Fantastic track from 1991 here from Bomb the Bass – this is Winter in July:
Fantastic track from 1991 here from Bomb the Bass – this is Winter in July:
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.
Always keen to try new features on the show, the Spring term had seen my try out the Unsigned Act feature, where I would try to give a new or unsigned artist a bit of free airtime, with no strings attached (well, except they had to be good). In the end, it was a bit of a failure, as pretty much everyone who showed an interest failed to submit anything on time. One of the few exceptions was Blue Swan, whom we also covered here on the blog.
Broadcast on LSR FM, online only. Artist of the week: Faithless.
Show 29 was the last before the Christmas break in 2004, and while that may be a little off-season at the time of posting, it inevitably had a bit of a festive theme, with Erasure – also starring as the artist of the week – turning up on the playlist with She Won’t Be Home and other wintry hits from Pet Shop Boys and Saint Etienne.
Broadcast on LSR FM, online only. Artist of the week: Erasure.
LSR FM, Leeds University’s student radio station, used to apply for an FM licence for a month once or twice a year, and this used to be extremely popular, as large numbers of wannabe DJs would apply to do shows. So it was that the returning Music for the Masses ended up in a graveyard slot, last thing at night on a Saturday night (or first thing on a Sunday, if you prefer to look at it that way, which nobody did, as they were all students). This had the nice effect that sometimes another presenter would forget to turn up, and your show could comfortably overrun by twenty minutes or so.
Broadcast on LSR FM, on FM and online. Artist of the week: Jean Michel Jarre.
This show was recorded, and for the most part still exists. It will be posted as a Playlist for stowaways soon.
Long before this blog ever existed, some time around late 2000 or early 2001, I started compiling a list of essential albums. There were just six entries, and this was the second.
Although less popular than their 1990 release Violator, Ultra is a beautifully crafted album which tells of the struggles that almost ended the group at several points throughout the 1990s, and is the culmination of several years’ work. Guest appearances come from the renowned pedal steel guitarist B.J. Cole and the drummer from German electronic pioneers Can, and the album is produced by former Bomb the Bass frontman Tim Simenon.
If I were picking “essential albums” now, I would probably go for Violator, even though it is a more predictable choice. But Ultra does hold a very special place in my heart – it’s a difficult album to love, but very rewarding indeed when you find space for it. The Beginner’s guide to Depeche Mode is here.
Here are five of your live highlights in the next few months:
Starting his tour in Edinburgh on Sunday 30th, and then visiting Manchester, Birmingham, Greenwich, Norwich, and Bristol, with more dates no doubt being announced soon.
You’ve already missed them if you’re in Romania or Portugal, but dates are coming up in Germany, Spain, Italy, the UK, and Croatia, with festival dates throughout the summer.
Performing this Saturday at Electric Brixton, with The Orb and Bomb the Bass (how exciting is that lineup?)
With his new tour starting at the end of the month in France, before moving on to Norway, the Netherlands, and the UK over the coming weeks.
Starting their latest tour in Copenhagen at the start of April, before moving onto Paris, London, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria.