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Whilst this year marks the 30th Anniversary of the formation of one of the most influential bands to come out of the 80's, Depeche Mode released their 12th Studio album last year. My own personal introduction to the band didn't formally happen till 2001 but when you look back at their influence in the music industry it's pretty plain to see that a lot of bands wouldn't have existed without them. For a lot of bands 10 years is a struggle so to have lasted for almost 30 years is quite an achievement in itself. Ever since the release of 2001's Exciter my love of the band has grown over time and that is what brought me to buy their latest album Sounds Of The Universe.
The band themselves were formed in 1980 in Basildon, Essex and became almost synonymous with the Electronic sound of the decade. From their humble beginnings they can boast album sales of in excess of 75 million copies worldwide with and a further 47 songs that have made it into the British single charts. Taking these facts as a starting point it's clear to say the band have an idea of what the public are looking for and continue to make it with their own unique sound.
Recorded over the latter part of 2008 the album seen the band try to return to the sound they heralded during the 1980's. They have returned to their analog roots and created something that wouldn't have sounded out of place on their earlier albums. Of course there is far more maturity to their music but the album has a real early Depeche Mode sound to it. Of course the band have moved on with Martin Gore really developing as a songwriter and the emergence of David Gahan offering a new perspective on the bands song writing capabilities.
This album see's the band reunite with the producer of their previous album Playing the Angel, Ben Hillier. To say I'm a fan of almost every album Hillier has worked on would be an understatement as his CV boasts albums by Elbow, Blur and Doves to name just a few. The collaboration between him and dépêche Mode had already delivered one decent album and this one just adds another to that long list of albums he's been involved with that I have enjoyed.
From the opening moments of "In Chains" it's clear to see that this is going to be another cracking Depeche Mode album. The album starts with almost a minute of Synth created electronic rhythms that could not be mistaken for any other band. It's an album that seems to take a look back over everything the band have done before and create something new and exciting that reminds you of all your favourite Depeche Mode material, whilst still staying fresh and enjoyable. For instance the second track on the album, "Hole To Feed" reminds me of Exciter, the album that really brought Depeche Mode to my attention but at the same time it stays unique with an solid and mesmerising beat that sticks in your head.
Even the first single to be taken from the album "Wrong", which reached 24 in the UK charts really demonstrates the powerful use of keyboards and synthesisers that really brought the band to prominence. The vocals on tracks like "Little Voice" and "Come Back" really highlight the strengths of lead singer Gahan's vocals as well as the harmony between himself and Gore's backing vocals. Throughout the album there are a number of different styles and key changes from Gahan and it's something he seems to manage with ease.
It's an album that will really appeal to the bands original fan base whilst still evolving the overall sound that they have achieved over the years. Like the majority of bands they have stuck within the boundaries of the sound that made them famous but somehow they seem to be able to keep it fresh, even on an album that seems to be a return to those earlier routes. The song writing and lyrical content certainly has a more mature edge to it and I think that is something that is key to the success of this album and the longevity of the band.
From the moment I bought this album I knew it was one I was going to enjoy and whilst it took a little while to properly get into it I do now find myself hooked. There are some real stand out tracks on the album such as "Miles Away/The Truth Is", "Corrupt" and "Hole To Feed". Each of them offers something a little bit different and hook you the more you listen to the album. Whether it be because of Gahan's vocals or the definite nod to the older material I can't be totally sure but something about the album can just grab you when you least expect it.
Of course it is an album that fans of the band will grow to love. Personally I've found it a little like all their other albums in that I've loved 1, maybe 2 tracks to start with and because of those have carried on listening only to find myself loving the whole album. That said Depeche Mode are a band you either love or hate but if you are a fan of Electronic 80's music then this, just like their other albums, is something you will grow to love.
ITunes - £9.99
Sounds Of The Universe is the 12th album from Depeche Mode, the trio from Basildon, Essex. Depeche Mode are Dave Gahan (lead singer & sometime songwriter), Martin Gore (synths, song & music writing - he be one busy little kitten!) & Andrew Fletcher (bass, synth, standing at the back looking quiet) who everyone normally forgets about. Sorry Fletch, you just dont seem to do as much as the other 2.
