Ultra release party review

It is ironic that Depeche Mode has survived long enough to stand at the forefront of not one but two waves of electronic music--first, in 1981, with their debut Speak and Spell, when the genre was called new wave; and today, when electronica has seeped into so many genres that it's tough to nail down a name for the sound. The truth is, in the seventeen years they've been hawking their gothic dance-pop, Depeche Mode has never gone out of style. Their last album, 1993's Songs of Faith and Devotion hit No. 1 on the pop charts and, to date, the band has sold a total of more than thirty-million records worldwide. Ultra, D.M.'s first album in four years, is an excellent entry in the new canon of electronica, and it should only enhance the band's already solid commercial appeal.

Of course, it must be noted that Ultra's very existence is something of a minor miracle; the four years since Faith and Devotion have seen the departure of band member Alan Wilder and singer David Gahan's near- fatal battle with heroin addiction. But out of such darkness and uncertainty, the remaining trio of Gahan, Martin Gore, and Andy Fletcher has emerged a stronger unit. Adhering to Depeche Mode's traditional dark, low- to mid-tempo rhythmic scale, principal songwriter Gore and producer Tim Simenon (Bomb the Bass) have crafted an impressive collection of moody adventures exploring the melodic soundscapes of electronic pop. The murky, distorted guitar line that scrapes across the edgy opener, "Barrel of a Gun," segues into the elegant romance of "The Love Thieves," which in turn bleeds into the warmly submissive "Home." All the material here is held fast by the constancy of Gahan's richly plaintive baritone. But later in the disc, it's the unexpected and disparate elements--the bluesy, ZZ Top guitar line on "Useless," BJ Cole's pedal-steel guitar on "Freestate," the vibraphone tones on "Jazz Thieves," the jazzy bass track on the chilling "The Bottom Line"--that keep the listener off balance and the album refreshing.

Sure, the overall tone here still echoes vintage eighties wave, but Ultra avoids sounding dated or tired by layering a visceral rock edge around its synthesizer core. As the electronic music trend comes full circle, Depeche Mode continues to find ways to breathe intrigue and artistry into an old cliché.
Bob Gulla

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