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Depeche Mode - Delta Machine


I'll always be perplexed by critics. Strictly speaking, I am one myself of course, falling quite comfortably into the 'those that can't do teach, those that can't do either critique'. But what I am referring to is the complexity of subjective opinion, and the way it blends in to objective conformity.

Let me explain. Depeche Mode are one of the great acts of all time. In terms of pioneers, they are absolute thoroughbreds, gracing a category inhabited by only the elite, such as Kraftwerk, Ramones, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Prince. These are just a few of the artists and bands that have shaped genres, defined sounds, and litter the influence list of yesterday and todays top musicians. Wikipedia writes that "Depeche Mode influenced many of today's popular recording artists, in part due to their recording techniques and innovative use of sampling." It's a little more complex than that. They shaped electronic music in a unique and wildly successful way, such that their sound has been copied and restrung for decades, all the while they have been busy selling 100 million records and being one of the most popular live bands of all time.

So we come back to my first sentence. Why in God's name are critics lining up to pan them about no longer being revolutionary? There are a tiny handful of bands who have managed to reinvent themselves and the direction of music throughout a career. The Beatles, Bowie, Pink Floyd. For the other mere mortals, pioneering a sound is hard enough work without having to do it every 5 years. No-one can deny that Depeche Mode have grown and evolved. From their delightful early pop work, simple synthesizer riffs pursued by crisp drum machine loops and Gahan's sometimes whispering, sometimes wailing dreams of life and musings on the world, they've weathered. A more industrial, heavy electronic sound created by dark reverbs, distorted keys, buried vocals, aggressive, urgent percussion developed. Even Rammstein cites DM as a source of inspiration. So they have evolved, but according to the musical press, not enough..

Delta Machine inhabits that metallic, industrial world that gently evolved and entered in to the bones and structure of DM records around Violator, and remained a mainstay throughout the rest of their career. Gahan and Gore are obsessed with their universe, it's a common theme, possibly a technique utilised to establish a grounded setting for records and their explorations of the human psyche, namely their own, and how it relates to those around them. We're always within their universe, and Welcome To My World ensures full disclosure. Gore is omnipotent, but menacing. I like to call Gahan and Gore the merchants of misery. With an effortless abandon they spread a sense of pessimism, even when not directly expressing the details of their dystopian universe. The opening track establishes this. The thumping 808 is almost a death knell, the keys only adding momentum to your descent in to the record. It's a descent. Everything is coloured with a lo-fi, dull tinge, and you know you won't glimpse the sun for the next 13 songs.

All that said, the first two tracks are easily the most dynamic on the record. Angel is Gore's 'attempt' at brightness. Gahan briefly transcends his morose baritone to extol the virtues of love. He never actually sounds happy, but he tells us he is, "The angel of love was upon me  / And Lord, I felt so high  / I swear I could have reached up  / Placed my hands upon the sky". That's a big deal, because we've already descended in to the pits of hell that is their world, and it's a bloody long way back up to the sky. The euro-dance beat with siren-like noise that accompanies this momentous occasion doesn't breathe life, rather it sucks it out of the statement, giving a sense that we're witnessing a broken soul trying to escape an insurmountable force.

Considering the next song is titled Heaven, you immediately assume Gahan has indeed completed his transformation from despair to happiness. Rather, it is a chilled tale of a God trying to recover from the body blows the music is dealing. That down trodden piano riff mixes with a heavily distorted guitar to create an image of Gahan staggering under the weight of some dark force as he tries to "guide the herd up to heaven". It's almost as if Gore wrote these upbeat lyrics and challenged Gahan to overcome the music in order to deliver the message, the contrast is staggering and quite destructive, it's brilliant.

On Playing The Angel, consequently one of my favourite records of all time, there were tracks like Macro, The Darkest Star and Damaged People that served as the liquor to colour the sugary delivery system of Suffer Well and Precious. On Delta Machine, it's all liquor. The effect is to create this harnessed, high walled structure in which Gahan and Gore inhabit together, although of course we know them as one voice (Gahan has 3 song writing credits, Secret To The End, Broken and Should Be Higher). The peppy yet stale sounding My Little Universe is Gore almost delighted in his surroundings, 'Here I am king  / I decide everything  / I let no one in  / No one'. He would sound child-like if not for Gahan's terse reading. Alone reinforces the (ironically) sobering effect that these  'liqour' songs have. A self-centred woe is me storyline is enhanced brilliantly by a wall of distorted guitar noise and broken, atmospheric synth injections. It'd now be too easy to confirm my point with the content of Soothe My Soul, a funkier number that explodes in menace during the chorus about the singular focus of the hunger of addiction. Too easy, but I just did it.

Gahan's voice is still a force to be reckoned with. He can dial in emotion seemingly at will. On Slow he is seductive, even sensual. The seemingly forgotten gift for melody resurfaces on Soft Touch/Raw Nerve, the poppiest track on the record, as his chorus actually injects some groove. It's only on The Child Inside, a minimalist electronic track that harks back to Ultra's more muted rhythms, that Gahan is upstaged by the surprisingly confident voice of Gore. The track exposes a delicate, concerned side. It's actually a brilliant song, the electronic backing doesn't sound descriptive but it is the warmest track on the record, a beating heart that adds weight to the content of a deeply depressed, lost individual. Gahan tries to make sense of the situation, but you sense a childlike quality in himself that blocks his understanding, and he despairs as the loved one slowly slips through his fingers. 

Delta Machine fittingly ends with a song called Goodbye. It's a 1980s thing I guess, Welcome and Goodbye. It's closest sibling is probably I Feel You, it had a similar energy and used a keyboard to achieve what those distorted guitars managed. Is it a love song? Difficult to say. But it is again insular. The theme will not be tasered by a happy ending.

Uncomfortable though it may be, Depeche Mode's days of influencing the landscape of contemporary music are well and truly over, they probably ended with Songs of Faith and Devotion. Within the realm of pop they have precious little power with which to make waves anymore. I don't see why this needs to be a source of frustration though. Bands like Sigur Ros defined a sound and rigidly stuck to it. History is filled with stories of pioneers who created and maintained a genre over their life-span. And if we examine one statistic, you may question the relevance this negative opinion, and it may reinforce the relavence of Depeche Mode. First week sales. UK: 28,450, US: 52,000, Germany: 142,000.. Now that's pretty bloody good for a few 50 year olds.

7/10. I have neglected to truly rate this album throughout the review. So here goes. It sits comfortably in their catalogue, it does the band and their legacy justice and proves their longevity. An extremely impressive longevity. That said, it lacks that pop sensibility that we have craved. Playing The Angel will always be a masterpiece in my mind, this is a different direction and a different focus. Heaven is a nice choice of single, Angel and Soft Touch/Raw Nerve do provide brief outlets, but that 1980s bubblegum pop noise is lost. This is not a criticism, the rhythm that DM find within misery and despair is admirable and highly enjoyable, and it serves to keep the record flowing when possibly it could fall short.
Best Tracks: Heaven, The Child Inside, Soft Touch/Raw Nerve

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