were other high points as well. 'Almost' was a brilliant synthesis of icy synth drones and precise bass lines, the chiming 'Red Frame White Light' was a whimsical account of the travails of a public telephone box, and the thoughtful 'Mystereality' even featured a saxophone in the midst of all the blips and bloops.

The sophomore effort upped the ante even more, with a general streamlining of the central synth-pop aesthetics of the first album. The indisputable highlight was the confidently over-the-top 'Enola Gay', possibly the only pop song written about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, but a number of other genuine gems are also in evidence, like the quirky electro-jazz swing of 'Motion and Heart', the moodily claustrophobic 'VCL XI', and the atmospheric mechanical beats of the concluding 'Stanlow', which virtually set the template for successive industrial pop acts like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle.

The third album was the band's most ambitious and artistically realised, with a sense that they were coming into their own as a genuine synth-pop institution. Opener 'The New Stone Age' could best be described as some prototypical version of techno, 'She's Leaving' was a pure electro-pop gem wrapped in melodic synth washes, while 'Sealand' was an almost formless seven-minute epic that glided along on a synth-drone undercurrent, sort of an ancestor to the ambient-techno movement of the 1990s. The true standout here is the impossibly ethereal 'Souvenir', meticulously constructed from unidentified church-choir samples and orchestral (as it was) synth lines. it's no overstatement to deem this the incontrovertible magnum opus of OMD's repertoire.

Deciding to move away from the distinctive synth-pop template they were becoming known for, the band came up with what could well be the most misunderstood album in their oeuvre. 'Dazzle Ships' might have been dismissed at the time because of its wilfully experimental nature, but it was probably the first album in 20th-century music history to incorporate samples into every single track. Underneath all that clamour and machine-generated noise, there were several pop gems that stood out conspicuously, like the socially aware 'Telegraph' and 'Genetic Engineering'.

CRUSH (1985)
OMD's most pop-oriented album to date, with two of its attendant singles ('So in Love' and 'Secret') even breaking into the conservative American charts. However, other tracks, with the exceptions of the sample-laden title track and the stream-of-consciousness narrative 'Bloc Bloc Bloc', were near-identicals of each other, and veered dangerously close to manufactured, cardboard synth-pop.

SUGAR TAX (1991)
The first 'solo' McCluskey album came as a bit of a surprise commercial success, constituting almost a partial return to the ethereal mood of Architecture and Morality, with just the right balance of art and commercialism. 'Sailing on the Seven Seas' sprinted along on a big, thumping, glam-rock-inspired backbeat, 'Pandora's Box' was a cleverly observant take on the story of tragic silent-film star Louise Brooks, while 'Speed of Light' was a pure rush of vigour, a thundering synth workout that successfully updated the classic OMD synth-pop sound for the 1990s.

The final album to be released under the OMD banner, at least until their recent  restoration, with a more organic sound, incorporating real guitars and drums into the mix. Synth programming was also considerably toned down for this release, with less reliance on samplers and sequencers, resulting in superior cuts like the stately, autobiographical 'Walking on the Milky Way', the mournful, pensive 'The Black Sea' and the dynamic, cinematic title track.

A wholly inspired comeback from the original line-up, incorporating all the characteristics that made OMD such a rounded and accomplished synth-pop act back in the day. The choral samples are back on the up-tempo, religiously inclined 'Sister Marie Says', the two-part title tracks are luminous examples of the archetypal melodic OMD sensibility, the Kraftwerkian 'RFWK' is a clever tribute to one of their primary musical influences, and the closing 'The Right Side' is an extended meditation that hearkened back to the experimental adventurism of the 'Architecture and Morality' heydays.

Not officially released as of yet, but judging from the tracks that have started leaking online, this looks to be another archetypal OMD effort (in other words, thoroughly brilliant, if you're a loyalist). First single 'Metroland' is a sly rewrite of Kraftwerk's classic 'Europe Endless', with a bedrock of propulsive backbeats and sparkling synths masking a lyric of suburban tedium and angst, 'Night CafĂ©' is a blissful, mid-tempo number marked by effortless, smooth-transitioning synth arpeggios, and the maudlin 'Stay With Me' is an effective synth-pop ballad in the mould of 'Souvenir'. Elsewhere, 'Please Remain Seated', 'Decimal' and 'Atomic Ranch' are eerie sonic experiments that are virtual recaps of the 'Dazzle Ships' aesthetic, and the appropriately titled 'Final Song' is a ghostly nocturne defined by insectoid samples and softly percussive synth chords.