Depeche Mode – Ultra

In the four years since Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993), Depeche Mode had shed a member and come dangerously close to losing another permanently, as Dave Gahan hit an extremely low point and nearly died of an overdose.

So it’s hardly surprising that Ultra, released twenty years ago this week, is a dark album. From the very first opening sounds of first single Barrel of a Gun, you can tell they’re exploring grimey territory. But there’s also something overwhelmingly positive about it – the delivery is punctuated by a confidence and force that I’m not sure we had really heard before.

It is said that they only went back into the studio to record a couple of new tracks for a best of album, but discovered a new energy and ended up with an entire studio album – and it’s easy to believe. Working with Tim Simenon of Bomb the Bass as producer, they seem to have re-emerged from their life-changing four year hiatus with something quite extraordinary.

In a way, the album tracks are more interesting than the singles – The Love Thieves is a soft and uneventful track which is elevated to something beautiful by its production. Then comes Home – and remember that some of Martin L. Gore‘s more introspective songs in the past have taken an under-produced approach. Home definitely isn’t one of those; instead, it’s full of huge orchestral flair, making it one of Depeche Mode‘s most beautiful songs.

This leads us to It’s No Good, the second single and without a doubt the most commercial track on here. There’s still a definite air of darkness, but this is also a great pop song, and was deservedly a significant hit.

What makes this album stand out so many years later is its sense of spaciousness. Pretty much nothing on here is less than four minutes long, and everything has been expanded, so there are huge gaps between vocal lines and verses. The miniature instrumentals, like Uselink, had for many years been key to Depeche Mode‘s sound, but here they add to the experience on a basic level.

This makes it all the odder that when you first listen to Ultra, there’s a decent chance that you won’t like it very much. This is an album that demands at least four or five listens before it starts to get under your skin, but as soon as it does, it really won’t leave you alone.

Useless was the last of the singles from this album, and it’s with this track that you really find Depeche Mode‘s new sound – it’s rhythmic and danceable, but it’s very definitely rock. There are elements of many of their previous guises hidden in here, but it also sounds quite new. Honestly, even twenty years on, this wouldn’t sound too out of place today either.

Then we get Sister of Night, which could have easily kept its head down and just been another album track, but the huge, effect-laden melody that opens the track and reappears from time to time throughout really grabs you and makes you pay attention, and as you do, you realise that this is an incredibly beautiful song.

After Jazz Thieves, another of the little instrumentals, comes Freestate, an excellent opportunity for Dave Gahan to demonstrate himself to be a truly amazing vocalist, which might have been obvious to some a few albums earlier, but then the UK had never really given Depeche Mode the attention they deserved.

After that comes the daft but sweet The Bottom Line, starting off sounding as though it might be about a cat and punctuated by cat-like synth wails, and then the last proper track Insight, which echoes It’s No Good somewhat, but is otherwise a sweet and uplifting closer. Apart, of course, from the hidden bonus track, an instrumental colloquially named Junior Painkiller, which turns up a few minutes after the end.

Ultra was always emotional but mature, and every bit as good as Depeche Mode needed to be at that stage in their career, but it’s encouraging to see that it has aged so well, and it’s a relief that the three remaining members were all present and correct.

The 200x double CD reissue is the definitive version of Ultra, but if this is no longer available, go for the remastered reissue instead.

Preview – Steps

There’s a part of me that wonders about giving this the oxygen of publicity, but I know plenty of people who would never forgive me otherwise. Yes, Steps are back, with a new album called Tears on the Dancefloor. Here’s a taste. And they’re just as bad as you remember.

