Release Date: Mar 26, 2013
Record label: Columbia
Despite positive reviews for 2009's Sounds Of The Universe, even the most fanatical Depeche Mode fans agree that the band did its strongest work in the 80s and early 90s. Our best hopes for their new album were that it would summon pleasant memories of their glory years and not be embarrassing. Instead, Depeche Mode have dropped the best album of their career.
The 13th Depeche Mode album is foregrounded in blues and gospel influences that have often merely burbled beneath their synth-sad pop. "The angel of love was upon me/And, Lord, I felt so high," Dave Gahan growls on "Angel." Gahan was treated for cancer in 2009, and he and co-founder Martin Gore wrote together for the first time in their contentious 30-year plus career. Delta celebrates brooding faith and slippery solace without scrimping on Depeche's trademark blackstrobe punishment.
When Depeche Mode released their 2009 effort Sounds Of The Universe, the general consensus was ‘another job well done’. In classically efficient manner, the record fulfilled expectations, played all the band’s traditional sonic calling cards, and provided an ample smattering of new material to pin a new tour on. But new album Delta Machine is about more than simple fulfillment – going one further to actively excite, as it lays the template for some of the band’s most vigorous, energetic material in 15 years.
It’s always a pretty spectacular event when reunited legends release new material. The allure of such titans of music is so grand, it becomes difficult to escape the bubble of hype that surrounds whatever they’re going to release. This year, we’ve definitely had our share of comebacks, all of which have actually fared pretty well – it’s easy to have high expectations when faced with the notion of impending fresh sounds, and all too often we’ve been left, awkwardly shuffling our hands praying that “the next song will be good, surely?” We’ve had My Bloody Valentine, David Bowie and Suede.
There’s this insistent synth bleating running through “Soft Touch/Raw Nerve” that’s so stiff and dopey (and is surely played with one finger) that it puts a smile on my face. That’s because that awkward and quite unsexy line reminds of Depeche Mode’s very earliest output, back when the group was four fresh-faced suburban teenagers playing dinky melodies on their cumbersome ‘80s keyboards. As dated as some of those vintage Depeche tracks are now, they still evidence the naïve charm—an unease and unsteadiness inherent to adolescence—that allowed the band to conquer the hearts of millions of love-struck teens back when.
The strange thing about Depeche Mode is that even when they possess the wisdom that comes from being put through the wringer -- both as a band about to break up and lead singer David Gahan's struggles with addiction -- they are still quite good at making self-destruction sound seductive. Everybody knows that was the devil talking in "Personal Jesus," while "Strangelove," "Behind the Wheel," and so many other prime Depeche tunes sink in a sea of sin or drown in damnation, and the band sound like they're in the throes of ecstasy while doing it. Delta Machine, the band's 13th album, feeds off this negative energy and winds like a snake the whole time, slithering through a well-written (ten songs from Martin Gore with three coming from Gahan) and lusciously recorded set of serpentine siren songs (behind the boards there's Playing the Angel and Sounds of the Universe producer Ben Hillier, plus longtime asset Flood providing the mix).
Unlike the Strokes, another ostensible nostalgia act playing out waning variations on their past glories, Depeche Mode knows their place. More importantly, they’re comfortable with it, which means that unlike the uneven, rootless Comedown Machine, Delta Machine has the satisfying air of a perfected formula. An album every four years or so, a big tour to follow—the same sort of semi-retirement enjoyed by many over-the-hill acts, but one that the group has managed to sustain without violating their own spirit, alienating fans, or turning stale and turgid.
Depeche Mode is in a bit of a rut, creatively. The last album that really offered fans a completely new musical experience was 2001’s Exciter. That intimate, low-key affair may not have fired on all cylinders, but was notable for its unique nature in the band’s catalogue. You would have to go back 1997’s Ultra to find any songs that the band has found good enough to consistently play each subsequent tour.
Depeche Mode haven't released an artistically resonant album in a very long while. Since the low-key efforts of 1997's Ultra, it seems the band have been content capitalizing on their few self-defining signifiers instead of trying to explore uncharted territories. In other words, their relevance in the pop realm these days is questionable at best. Yet, compared to other bands who had their start in the early '80s post-punk free-for-all and are still active today (think U2 or The Cure), it seems their influence is everywhere right now.
On their 13th album, Depeche Mode are as hamstrung as ever by their refusal to admit even a chink of light into their world of gloom. How much more satisfying their records would be if they weren't eternally bathed in bleakness: every ponderous electronic clank is full of it, every sonorous syllable Dave Gahan sings denies the possibility that life can be uncomplicated, even enjoyable. Angel, a quasi-religious techno-rock mashup, suggests he's not unacquainted with bliss ("The angel of love was upon me and Lord, I felt so clean," he intones), but even here he sounds like he's atoning for something.