The band have been on the Mute Records label pretty much since the day they were signed. Mute have always seemed to allow them a great deal of freedom in their songwriting so the band have explored many controversial topics and Mute never seem to interfere in the process of artistic creativity unlike certain labels that will remain nameless.
It has been released in various formats, the standard cd has 13 tracks (14 if you include the hidden track) as does the digital download but Itunes buyers get 2 bonus tracks which are Oh Well (Black Light Odyssey Dub) & Wrong (Trentemøller Remix Edit).
There is a special edition cd/dvd combo, the dvd has many exclusive features & there is also a deluxe box set featuring 2 extra cds with bonus tracks, remixes & demos as well as a dvd with films, videos & also some special items like enamel badges, books, artcards & a poster as well as a Certificate of authenticity.
Amazingly enough this album has been released on vinyl with the 13 tracks across 2 LPs as well as a cd of the album so the vinyl is pretty good value for money.
So whats on Sounds Of The Universe then?
All tracks written by Martin Gore unless stated otherwise.
1. "In Chains" - 6:53
With its rather grating cacophany of electronica as an introduction this actually might have many listeners rushing to find the fast forward button or even skipping this track all together but its worth sticking with it & waiting for the welcome sound of Dave Gahans voice.
This song is the sound of the mature Depeche Mode, they've been around 30 years now and this is a much more grown up kind of tune. The angst of Dave is still there in the undertones but his demons are long past him (and hopefully he has fully recovered from his recent surgery). That guitar line is rather brilliant though.
2. "Hole to Feed" - 3:59 (Dave Gahan, Christian Eigner, Andrew Phillpott)
Another one with a rather grating intro but once Dave starts singing hang on for the ride, to be honest theres a boatload of guitar not just on this track but on the first few tracks in general.
Synthesizers seem to have been put right back low in the mix initially, almost as if to say the band are more about rock than electronic music now. They are shaping up to be a less political version of U2. The tune doesn't strike me as anything new in terms of sound though.
3. "Wrong" - 3:13
This has a "Personal Jesus" type opening to it with the chants of Wrong, I was half expecting to be told to "reach out & touch faith" to be honest. This has much more of a synthy flavour to it so clearly Martin Gore got his grubby little mittens on it. This track was the 1st to be released as a single, its best UK chart position was #24. Clearly La Mode aren't En Vogue with the kids any more.
4. "Fragile Tension" - 4:09
Wow, this one harks right back to the roots of the Mode boys. It really has overtones of "Everything Counts" in its intro before it gets a bit more serious & guitary. Its quite dark in its feeling, think "Black Celebration" to get where I am coming from.
Oddly enough theres no recorded chart position (it was the 3rd single released, as a double A side with Hole To Feed which oddly enough isn't actually on the album for some reason) because it strikes me as something the fans of "classic" Mode would love. It gets my thumbs up for sure.
5. "Little Soul" - 3:31
A rather eerie intro and the vocal is a bit like "Halo", I like it. Its scary and weird and puts you on edge in a really good way. Its the Mode making me not trust them because I have no idea where the song is going next, its got some brilliant chord progressions for sure. Both Dave & Martin sing on this & it really works.
This will be one of those songs I force onto my friends who slightly like DM for sure, it'll screw with their minds a bit like it is with mine right now. I like it. This one will make it onto my mp3 player for sure.
6. "In Sympathy" - 4:54
Another old school synth and Linn Drum type intro, it sounds a lot like very old Kraftwerk. I'm sure thats probably deliberate too, it has a ton of 70's synth elements that reek of Tangerine Dream or Yellow Magic Orchestra (these band names probably mean nothing to you unless you are a massive synth fan) but clearly someone (most likely Martin Gore) has been listening to some old synth music, I'm guessing Le Parc by Tangerine Dream as I can really feel their influences here. I bet Edgar Froese would really like this track.
7. "Peace" - 4:29
Hang on, isnt this the intro to either "See You" or "Get The Balance Right"? Another step back into the classic sounds of the analogue synth world. Its almost as though Vince Clarke never left the band, I really love the massive chords (guessing from something like an Oberheim or Farfisa) but its got elements of OMD's early work like "Electricity" too.
