The past year has been one of joy for many a Depeche Mode fan. It has also been one of joyous profits for the members of Depeche Mode, who have released: a fine album called, Playing The Angel, saw the start of a reissue campaign covering their entire back catalogue, a live DVD/CD package from their most recent, sold out tour, and a soon to be released ‘Best Of” compilation.
Speak & Spell (1981), Music for the Masses (1987), and Violator (1990) were the lead albums for the reissue project, which feature each of the band’s releases in a CD/DVD format. The first disc contains the original album which has been digitally remastered. The DVD contains the entire album in no less than three audio formats; PCM stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 (24bit), and DTS 5.1 (24bit/96k) plus, bonus tracks and a 30 minute documentary on the making of each respective album.
These documentaries are surprisingly in depth for their 30 minute run time as they delve into the creative process for each album, without resorting to any “Behind the Music” type of drama. How refreshing to it is to hear a band talk about how they created certain sounds, what they felt during the recording sessions and see rare, studio footage of the group at work. These short films also contain new interviews with all of the key players in DM’s career.
It is usually career suicide when a group’s principal songwriter, i.e. “hit maker”, leaves the band. After only one album, Vince Clarke jumped ship, leaving the songwriting duties to Martin L. Gore. Without questioning what to do, the band’s naïve approach of “just getting on with it” actually helped as they ended up sounding like more like ‘Depeche Mode’ than on their debut. While there are residual traces of the sugar coated fizz of their Vince Clarke days (See You, A Photograph of You), there is also the darker textures of ”Leave In Silence”, “My Secret Garden”, and “Shouldn’t Have Done That”. The album’s closing track, “The Sun and The Rainfall”, is the hidden gem, a “classic that never was”. While Martin Gore may not have “arrived” yet as a songwriter, “A Broken Frame” is where the band found their footing and began to develop their sound; yet, it has always remained an underrated album. Fortunately, this deluxe edition should illuminate how well this particular song cycle has aged.
“Some Great Reward” finds the band in complete control of their talents forging new ground as they delved into sampling technology to digitally manipulate sounds, creating textures never heard of on ‘pop’ records. From beginning to end, “Some Great Reward” is sonically brilliant and immensely powerful. There is forceful quality on some of the material here which leads to a more intense delivery that is missing from previous efforts. The word “heavy” comes to mind. If you added loud guitars and real drums, “Something to Do”, “Master and Servant” and the mega hit “People Are People”, would have been hard rock classics.
The radio friendly hooks, dance grooves and depressing subject matter are all present, as before, but lyrically, Martin Gore digs himself deeper into the abyss. Abandoning the charming naiveté of previous works, here he takes a more daring, yet equally dark, view on love, longing, sexual desire, and domination. The stand out track is the album’s closer, “Blasphemous Rumours”, which single was banned by BBC Radio upon its release in 1984. The major-key, tuneful chorus almost belies the song’s theme of teenage suicide as the songs narrator questions God for the injustice a mother suffers in having to bury her child. The song is absolutely chilling in its morose intensity – not many ‘pop’ acts would have risked such a bold move as this.
What separates “Songs of Faith and Devotion” from every album before it is the simple fact that while the band always wrote about the dark side, for this record they were living in it. When the band reconvened in Madrid in 1992 after a long hiatus, they returned as different people. Dave Gahan who was now adorned in tattoos and shoulder-length hair was the most outwardly changed but the dynamic between all four members was skewered. They were unable to connect on any level as factions between band members, divorces, personal turmoil, and substance abuse combined with the pressures of following up their career defining “Violator”, made initial working conditions unbearable.
At some point in the recording process they did connect, and while relationships were still strained, they ended up making (arguably) one of their finest albums. Much has been said of the records pronounced use of guitars and real drums but this is Depeche Mode not Deep Purple, so any talk of the band selling out and, “going Rock N Roll” is ludicrous. There is no question who you we are listening to here; things are just a bit…louder. Kicking off with the sleazy “I Feel You”, it may be easy to think that they have gone against their old adage of “all synths” but the track really is a continuation to the one chord stomp of “Personal Jesus”, which also featured guitar. Throughout the album, the band continually updates their sound for the “Grunge” era and succeeds on all accounts. Dave Gahan scores a ‘career best’ vocal performance with “Condemnation”, and tracks such as “In Your Room” and “Walking In My Shoes” remain concert favorites to this day.
So, what’s not too like about these deluxe editions? They are lavishly packaged, sound incredible, sport some of the finest 5.1 mixes I’ve heard, are loaded with all of the relevant B-sides as well as cool live bonus tracks and contain an excellently produced documentary for each album. As with my review of the first batch of reissues, I still do not like how the bonus tracks are on the DVD disc. Because of this, we can not put these extra tracks into ITUNES. I would love to listen to the remastered versions of the b-sides but have to stick with the versions from the singles box that was released in the 90’s. It is also odd how some of the bonus tracks are in 5.1 while others are in stereo. I make a small complaint in the grand scheme of these sets but it would have been nice. Of course, it will not stop me from getting the next batch of discs!
While better preserving, or is it a tribute (?) to the band’s recorded legacy, these deluxe editions prove that Depeche Mode where always a few steps ahead of their contemporaries. Always danceable, sometimes unsettling, the band were true pop innovators whose influence is felt to this day as they continue to challenge themselves as well as their audience.