In the run-up to this release, Dave Gahan - never one to do things by halves - collared anyone willing to listen to "confess" his lurid tales of junk and rock god egotism. Despite Martin Gore's claims that he's never used his frontman for lyrical inspiration, Gahan's years of chemical maladjustment are reflected in Ultra's resolutely "downbeat" moods and words. In addition to this, Gore's dicky-heart scare on the band's 1993-94 world tour, Andy Fletcher's nervous breakdown and the departure of electro-texturalist Alan Wilder mix blood with Gahan's problems to create an album of dry, dislocated, burnt-out and sometimes beautiful songwriting.

At a time when America is becoming fixated with "electronica" - everyone from Chemical Brothers to The Orb and "90s futurists" Smashing Pumpkins - Depeche Mode's return to the fray is well-timed, although, wisely, they have opted out of touring for the moment. Furthermore, in stark contrast to the stadium-sized percussion loops and grungey power of their previous album, 1993's Songs of Faith and Devotion, Tim Simenon's sparse production on Ultra is noticeably less immediate. Gone are the big, roguishly aggressive hooks, replaced by industrialised trip-hop beats and widescreen spaces in the sound. On first hearing many of the songs appear strangely unedited or incomplete, as if they've chucked out a set of demos on an unsuspecting public. Tricky, whose Nearly God project covered a Gahan song, is an obvious influence.

Fortunately, Dave Gahan's singing lights the noir-ish moods to reveal Gore's melodies amid the claustrophobic dirgery, in particular on the ballads The Love Thieves and Sister of Night. Mid-tempo tracks Barrel Of A Gun and It's No Good are as hard as anything the band have written since ditching their initial teen-pop blueprint. Laughs are thin on the ground, although Gore unintentionally lapses into mirth-inducing "feline" wordsmithery on the lyrically comic, musically excellent The Bottom Line.

Although Ultra ranks alongside 1986's Black Celebration as their darkest album to date, it sounds lived-in and dirty rather than a bit pervy and self-consciously bleak.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5 ("Excellent. Definitely worth investigation")

Reviewer: Steve Malins

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