Depeche Mode – Ben Hillier Trilogy

Trilogies of albums with a single producer seem to be somewhat en vogue in recent years, and since the release schedule is so much slower for most artists than it used to be, that can mean an ongoing collaboration lasting more than a decade. So it is with Depeche Mode‘s recent trilogy of albums with Ben Hillier.

The story began in late 2004 or early 2005 with the sessions to record Playing the Angel (released 2005). Depeche Mode were back in their stride by now, perhaps the most comfortable they had ever been with who they were. A decade earlier, the end of the Songs of Faith and Devotion tour saw the band in turmoil, with drug and alcohol abuse, Dave Gahan close to death, and the permanent departure of Alan Wilder. Ultra (1997), although undeniably dark in character, saw the first step of their rebirth, and the lighter Exciter (2001) saw them celebrating the pop and dark sides of their past.

This must have left them in a difficult place, in terms of the style they wanted to hit with the next album, but Playing the Angel finds them still comfortable with their sound. There’s nothing really weak about this album – it hops between exceptional (such as lead single Precious and follow-up A Pain That I’m Used to) and fair (tracks such as I Want it All and Macro may not be the band’s most memorable, but are far from their worst).

After the inevitable tour, they filled their time off with a good but unnecessary compilation, The Best of Depeche Mode – Volume 1, led by the lovely Martyr, an outtake from the previous album, and then some solo work including Gahan’s lovely second album Hourglass, before returning with Sounds of the Universe (2009).

This is where the idea of a producer-based trilogy starts to cause problems. Depeche Mode have always suffered badly from loudness, and all three of these albums are particularly bad examples, which would benefit from remastering despite not being particularly old. So that’s one problem, and the lack of change seems to have impacted creativity somewhat too.

It’s not that Sounds of the Universe is particularly badWrong is a great, beautifully dark, first single, and there are other great tracks on here too, such as Peace and Perfect. It’s just that a lot of it is very average, by Depeche Mode standards. Dave Gahan‘s songwriting contributions are fair at best, and a lot of Martin L. Gore‘s seem a little uninspired. Possibly the finest track of all on here is the Gahan/Gore songwriting collaboration Oh Well, which was inexplicably disposed of on the b-side of Wrong and the bonus disc of the album.

That bonus disc – and the box set of other discs – is this album’s saving grace. This was an age where Depeche Mode remixes were generally of high calibre, and the disc of historic demos is very welcome too. The album was still hugely successful, hitting number 2 in the UK and number 1 in many countries, so it was far from a failure – just perhaps a little disappointing.

Depeche Mode albums seem to take a four-year pattern, with an album (2009) followed by a tour (Tour of the Universe, 2009-2010), a DVD (Tour of the Universe: Barcelona 20/21.11.09, 2010), some side projects (Remixes 2: 81–11, 2011, and the adorable The Light the Dead See by Dave Gahan and Soulsavers, 2012), all of which kept the band more than busy enough before they needed to start work on the final release in the trilogy in 2012.

Delta Machine (2013) is the real disappointment in the trilogy. It’s worthy – there’s more real instrumentation here, and some great moments, including – as always, the lead single Heaven. Final single Should Be Higher is great too. But there’s a lot that isn’t, particularly Angel and Secret to the End, and the overriding impression you get is just how loud everything is. In the charts, Depeche Mode can do very little wrong, so maybe none of this matters particularly, but the final piece of this trilogy was not their best work.

Their fans never seem particularly keen whenever a new album lands, but enough time has passed now that the popular opinion on Delta Machine should have mellowed. Maybe it has, but I have to say, I’m still struggling.

However, this trilogy showed us that Depeche Mode have plenty more to offer the world of music, even if they only do it together once between each Olympics and World Cup. It showed us that they were capable of being very loud, even if that came at the cost of sound quality. And it showed us that maybe they benefit from having a new producer for each album, or perhaps this trilogy coincided with a wane in their creativity. Either way, they definitely still have it, and their time with Ben Hillier produced some of their best material. But it also produced some less notable works too.

See here for another summary of a producer trilogy.


The Enigma House

If you had stumbled upon this blog a couple of decades ago, I imagine you would have found a lot of posts about Michael Cretu, the Romanian-born driving force behind the chillout act Enigma. There’s something about those first three albums, MCMXC a.D. (1990), The Cross of Changes (1993), and Le Roi Est Mort, Vive Le Roi! (1996) that you can’t quite deny makes him a master of his art.

Things started to go a bit wrong after that, though – The Screen Behind the Mirror (2000) is fine, and still has some lovely moments, but it just seems a bit unnecessary. Voyageur (2003) is terrible, A Posteriori (2006) a decent comeback, Seven Lives Many Faces (2008) variable, and I don’t think I’ve ever even bothered to track down The Fall of a Rebel Angel (2016) – I think partly because most purchase options seemed to also require the purchase of a narrated version.

In his sixties now, Cretu has had something of an illustrious career, having left Romania to study in Paris in the 1960s, and then playing keyboards for Boney M‘s megahit Rivers of Babylon in 1978. New wave solo hits followed across Europe over the next decade, but it was the Enigma project which really cemented his legacy, with over 70 million units sold in the thirty years that have followed.

