Review Summary: 'Rock casualties' rise from the ashes, and come back with a grindingly murky album, doing away with the additives and getting back to the raw basics
After Depeche Mode had reached their commercial peak with Violator
and Songs Of Faith And Devotion
, their individual worlds fell apart and the walls came tumbling in. For it was around this time, in the mid-90's, that vulnerable personalities started to crumble, addictions reached climatic heights, and long-held tensions finally broke through the surface. Basically, as a band, they were finished. It was a miracle lead singer Dave Gahan was alive at all, having OD'd on heroin and suffered a mini-heart attack on stage. But regrouping again in 1996, the Mode displayed their uncanny ability to weather all storms and hit back with Ultra
in 1997. Alan Wilder had left, ostensibly because of a consistent imbalance in the workload, and his absence is immediately noticeable; not in a good OR a bad way, it's just different, right down to the desolate, minimal, pared-down sound.
'Barrel Of A Gun'
is hard, cold, bleak, and still sounds like nothing they have done before. It's a sharp start to the album, which is why 'The Love Thieves'
is so disappointing. Moody enough, this track nevertheless goes on for far too long. Fortunately, this is as bad as the album gets, really. 'Home'
is a beautiful, affecting, string-laden number, with Gore's best vocal of all - Depeche Mode's greatest ballad ever
. The tempo is moved up a notch with 'It's No Good'
, a more mainstream affair, though it still sounds subversive when placed next to most mainstream music (DM's greatest strength). My favourite-ever DM song, it's a dancey, bouncy little number, with slightly conceited lyrics relating to unrequited love, and it ends with some of the coolest electronic bass effects you will ever hear, and is followed by a similarly electro-led instrumental, 'Uselink'
, which uses a System 700 to great effect.
brings back the guitars from 'Barrel Of A Gun' and grooves to create what can only be described as a 'dirty' song - that is, it sounds muddy, hard, lived-in - and contains some of the best lyrics on the album, "All your stupid ideals/You've got your head in the clouds/You should see how it feels/With your feet on the ground"
, Gore again showing us how to rhyme without ever letting it sound forced. But the recurring pattern in Mode albums of falling away in the second half rears its ugly head again. 'Sister Of Night'
- the only song Dave has sang while high - is dark and has a pretty enough melody, but is as forgettable as the instrumental that follows it. 'Freestate'
is yet another slow, moody track, but has a country twang to it that just about saves it. This vague country feeling is carried over to 'The Bottom Line'
, an old-fashioned song that includes some lovely lyrics and hints at moods explored on the next album Exciter
. Unfortunately, a glance back at the beginning of the album reminds you that they can do so much better.
Which it why I'm happy to say that another recurring pattern in Mode albums is to finish with a strong track, and Ultra
is no exception. 'Insight'
is a brooding track that rises in passion and fire as it progresses, bringing a bit of warmth to this icy album. It gets your pulse going again, and stands as a reason to hear this odd album all the way through. The literal 'final' track, 'Junior Painkiller'
, is an Asian-style instrumental that is neither here nor there.
Of course, this album is flawed. But this is also the album that never should have been. To create any album after what the remaining members had been through was a remarkable achievement. To create one that is of pretty high quality (for the most part) is near miraculous. Ultra
is not an album to listen to when you need cheering up. But if you're a serious music fan, it shouldn't depress you either. This is a pensive album that sounds reflective, even spiritual, and would be good to listen to when "you want to be alone". But the holes in the fabric stop it from achieving classic status.