The older fans should love this big time, I know I'm digging it. Another one thats going onto my mp3 player. Its got some seriously excellent arpeggio sequences & was the 2nd single release off the album. Why it wasn't a massive chart hit god alone knows.
8. "Come Back" - 5:15 (Gahan, Eigner, Phillpott)
Another very synth heavy track, I guess those 1st few guitar based tracks were to sucker in new fans into thinking they were going to get a new "rock arena" version of Depeche Mode before they threw a curve and devolved back to 1985.
This one has quite heavy Tangerine Dream influences too, its a wide open type of sound which TD favoured for a decade during the 80's. Its pretty psychedelic with a rotating type riff. Quite hypnotic.
9. "Spacewalker" - 1:53
Hooray, the traditional instrumental! DM are very well known for throwing these in on their albums, normally written to give Dave a short break during concerts to allow him time to go to the toilet or grab a drink or do the drug of his choice which thankfully he now doesn't do any more. This really sounds like "Ell Eff Oh" by LFO. Very mellow & spooky but good.
10. "Perfect" - 4:33
The best of both worlds, some synth & some guitar. And all good, quite downtone (almost Oriental, it sounds like tracks off "Tin Drum" by Japan) and laid back as to be almost horizontal. I believe this track was released in the US as a single, I think it would have gone over well in the UK too as its got very broad appeal.
11. "Miles Away / The Truth Is" - 4:14 (Gahan, Eigner, Phillpott)
Another more guitar lead track with another intro thats very similar to "Personal Jesus" or "Walking In My Shoes", even some elements of "Blue Dress" but maybe thats just me picking up on that particular one.
"Your eyes they hold the truth, the truth is - your miles away" Very Zen Dave, she's there but her mind isn't. A bit like your drug period then, written from personal influences methinks.
12. "Jezebel" - 4:41
I rather like the almost Bossa Nova intro and its painfully obvious Martin took vocals on this as his voice is just so different from Daves, you don't get the same feeling of "Life screwed me up then spat me out" when you hear Martin singing. Its not that he's not emotive (far from it), you can tell he's never really had something awful happen to him like almost dying from too many drugs like Mister Gahan almost had.
I really love that harpy type plinky plonk synth line though. The actual tune is beautifully bleak, barren & stark, its one of those great DM songs to cry in the dark to. Best viewed from the bottom of an empty bottle of your chosen poison. Bound for the mp3 player too.
13. "Corrupt" - 5:04 (8:58)
I was half expecting bagpipes in the opening seconds, dont ask my why. The sequencing that comes afterwards reminds me of "New Life" so its back to the old school but it also feels like the middle 8 of "Personal Jesus" (think Marilyn Mansons version though).
"I could corrupt you, it would be easy", damn right Dave. I fear the lure of your vocals leads many of us down tracks we otherwise would fear to tred without your sirens song. If you like Muses hit "Uprising" you should LOVE this track.
"Interlude #5" - 0:42 (hidden track starting at 8:17)
Is it worth the wait? Actually yes and its very strange in a good DM way, shame its so short!
So is Sounds Of The Universe worth your hard earned money? If you are a fan then of course it is, if you like a bit of synthy music then definately so as well. If you are relatively new to Depeche Mode I think you'll like it but its certainly worth exploring some of their back catalogue before giving this a spin. Just prepare to be led on a trip your mind wont forget in a hurry.
(this review also appears on Ciao!)
Note: originally written for my review website, ShaunMunro.co.uk, thanks!
