Review Summary: That this album exists at all is an impressive feat, after all the obstacles that came Depeche Mode's way prior to its release. A few decent tracks but too many instrumentals and slow tracks unfortunately make Ultra one of the bands weakest releases.
On the build up to 'Ultra' things were falling apart for Depeche Mode. Lead singer Dave Gahan's drug addiction was worsening and he suffered a heart attack on stage in 1993. He recovered from his health scare in body but unfortunately not in mind as he slashed his wrists in a suicide attempt in 1995, as well as overdosing on drugs almost a year later. He lost his life for 2 minutes as paramedics desperately tried to restart his heart. They were obviously successful, and thankfully so, as in hindsight we know Gahan would go on to sort out his life in rehab in 1996 and carry on making albums with Depeche. Although, considering all the odds stacked against the likelihood of Depeche continuing, fans in the mid 90's couldn’t have honestly believed that the band would ever recover.
Gahan would frequently miss recording sessions and combined with the sad departure of Alan Wilder in 1995 due to an increased dissatisfaction with the inconsistency of work, the future of Depeche looked bleak. Fortunately, things eventually came round as Gahan finished his spell in rehab and free from the murky constraints of heroin addiction he got his act together, and the band finally recorded the tracks that were released on Depeche Mode’s ninth studio album, 'Ultra' in 1997.
Perhaps it was the loss of Wilder or the fragility of the band members; whatever the reason, 'Ultra' ended up being a very inconsistent effort. There are some positive moments, such as the dingy and dirty opener 'Barrel of a Gun' and the beauty of the Gore ballad 'Home'. 'Its no Good', 'Insight' and 'Useless' are just as decent, the latter featuring the grungiest guitar riff the band have ever deployed and quite eerie electronics on the chorus.
On the other hand, there are probably just as many (if not more) weaker moments than there are stronger ones. Ultra is littered with far too many pointless instrumentals ('Uselink', 'Jazz Thieves' and 'Junior Painkiller') that don’t really do anything particularly interesting and end up cluttering the album. The other main issue is the number of snail-paced tracks that last for just a little too long. Take 'The Love Thieves' for example, it just doesn't provide anything to hook the listener with a rather dull melody that really begins to drag at over six and a half minutes long.
Overall it's a mixed bag featuring a few decent tracks, none of which come close to beating the late 80's Depeche material, it has to be said, and far too many uninteresting, laborious entries as well as a littering of inconsequential instrumentals. Still, we must see 'Ultra' for its crucial context in the bands history, as the trio do deserve a considerable amount of credit for knocking up an album after enduring all the overwhelming instances that threatened to bring them to their knees. Whilst most bands that had been going for 17 years would have called it a day after their drug addicted lead singer nearly died 3 times in a row or after losing such a talented member of the band (like Alan Wilder certainly was), Depeche Mode didn't - they retaliated with a fairly ambitious album, that doesn't always work but does succeed in showing how resilient and dedicated the boys of Depeche Mode are - and for that at least, you should give 'Ultra' a chance.