Ultra review

Tricky put it perfectly: "Brand New, You're Retro." We exist in an epoch of cannibalization, at least in terms of popular culture, and the latest platter on the menu is the late '70s/early '80s. Everyone from Trent Reznor and Billy Corgan to Bono and The Edge have dug out that mildewing clutch of Gary Numan LP's and gotten all nostalgic for a future that was once typified by analog keyboards and rickety drum machines. The cutting edge is now twenty years past, so its little surprise that Ultra, the latest release from the very sharp and rather venerable Depeche Mode, arrives sounding at once fresh and archaic.

Its a hair ironic as well that. more that anything else. this CD reminds one of those great old chunks of melancholy churned out by such lost post-punk masters as Magazine, Japan, or The Human League (pre-Dare). Those bands' embrace of electronics helped pave the way for the likes of the Pet Shop Boys, The Human League (post-Dare) and, of course, Depeche Mode. Ultra harkens very purposefully back to that age when synthesizers still had a vaguely "Space:1999"-esque quality, and were the preferred instrument for the creation of a very European, very glamorous brand of angst.

Expectedly, most of Depeche Mode's best moments ("Leave in Silence," "Shake The Disease," "Never Let You Down Again," "Personal Jesus") were also their moodiest. The proceedings here are a shade dark, too. It's no wonder: Since 1993's Songs Of Faith and Devotion founding member Alan Wilder defected, and vocalist Dave Gahan flirted nearly fatally with rock godhood, Los Angeles, and heroin.

Thankfully these crises have motivated the band, and Utlra feels thick with drama rather than lugubrious. Much credit goes to Bomb The Bass frontal lobe Tim Simenon, who acts as producer. He keeps things tough and tense, but leaves enough room in the mix for some wonderfully creepy sounds to circle and echo. There are some inspired cameos by the extraordinary Dub-bassist Doug Wimbish, Jaki Liebezit (onetime drummer for the mega-seminal German rock band, Can), and pedal steel guitarist B.J. Cole. But the real success here belongs to both songwriter Martin Gore and Mr. Gahan, who returns from the brink a stronger singer. Glistening blackly, Ultra brims with spooky textures, strange atmospherics, and, most importantly, some very strong examples of songcraft.
-- Robert R. Conroy

MTV, April 21st 1997

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