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Depeche Mode: Ultra Album Review

Depeche Mode: Ultra Album Review

With an almost all-synth approach that balanced technological exploration and pop hooks, Depeche Mode built a canon and a worldwide fan base in the 1980s. In their music, personal, political and emotional angst can sound both catchy and danceable. Even when they regularly dealt with assumptions that they somehow weren’t making ‘real’ music, they broke through in a big way – and then it went to hell.

Right after the massive triumph of their 1990 opus Violator and the epochal hits “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy the Silence,” lead singer Dave Gahan moved from Britain to Los Angeles and became a louche rock star, or a visually coded version of one—long hair, beard, tattoos. It was in marked contrast to his clean appearance up to that point, and it became the visual signal of deeper problems. During the recording of the 1993s Songs of faith and devotion and subsequent tours, he plunged into a brutal heroin addiction, while guitarist and songwriter Martin Gore struggled with alcoholism, all of which contributed to the worsening depression and eventual nervous breakdown of keyboardist Andrew Fletcher.

In DA Pennebaker’s 1989 Depeche concert film 101Fletcher memorably and self-deprecatingly called himself the member who was just “bum[med] around’, but in truth he had become Depeche’s in-house manager, and was now desperately trying to hold it all together. The overlap of increasing internal dysfunction led Alan Wilder, the group’s central musical experimenter and arranger, to finally leave the band in 1995. Gahan first attempted suicide that year and overdosed almost fatally in 1996 during a break in recording sessions. The band’s dysfunction seemed worse than ever.

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In this light, Ultra should not have existed. An official album documentary released as part of the group’s reissue series in the late 2000s details the impact of Wilder’s departure and Gahan’s crises in particular, and how what might have typically been a three-month effort took nearly a year of on-and-off work. In the end, the trio of Gahan, Gore and Fletcher put their name to one of Depeche Mode’s best albums, an all-around great listen that would be the obvious pinnacle of a lesser band’s catalog. It formed a crucial bridge between the growing ambitions of the early years and the simple confidence of the later ones. If a sick sense of humor was at work, talk about a last laugh.

Two things were key. First, Tim Simenon, who had made waves as dance act Bomb the Bass with “Beat Dis” along with a number of production and remix jobs including Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance” and Björk’s “Play Dead,” came on board. Gore and Gahan were fans of an album he worked on, the exciting 1995 release Shag Tobacco, by ex-Virgin Prunes singer Gavin Friday, which touched dance and hip-hop as much as it did night jazz or mood music. So Simenon, assisted by regular engineer Q Engstrom, or simply Q, handled the production while keyboardist Dave Clayton and programmer Kerry Hopwood were added as additional key studio musicians. A little further advice from Mute founder and eternal band confidant Daniel Miller didn’t hurt, according to Hopwood: “Daniel gave us a great quote at the beginning: ‘Guys, put everything through a valve.'” Miller was referring to that type. of valve-based tape recorders the Beatles had used throughout most of their career at EMI Studios; UltraThe resulting sound was enveloping, almost tactile.

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