Depeche Mode

Reprise, 1997


REVIEW BY: Vish Iyer


Despite Martin Gore spearheading Depeche Mode (DM) as the sole songwriter, it was always known that multi-instrumentalist Alan Wilder had a significant influence in shaping the band’s music. And his departure from the DM after the release of Songs Of Faith And Devotion, coupled with singer Dave Gahan’s near death from an attempted suicide (and an arduous recovery from drug addiction), made a follow-up album almost impossible.

But Ultra is not just impossibility coming to life but an album on which DM beams with confidence. Gahan’s voice is at its very best. Even when he is singing out-of-tune on the stunning album-opener “Barrel Of A Gun,” he sounds so convincingly self-assured that the arrogance makes his oddball singing his best vocal performance ever. His raspy vocals on “Useless,” harmonizing with the screeching cellophane guitars in the background, roar with the kind of masculine passion that would make most heavy metal singers sound like little kittens.

With my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Songs Of Faith DM tried a different approach to their music and went for a darker, guitar-based sound (as if to reflect the trends of the early ‘90s grunge period), which resulted in an excellent record but also alienated their core techno sound, thereby estranging some of their hardcore fans. Ultra, however, strikes a fine balance between the meaty guitar-oriented sound that the band was gradually progressing towards as well as its more proverbial synth-based one. But since this record was conceived seven years after DM’s last true techno record Violator, a lot had changed in the electronic music movement, and hence the “techno” aspect on Ultra comes not in the form of synth-pop, but in the form of a brooding “industrial” sound.

But Ultra is not an “industrial rock” album, nor is it an easy listen either (even though DM went closer to its roots with this record). The flamboyantly stunning single, “It’s No Good,” with supercharged beats that only the song “People Are People” could rival, and maybe the elegant ballad “Home” make just a couple of cuts on Ultra that are instantly appealing.

There is a range of morbidly languid numbers crossing the six-minute mark -- “Insight,” “Freestate,” “The Love Thieves,” “Sister Of Night” – that make Ultra a strenuous listen. While “Freestate” and “The Love Thieves” eventually turn standouts, “Insight” and “Sister Of Night” comparatively aren’t that lasting. Still, Gahan’s massive vocals give them potency and lift, redeeming them from certain doom.

Ultra’s predecessor might be DM’s most experimental work, but it is not to say that this disc is not unusual as well. In addition to the sleek production work (this is clearly DM’s most polished album), there is also plenteous use of studio instruments that play key roles on this record: the drums and basses on “Useless;” the slide-guitar on “Freestate;” the pedal-steel guitar on “The Bottom Line.”

Despite the odds, this album not only turned out to be a masterpiece, but also DM’s best work. This record is a landmark for the extraordinary level of creative maturity the band reached in the face of certain extinction.

Rating: A

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© 2009 Vish Iyer and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Reprise, and is used for informational purposes only.