Those sales led to healthy revenues, and Cretu settled on the Spanish Balearic island of Ibiza. Known in the early 1990s as the quintessential trance party island, it also features a stunning hinterland. This was the setting for Cretu’s 3,000 square meter Moroccan-style mansion, at a reported price tag of €18 million ($26 million), which involved shaving three metres of ground off the peak of a hill near Santa Agnès. Construction started in 1996, and was finally completed in 2001, so the then-state-of-the-art A.R.T. Studios, designed by Gunter Wagner and Bernd Steber, is presumably where Voyageur, A Posteriori, and also some side projects were devised and recorded. Contemporary photographs show that it was pretty stunning.!1m14!1m12!1m3!1d1203.8722290741048!2d1.308329520014409!3d39.034791015487926!2m3!1f0!2f0!3f0!3m2!1i1024!2i768!4f13.1!5e1!3m2!1sen!2sus!4v1610390595760!5m2!1sen!2sus

Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. A new mayor took over in 2003, and started investigations. After years of ongoing legal action, the Spanish supreme court ruled that the property had been built illegally in a conservation area with an illegal building licence, and had to be demolished. Work to remove the property started in May 2009, and it took a matter of weeks to destroy the dream home. Cretu, feeling understandably betrayed, appears to have sold multiple properties on Ibiza and moved to Germany.

He initially fought for compensation, but a criminal case followed in 2013, focusing strongly on the fact that construction was over a considerably larger area than the permit had allowed, and seems to have resulted in a threatened six-month jail sentence for Cretu. This was converted to a fine of €21,600 plus liability for demolition costs, and the mayor and numerous other municipal employees were acquitted. The rubble that now remains on the site is a magnet for urban explorers, who captured this amazing bank of images in late 2016.

The court case seems to have been conclusive, so maybe I’m wrong, but I think it’s hard to take sides in this particular story. Yes, obscene amounts of money were involved, and a building was constructed in a protected area, but it isn’t really clear to me whether Cretu himself knowingly broke any laws. Either way, it was probably fair that he should take responsibility – a property on the site was permitted by the town’s mayor in April 1997, although that permit was very late and for a much smaller property. Someone was definitely up to something fishy, but it’s difficult to say whether it was Cretu himself, or people in his employ colluding with the town mayor. The outcome – a ruined mansion sitting on top of a hillside – doesn’t seem ideal for anybody, so it’s tempting to feel a degree of sympathy for someone who thought they were building a dream.

You can also read more coverage here.

Chart for stowaways – January 2021

This may change soon, but the charts were a little slow during 2020, probably due to the seemingly never-ending lockdowns. Since January is always slow, so it was at the start of this year, but the albums are still a little different to how they looked the last time you saw them:

  1. The Future Sound of London – Cascade 2020
  2. Sarah Nixey – Night Walks
  3. Front Line Assembly – WarMech
  4. Pet Shop Boys – Hotspot
  5. Jean Michel Jarre – Welcome to the Other Side
  6. Camouflage – Relocated
  7. Goldfrapp – Black Cherry
  8. Air – Pocket Symphony
  9. Honeyroot – Sound Echo Location
  10. Röyksopp – Melody am

Ivor Novello Awards 2020

Postponed due to the pandemic, the 2020 Ivor Novello Awards were due to happen on 2nd September at Grosvenor House in London, but were subsequently cancelled altogether, with the winners announced virtually instead. These are the songwriters’ awards, and also aren’t particularly commercially-driven, so can often be much more interesting than other ceremonies in terms of the people who are celebrated.

Best Album

  • Ghosteen, written by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, performed by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
  • Grey Area, written by Inflo and Little Simz, performed by Little Simz
  • The Book of Traps and Lessons, written by Dan Carey and Kate Tempest, performed by Kate Tempest

Winner: Inflo and Little Simz

Best Contemporary Song

  • Black, written by Dave and Fraser T Smith, performed by Dave
  • Firesmoke, written by Dan Carey and Kate Tempest, performed by Kate Tempest
  • Must Be, written by JAE5 and J Hus, performed by J Hus

Winner: Dave and Fraser T Smith

Best Song Musically and Lyrically

  • Age of Anxiety, written and performed by Jamie Cullum
  • Crown, written by MJ Cole, Jimmy Napes and Stormzy; performed by Stormzy
  • Dead Boys, written and performed by Sam Fender

Winner: Jamie Cullum

Best Original Film Score

  • For Sama, composed by Nainita Desai
  • Midsommar, composed by Bobby Krlic
  • Monos, composed by Mica Levi

Winner: Bobby Krlic

Best Original Video Game Score

  • Arise: A Simple Story, composed by David Garcia Diaz
  • Draugen, composed by Simon Poole
  • Lost Ember, composed by Dorian Behner, John Broomhall and Will Morton

Winner: Simon Poole

Best TV Soundtrack

  • Euphoria, composed by Labrinth
  • Rise of the Nazis, composed by Tom Hodge
  • The Crown (Series 3), composed by Martin Phipps

Winner: Labrinth

PRS for Music Most Performed Work

  • Dancing with a Stranger, written by Mikkel Eriksen, Tor Erik Hermansen, Jimmy Napes and Sam Smith, performed by Sam Smith and Normani
  • Giant, written by Calvin Harris, Jamie Hartman, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man and Troy Miller, performed by Calvin Harris and Rag ‘n’ Bone Man
  • Hold Me While You Wait, written by Lewis Capaldi, Jamie N Commons and Jamie Hartman; performed by Lewis Capaldi

Winner: Calvin Harris, Jamie Hartman, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man and Troy Miller

Rising Star Award with Apple Music

  • Amahla
  • Carmel Smickersgill
  • Griff
  • lullahush
  • Mysie

Winner: Mysie

Songwriter of the Year

Winner: Steve Mac

Academy Fellowship

Winner: Joan Armatrading