#1: In Chains
Depeche Mode's album kicks off in jarring, almost droning fashion. A slow-rise leaves one feeling a little impatient, but once the vocals kick in, followed by some minimalist lead guitar and melodic bass, all fear abates. A moody, brooding track that, at almost seven minutes, could very well have outstayed its welcome, yet the enticing vocal work and gripping bass make this one an addictive, entrancing listen - 8/10
#2: Hole to Feed
A relentless drum beat from the outset makes this another memorable track, accompanied by some impassioned vocals on both the verse and chorus sections of the song. At points, the song's synth work almost sounds like a computer game, curiously. Some solid but understated guitar work throughout - 7/10
A decent enough track, although the chorus repetition of "Wrong" becomes tiresome and monotonous fairly quickly, and it isn't until the half-way mark that an overdrive of synth kicks in, and the song gains some much-needed intensity - 6/10
#4: Fragile Tension
To describe in a word - "dynamic" - this song makes great use of synth, taking it all over the board, and combining it with some varied vocal work that compliments it wonderfully. This is also probably the loudest song on the album - there is fairly extensive use of distorted guitar, to resplendent effect - 8/10
#5: Little Soul
A moody track that's even a little creepy with its obtuse electronic effects. However, the melodic guitar work is soothing and mediates this well. Some distorted guitar creeps in by the end, but this song largely belongs to the synth - 7/10
#6: In Sympathy
Extravagant synth work in the opening section makes this song stand out among the crowd, although it contributes neither positively nor negatively to its composition, in effect. The vocals here are among the catchiest on the album, and combined with the ethereal instrumental work, make this a potential single in the coming months - 7/10
Much of Peace's singing is akin to druid-like chanting, and is juxtaposed with some fairly lively backing from the synth and bass departments. So many times this song seems ready to fire on all pistons and enter into a frenetic spectacle of a song, but instead it hovers at a leisurely, comfortable, agreeable, but slightly underwhelming pace given its potential - 7/10
#8: Come Back
Haunting, alluring vocals throughout make this a palatably angst-ridden track, very much concerned with yearning. With its peak-and-trough form, this hits the right emotive and otherwise notes. - 7/10
Although it sounds like more of an incidental track than anything, this evokes that sort of extra-terrestrial feel, even if it does so with the most elementary of sounds. At two minutes, it feels like half-baked filler. - 6/10
Depeche Mode get some credit for seemingly replicating the in-game music to Space Invaders and placing it in a song as the backing synth. The vocals are very emotive, and whilst the synth work is rather repetitive, it is more hypnotic and entrancing than tiring. - 7/10
#11: Miles Away
The ambient guitar work makes this track, and this is the first song where the vocals really let rip, particularly in the chorus - they are powerful and gripping. - 7/10
The penultimate track retains a haunting quality given that much of its instrumental work sounds like a church organ, and the vocals echo, almost like a chilling confession. The minimalist backing augments the gravity and impact of the vocals. - 7/10
The album ends with a rather frenetic and energetic track. Intense and sung with gusto, this is a fine way to close out the album, and one of the better tracks therein. - 7/10
A solid album with a superb start and only a few dips here and there, Sounds of the Universe is another enticing offering from Depeche Mode. Although it does seem to play it safe and seem restrained on a few tracks, the melodies are entrancing, and the vocals and lyrics deliver appropriately.
INTRO (or Musings for the Masses)
First of all a confession. I am a dyed in the wool Depeche Mode (DM) fan, and have been since I first listened to Some Great Reward in 1984 - the album that featured the hit international single "People Are People" and announced DM's arrival to a wider public.
I could probably string together entire conversations consisting of DM lyrics, and am sad enough to admit that me, and my cousin - a fellow devotee, have done so on one or two less than sober occasions. At least three DM albums would make my top ten desert island discs.
As such, this review must come with a word of warning. I will try my very best to be as non-biased as possible, but as one of the masses who treats each DM album release as a quasi-religious event, I know in my bones I am fighting a valiant, but ultimate losing battle for objectivity. Caveat Emptor.
DM have been around for most of my life. It's hard to believe that the thirtieth anniversary of their debut album, Speak and Spell (released in 1981) is just around the corner. The current line up features energetic front man and born showman David Gahan on lead vocals, the slightly less exhibitionistic, but still quirky main songwriter and guitarist Martin Gore, and expert keyboard-jockey Andrew "Fletch" Fletcher.
Their enduring appeal, innovation and talent for re-invention has ensured a massive following in America, Scandinavia, Europe and the Far East - a devotion which has remains strangely unreciprocated in their native England.
They are currently on an enforced break from touring following Gahan's health issues (a cancer scare following hospitalisation for a bout of gastro-enteritis) which resulted in their date at the O2 Arena being cancelled earlier this month. Happily they are to resume their Tour of the Universe to showcase the new album on 8th June.
SOUNDS OF THE UNIVERSE (SOTU) - OVERVIEW
SOTU is their twelfth studio album following 2005's "Playing the Angel". It was released digitally via various on-line sources this past February, ahead of its CD release in early April 2009.