The opening beats pulsate atop approaching synths, signifying the awakening of a sleeping beast. Sounds rather frightening, but really it?s just the welcome return of the hardly dormant Depeche Mode, and the sleeping beast is lead singer, Dave Gahan. With lucky album number 13, Delta Machine, Martin Gore and company don’t aspire to break new ground, opting instead to keep building on a solid foundation.
For a unit that's long been the model of the archetypal studio band, it's no surprise that Depeche Mode's 13th record is another exemplary display of aural wizardry and high production value. Delta Machine is the latest in a long line of records that'll really impress on an expensive stereo system. (The record's faults certainly don't lie with Ben Hillier's production or Flood's mix.) From the dark synth pulses that open "Welcome to My World," all signs point to this being the band at their most dramatic and enticingly mopey.
Depeche Mode should be showing both the new synth-pop pretenders and the stadium-pomp likes of Muse how it’s done, so why do they latterly always seem just… decent? Their 13th studio album comes after the reunion of DM’s former and current chief songwriters, Vince Clarke and Martin Gore, and seems to a degree reinvigorated by that experimentation. The first half is dominated by sound and texture for sound and texture’s sake, with ‘Welcome To My World’ ushering you in with a grating low thrum and a beat as strong as a mouse’s palpitations. It’s let down, though, by the ‘inimitable’ Dave Gahan lyrics: “I’ll penetrate your soul/I’ll bleed into you…”.
Delta Machine is synth-pop goofs/electro-rock stadium legends Depeche Mode’s thirteenth studio album, yet their discography feels much bigger on account of the fact that each album they’ve released since 1997 has sound more and more like the last one. So much so that 2005’s Playing the Angel and 2009’s Sounds of the Universe felt more like precursors to the announcement of another world/stadium/arena tour than important albums in their own right. Recent health issues aside it’s hard to believe songwriter Martin Gore when he claims “We've been saying since Black Celebration that we can't guarantee there'll be another record.
People who make machines use the term "delta" to mean "change." Depeche Mode aren't so keen on that any more. Another kind of delta is the home of a strain of blues that's associated with more intense emotion and simpler technology than the synth-pop that made Depeche Mode famous. They got interested in playing with that kind a couple of decades ago, and it served them well, at first.
Depeche ModeDelta Machine(Columbia/Mute)Rating: 2. 5 out of 5 stars Depeche Mode has progressively become more esoteric with each new release over the past decade, and Delta Machine, the pioneers of synthpop’s thirteenth effort, is no exception. The set opens with raised expectations (“Welcome to my world/Step right through the door/Leave your tranquilizers at home/You don’t need them anymore”), but Martin Gore’s lyrics (with occasional help from lead singer Dave Gahan) quickly tap his usual arsenal’s vein of longing, lust, and guilt, albeit this time with an ostensibly more reflective slant.
The loose concept behind Delta Machine (the British synth-pop pioneers' 13th studio album) is a merging of a blues feel with electronics, hence the title. The guiding concept can be heard clearly at work on tracks such as "Slow" and "Goodbye," with their bluesy guitar riffs. Other numbers, such as "My Little Universe" and "Should Be Higher," find the trio echoing classic-era Depeche Mode while also making subtle reference to techno, a growing obsession of principal songwriter Martin Gore.
This 13th Depeche Mode outing arrives in the wake of last year's VCMG album, a digital reunion between Depeche's Martin Gore and original Moder Vince Clarke (Erasure). Tellingly, Delta Machine's guitars are way down in the mix; the machines, meanwhile, are up front, on edge and often arresting. The standout, My Little Universe, finds Dave Gahan crooning over nothing but a pair of minimalist rhythm lines for much of the track.
In 2013, 33 years into their career, Depeche Mode’s chosen medium of electronic music is still generally what people think of as futuristic. Computers are largely to thank, but really it is just a general progression of technology evolving so fast that it is amazing musicians and producers can keep up at all. Within this musical category that spans from John Cage to Skrillex, when groups tap into a signature sound, it is very much theirs, as it is unlikely that the technology was available to previously.
A monolith stands on the landscape of British electronic music. By any metric Depeche Mode are an institution, with dominance in the charts, the awards and the lists of bands credited as most influential, it’s almost inconsequential that their album ‘Violator’ is often used as the benchmark for electronic albums. With a track record like that it’s hard to live up to your own reputation and Martin Gore only upped the ante by claiming the latest album, ‘Delta Machine’ was most comparable to their two most successful, ‘Songs of Faith and Devotion’ and the aforementioned ‘Violator’.
In algebra you learned that delta stands for change, but 33 years into their career, Depeche Mode's done with the next step. Rather, this Delta Machine refers to the Mississippi variety, throwing back to the kind of electronic blues the UK threepiece perfected with Alan Wilder on 1990's Violator. David Gahan still seethes through the blues, dripping with a sinister sneer on "Angel" and "The Child Inside," but overall it seems more like Depeche Mode is doing its best impression of, well, itself.