Dm_ultra

Albums Revisited: Depeche Mode ‘Ultra’

Albums Revisited: Depeche Mode ‘Ultra.’ Depeche Mode’s 1997 album has been maligned as one of their weaker releases. It’s time to set the record straight. 

I saw Depeche Mode in concert last week. The set list was varied (pulling largely from new album Delta Machine) and it was nice to hear Barrel of A Gun and Home. Both songs were from their 1997 album Ultra. The band doesn’t often revisit Ultra given the lukewarm reception it had upon its release.

Click here to read my Depeche Mode Concert Review.

To say that Ultra had a troubled gestation is an understatement. Depeche Mode were in free fall; Alan Wilder had left the band. And singer Dave Gahan’s heroin addiction was so severe he almost died from an overdose.

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Fans were wondering if the band were in their death throes.

But bandleader and songwriter Martin Gore soldiered on, even if this proved difficult without Wilder. He had been the group’s sonic architect and song arranger, molding  Gore’s exquisite dark pop song craft into shape alongside producer Flood on albums like Violator and Songs Of Faith And Devotion.

Click here for Albums Revisited: Violator

So to start fresh, Gore turned to producer Tim Simenon (Bomb The Bass) to help fill in the sonic gaps. And with Gahan entering rehab things got back on track, with his vocals improving over the course of recording (they’d been ragged from his addiction).

<img src="Depeche-Mode-Ultra" alt="Depeche Mode Ultra"/>

And then there were 3…

If there’s any marked difference between Ultra and earlier albums, it’s a more subdued feel. There’s nothing as raucous as Personal Jesus or I Feel You. In its place are oceanic bliss in tunes like The Love Thieves and It’s No Good.

And whether intentional or not, Gore’s lyrics seemed to pick up on Gahan’s troubles throughout the album, reinforcing its melancholy feel (and perhaps a passive aggressive dig for Gahan causing so much turmoil). Take the lyrics from the smoldering first single Barrel of A Gun:

A vicious appetite
Visits me each night
And won’t be satisfied
Won’t be denied

Overall, Ultra is stately and lovely. Home is one of Gore’s finest vocal performances and features one of his best guitar solos. The string-laden synths offered a wonderful grandeur.

But for whatever reason, Ultra was largely maligned by critics. Most reviews claimed it sounded uninspired, muddled, and fractured.

My feeling is that they many critics wanted to use Gahan’s drug problems and Wilder’s exit as an excuse to write the album off. There always seems to be an impulse to kick a successful artist(s) while they’re down, and this provided the perfect opportunity.

Ultra was also released in the heyday of techno, and many felt the band were playing it safe by not experimenting more with their sound (although Gore did cop to admiring trip-hop group Massive Attack, but it’s a testament to his song-craft that he’s never overly blatant with his influences).

But Depeche Mode have always been a cottage industry unto themselves. They went dark while other synth pop groups got sappy. And Gore’s guitar playing gave them further separation from their contemporaries of electronic pop at the time. They work at their own pace and their own stylings, and Ultra was no different.

One of the album’s strongest songs is Freestate. The ghostly slide guitar and a shuffling beat offers hypnotic counterpoint to Gahan’s impassioned vocals;

Step out of your cage/And onto the stage/It’s time to start/Playing your part

Could this be another dig at Gahan to get his shit together? If so, it certainly sounds like he took it to heart. It’s a masterpiece of shadowy drama.

So for all the fans and critics who wrote the band off after Wilder left and claimed the band had peaked? They’re just flat-out wrong. Ultra isn’t just a transitional record. It’s not a difficult album. It’s one of Depeche Mode’s finest, even more impressive given the strain they were under during its creation.

It proved they could survive without Wilder just like they survived when Vince Clarke left in their early days. That they’re still going strong in 2013 shows they’ve always been in it for the long haul.

Click here to see where Ultra ranks on my list of Most Underrated Alternative Rock Albums

With the band embracing more of their material live, perhaps Ultra is finally getting the respect it deserves. If you’ve previously written it off, give it a listen.

If you’d like to own Ultra on iTunes or remastered on CD from Amazon you can order it below:

 

Click here for the full list of our Albums Revisited Series covering classic alternative albums from the 80’s and 90’s

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About SLIS

Middle Aged Gen-Exer obsessed with Alternative rock, metal, cult movies, comic books and cable TV.

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16 Responses to Albums Revisited: Depeche Mode ‘Ultra’

  1. Kevin April 20, 2015 at 8:02 pm #

    Totally agreed this album is one of their best and darkest it’s has a very chilling atmosphere. The oddball being “barrel of a gun” .but “it’s no good” the one I think is their best song period I got into depeche mode well into adulthood always hearing them from my dad but without any prior bias opinions of the old days so that should say a lot about the quality.

    • SLIS April 22, 2015 at 10:14 am #

      Yes, I think it still sounds quite current. Glad to see a younger DM fan on here. Gives this old curmudgeon hope for the future!

  2. Kyle Andrei August 17, 2015 at 8:12 pm #

    This was the album that made me fall in love with Depeche… The atmosphere is absolutely perfect.. Touched all areas.. It was dark & light in all the right spots… All the tracks are great.. I fidn myself listening to “love thieves”, “sister of night”, “freestate all the time… I cant understand how this isnt recognized as one of their most concise, and artful pieces of work

    • SLIS August 28, 2015 at 1:51 pm #

      Sorry for my delayed reply, was out of town past few days. I don’t get why it’s not highly acclaimed as well. I think it’s really backlash for Wilder leaving, and for not playing with the 90’s electronica trends at that time. But definitely in my top 5 DM albums. Still sounds great.

  3. boydie December 11, 2015 at 5:15 am #

    totally agreed – it’s a very masterful, confident, subtle album. I think sister of night is a classic – particularly when it “kicks in” – always have a memory of driving on an english motorway, with that at full whack – a moment! considering everything that happened prior to the album, and particularly what an amazing album songs of faith and devotion was, to come up with ultra? Hmmmm…..

    • SLIS December 13, 2015 at 1:19 am #

      Yes indeed! It’s a great album, even more so considering what they went through to make it.

  4. kyle andrei May 14, 2016 at 9:22 am #

    This album is a masterpiece… Like was aforementioned, it seems the critics used the time 7 ircumstances to slam it… But almost 20 yrs later, it stands up as one of the finest ccohesive pieces they’ve ever delivered.. There is a dark and beautiful atmosphere that permeates through each song… Love ULTRA

    • SLIS May 17, 2016 at 8:12 pm #

      It really has aged like a fine wine. Definitely their finest work post-Alan Wilder! I like every song too. No clunkers.

  5. Patton June 24, 2016 at 6:36 pm #

    Sister of night is an awesome track…..end of story

    • SLIS June 27, 2016 at 1:04 am #

      It truly is. A great one to loop for relaxing/sleeping.

  6. Gabriel November 15, 2016 at 4:06 pm #

    Grossly underrated album.strong album top to bottom!Proud of Dave for getting his life together.

    • SLIS November 18, 2016 at 9:50 am #

      Agreed. Dave was lucky to make it out of a dark place. Even if he didn’t write the lyrics it feels like Gore really pulled from the band’s conflict at the time.

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