It comes in a variety of formats: (a) a standard CD version with the 13 album tracks; (b) a more expensive CD + DVD version which includes a bonus disc in DVD format with a short film (Sounds of the Universe), the video for "Wrong", and various remixes of the album tracks; and (c) an ultra-deluxe boxed set edition (four discs, badges, poster and two books) retailing for a whopping £60. I love these guys - but not THAT much.
The whole album is also available on-line from various outlets (Amazon currently has it for download at £7.99), but this review deals with the physical CD version, and specifically the first version mentioned above - the standard release.
The standard CD comes with a glossy, 12 page pull-out insert, containing song lyrics, production information, the usual interminable "thank you's" and a couple of posey photographs of the band (they are a product of the 80's after all).
+ In Chains
You'd be forgiven for thinking you'd bought a duff CD as all you get is a steady electronic noise and some weird electronica for the first minute of so. Then the noise stops, receding into a quiet hum, before David Gahan launches into this driving and multi-layered song, telling the object of his attentions that "the way you move, has got me yearning..." before announcing to us (with Martin Gore's trademark backing harmonies) that he is "in chains".
Older DM fans will recognise this delayed intro technique from the seminal album - Black Celebration - which has a similar opening before the eponymous track. This is the type of track you listen to in a dark room with headphones - there is so much going on in the background that it takes several in-depth listens to catch all the nuances. A cracking start.
+ Hole to Feed
A thumping drum beat introduces us to the darker, rockier side of David Gahan's vocals. You can almost imagine that he is singing with a Billy Idol type sneer "We are here, we can love, we share something - I'm sure that you mean the world to me." It stinks of a dark cynicism born of personal experience - you're not entirely sure he means what he is singing - it practically drips of sarcasm, and the moody, repetitive beat reinforces this impression.
There's no mistaking the name of this song, as the word must be used around 100 times during this three minute plus track. This is the first single, and on the face of it, probably the song with the most mainstream appeal. The first lines "I was born in the wrong sign, in the wrong house, in the wrong ascendancy" leaves little doubt that this is not going to be a particularly positive song. It rocks out pretty well though and demands the full volume treatment on the stereo (neighbours permitting - my - I AM showing my age).
+ Fragile Tension
An altogether more upbeat and positive number (about time) with the main driving force being the guitars in the background, rather than the drum driven first three tracks. Then you listen to the lyrics more closely and normal DM service resumes "there's something magical in the air...something so tragic we have to care...".
+ Little Soul
This softly softly, understated and slightly breathy number almost sounds like a duet with Dave doing the lead vocals and Martin's recognisable, higher-pitched tremolo harmonising very much in the background. It's a last track that meanders through its duration with seemingly little urgency and no particular destination in mind. This track almost sounds like its being played at the wrong speed on a record player. Somewhere in the middle, Martin seems to take more of a lead, telling us "this little voice is going to sing, I have no choice...". The track ends with a slightly discordant guitar, lending it the finality it seemed to be searching for all along.
+ In Sympathy
We're back to drums again, overlayed with synths and percussion instruments, and David in plaintive mood. The chorus is a most unexpected surprise as we go from pleading to insistence, Martin again providing the depth of harmony that makes this work perfectly.
"I'm watching your serenity, the way your soul transcends, their tedious obscenities, your patience never ends."
Finally, a track that sounds positive, intends to be positive and has a little feel good factor. I knew they could manage at least one! One of my clear favourites on the album.
Driving beat and rising, waterfalling scales greet the opening gambit "Peace will come to me" before David tells us that "I'm leaving bitterness behind this time..." Hmm. Heard that one before, but it looks like this time he really means it, even going so far as to state "I'm leaving anger in the past" and "Giving all the positivity that I possess..." is this for real? Two positive tracks on a DM album? Maybe they've mellowed in their advancing years. Whatever the reason, this is a cracking, anthemic track, and one that will challenge my top 10 favourites of all time.
+ Come Back
A crashing, cacophonous start leaves Peace well and truly behind, with the backing instrumentation doing its best to drown out the singer's plea to "come back, come back to me..." Looks like the good times are well and truly over folks.
"This time, I could use a little company - a little kindness can go a long way..."
