On Reward, Depeche Mode forged a potent language and style in the all-synth format that truly felt like their own. Perhaps recording in Berlin gave them a fresh perspective - or maybe it had to do with the fact that the album was made in the portentous year of 1984. The hit single "People Are People" was a message song with jolting synth stabs and a grabby dance beat. Some of the album's other notable tracks - "Something to Do," "Master and Servant," "Blasphemous Rumours" - possessed the Bowie-esque ability to startle the ears with the shock of the new.
Still, an opportunity was missed by not maximizing the spatial possibilities of a more adventurous multichannel mix. "Master and Servant," for example, could have been a tour de force of room-encircling sound, but although the center channel picks up its share, the surrounds don't get much more than occasional vocal bits, percussion, and faintly audible synths. However, this remains a worthwhile package, with its batch of live tracks and a particularly worthy B-side, "(Set Me Free) Remotivate Me," rescued from obscurity. Just don't expect the surround mix to carry this electropop milestone to another level.
Fast-forward a decade to Songs of Faith and Devotion, Depeche Mode's follow-up to Violator (the best album they'd made up until then, and probably will ever make). By 1993, Seattle's grunge bands and the bleak industrial maelstrom of Nine Inch Nails were filling the air with anger and noise. Depeche Mode, who'd helped start this electronic anti-party in the first place, rose to the challenge. Songs is a flawed album that nonetheless contains some of their most remarkable tracks, including the trio of stunners that opens the disc: "I Feel You" (Gahan's greatest vocal performance), "Walking in My Shoes," and "Condemnation." It's mostly downhill, and downbeat, from there, as the band in general (and its then drug-plagued singer in particular) was in a dark place.
Again, the opportunity to bring a new aural dimension to these depths has been lost on a ho-hum surround mix. But the high points of this package are high indeed, and the DVD documentary frankly reveals some of the pressures and difficulties about following up a career album like Violator in a time of personal crises.
So these are the latest installments in a deep catalog of music by Depeche Mode that Martin Gore, tongue only partly in cheek, has described as "pain and suffering in various tempos." And there's more to come: Rhino has announced a March 20 release date for CD+DVD editions of 1983's Construction Time Again and 1986's Black Celebration. That completes the early and midperiod studio sets, and we can only assume that Rhino will eventually throw the same celebrations for the band's three most recent albums: Ultra, Exciter, and, bringing things full circle, Playing the Angel.
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