Chart for stowaways – 25 March 2017

Here’s the latest album chart:

  1. Depeche Mode – Spirit
  2. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène 3
  3. The Human League – Anthology – A Very British Synthesizer Group
  4. New Order – Lost Sirens
  5. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène Trilogy
  6. Dusty Springfield – Reputation
  7. Soft Cell / Marc Almond – Hits and Pieces – The Best Of
  8. C Duncan – The Midnight Sun
  9. David Bowie – Legacy
  10. Delerium – Mythologie

Artist of the Week – The Beloved

Many moons ago, there was a radio show called Music for the Masses, which I presented on and off between 1999 and 2005. I’ve talked about it here plenty of times. One of the features was the Artist of the Week, and contained various errors, incorrect opinions, and the following information:

Jon Marsh originally formed a band called The Journey Through in 1984 with fellow Cambridge students Guy Gausden, Tim Havard, and Steve Waddington. After some demos, they evolved into The Beloved, and started making music not a million miles away from the style of Joy Division, early New Order, or even, occasionally, The Smiths.

After a number of minor singles, they released their debut album Where it Is, but following little success and disagreements with the record company, they left, dropped two members, and reappeared in 1988 with their first commercial release Loving Feeling.

It was at the end of 1989 that they saw their first major hit, with the release of The Sun Rising. Further singles from the first successful album Happiness were also hits, including Hello and Your Love Takes Me Higher. A remixed album Blissed Out also saw some success.

The third album Conscience followed in 1993, including the smash hit Sweet Harmony, and saw them starting to explore deeper dance territory with more house-based tracks and remixes. The fourth album in 1996 was in many ways a transitional piece, with the tracks starting to show great signs of depth.

Since then, they’ve done naff all… (that is genuinely what it says here!)

Luke Slater – Alright on Top

In a way, it’s a strange thing to be a fan of a record company, rather than the acts who are on it. But Mute has always been such an eclectic and open-minded organisation, and has had so many excellent artists on its roster, that it’s difficult not to be a fan.

So it was that I came across Luke Slater, and his most successful album to date Alright on Top. It first appeared fifteen years ago this week, and I think I fell across it a year or two later.

Alright on Top opens with lead single Nothing At All, which for some might be world changing, but I suspect that many, like me, will find it a bit droney and dull. It’s a decent noisy electro track, but I don’t know as I would have bought the album just because of having heard this.

Interestingly though, the singles are not as good as this album gets – You Know What I Mean is a sweet mixture of noisy electronics and a catchy pop melody. It might not exactly be contemporary any more, but it was at least great for its time.

It’s the huge analogue sound of Stars and Heroes that really grabs you. The enormous chugging synth arpeggio that runs throughout the entirety of this track is unmissable, but this is also a real song, not just some anonymous electronic noise. If it could have found an era to belong to, this really should have been an enormous hit.

But it wasn’t, and neither was the brilliant I Can Complete You, which was released as another of the singles. It’s a love song, delivered by a robot alongside another enormous analogue synth line and some slightly trippy and rock-inspired drumming. It really is brilliant.

This is a multi-faceted album – it has degrees of darkness, but also some cheery performances too, and unlike some of Luke Slater‘s earlier works, the focus is definitely on the songs. Only You is a sweet love song – if you sat down and read the lyrics it would be difficult to conclude anything else. But combined with enormous beats and deep and dark electronics, it becomes something much more complex.

By this stage you should be pretty much ready for the enormity of Take Us Apart, which ripples from ear to ear with complex synth lines while a huge bass line bounces along joyfully in the background. Again though, this is definitely a song, with a vocal that just about manages to keep up with the slightly manic synth work.

So it continues with Searchin’ for a Dream, and then Take Me Round Again, both dark and melodic, and in the case of the latter, full of acid squawks and tribal drums. There are hints of every form of electronic music here, even right back to the fifties and sixties at times.

Finally, the twisted but adorable Twisted Kind of Girl leads us to closing track Doctor of Divinity, which gives us pounding beats, punctuated by crisp and dull electronic sounds. It may not be the most exciting piece of music ever by itself, but closing this album it sounds exceptional.

This album represents pretty much all I know about Luke Slater, but I’m glad to have found it. Play this alongside pretty much anything else from Mute Records’ back catalogue and you’re guaranteed a fascinating listening experience.

You can still find Alright on Top at all major retailers.