This is a pounding ode to something lost, tainted with the realisation that it is lost forever, hence the vain, repeated insistence for the object of loss to "come back", the desperation enhanced by a change of key toward the conclusion of the song. "I could use a little restraint..." Yes David. I think so too.
+ Spacewalker (Instrumental)
The obligatory little instrumental number that is often used as a vehicle by the band to mark an interlude in the album. It's bugging me, because it definitely reminds me of something I can't quite put my finger on. It's almost a re-hash of ten different signature TV themes from the fifties. Nah, that's not it.
Slight distortion to David's voice on this one at the start and throughout the verses, but then on the chorus its crystal clear, as he insists "everything was almost perfect". A pleasing melody and twangy guitars make this a very pleasant listen, but the lyrics suggest a darker undercurrent as the listener realises that the little bit that isn't perfect has become the object of the lyricist's obsession, tearing what was almost perfect completely apart.
"I heard the sound, I turned my head around, to watch our love shot down."
+ Miles Away/The Truth Is
There's something slightly Elvis about Dave Gahan's voice on this track and it is reminiscent of Personal Jesus, the crackerjack send-up of American tele-evangelism from the 1990 album "Violator". This my least favourite track on the album. It's not bad, but I've listened to it a few times now, and I find it a bit one-paced and samey. Still, every album has its weak points - I really wanted this to work for me, but it's just not happening.
Every DM album has at least one Martin Gore solo on it. His voice is so distinctive and easy to listen to. Some of my favourite DM tracks are Martin solo's and this is no exception. It is a standout track that showcases his unique voice and I love it. It's a pleading ode from a man who trying to convince and rationalise to himself that an obviously tainted woman - a Jezebel ("You're morally unwell, they say you'll never care") - is misunderstood. What they fail to see "is that your games are the key". A firm favourite already.
David Gahan at his devilish best. He leaves us in doubt as to his intentions when he wickedly announces:
"I could corrupt you, in a heartbeat - you think you're so special, think you're so sweet".
This is one heck of a sleazy track - it's positively reptilian. You could almost imagine him dressed in a purple satin lounge suit, flicking ash off a monstrous cigar, while slicking back his hair with spit and leering in a highly suggestive (and very inappropriate) manner. This is either wickedness personified, or the longings of a delusional middle-aged has-been with wish fulfilment issues. Take your pick. I think this one is a bit Marmite. You'll either love it or hate it.
The song is about five minutes long, but as I was playing it in my car I noticed the song time kept ticking over. Sure enough after about three minutes of silence (around 8:18 on the track) my patience was rewarded - there was a very short - no more than twenty second - instrumental added as a "secret" track. Not much of a track I grant you, but a track nonetheless.
As a fan of many years standing, I had high hopes for this release, but my initial impressions were disappointing - bordering on ambivalent. However, this album seriously grows on you, and is a great reminder that listening to whole albums - rather than cherry-picking specific tracks - can be a very rewarding experience. The album tells a story from beginning to end, and the tracks all seem to hang together to make a greater part of the whole than the individual parts would initially suggest.
It's a very mature effort and rewards repeated listens. Songs I had previously dismissed as filler (such as "Little Soul" and "Miles Away") emerge in similar style to an unfancied defensive midfielder in a football team - the one who does all of the mucky leg work and "water carrying" and is never really appreciated until he is absent from the team.
My favourite tracks are "Peace" which has a driving rhythmic beat overlaid by vintage electronica and strong insistent vocals demanding your attention, and "In Sympathy" for providing a note of upbeat and positive clarity at the halfway point.
Where does SOTU sit in the pantheon of DM albums? That's a tough one. DM have gone through so many successful and different styles over their 29 year tenure in the music industry that different albums appeal to different people in different ways. In my woefully subjective view, I'd rank this somewhere in the top five. Thank you lads. Well done.
Gahan's health permitting, I can't wait to see them on the Tour of the Universe at the O2 Arena in London come December. My cousin and I should drunkenly be exchanging lyrics by then 8^).
© Hishyeness - Previously published on ciao.co.uk under the same user name.
1 In Chains
2 Hole To Feed
4 Fragile Tension
5 Little Soul
6 In Sympathy
8 Come Back
11 Miles Away / The Truth Is