'I was marching to the wrong drum/With the wrong scum/Pissing out the wrong energy' Dave Gahan exclaims rather unreservedly on Wrong, the lead single to Sounds Of The Universe, 2009's great return to form. For Depeche Mode, this one-time running theme of proclaiming such 'wrong' declarations could be read, on a wider scale, in both an objective manner, as much as it is potentially a sarcastic one. For three decades, the [now] three-piece have stood rather out-of-place against a musical culture that strives to seek electronic music's non-organic potentially-stable line of absent-minded lolly-gagging, without knowing what it is exactly that makes the synthetics such an appealing element in sound, in the first place. But also, the working class men (because age is certainly no pleasant thing here) from Essex stand as one of the most important acts to have emerged from 80s Britain; arguably leading what would become both the New Wave identity, and more importantly, the Synth Pop sound, a philosophy proving that rock required more than just the stable guitar/drums/vocal formula that had dominated prior. And here, for the humble synthesizer, there was an opportunity that...yes, it could benefit from the inclusion into an artist's palette. Fast-forward thirty years and those same argumentative types would/could argue Synth Pop is more a stale excuse than it is an underlining identity. But where synths and keyboards are now common place - and the name Korg or Roland run the back walls of many a recording studio - Depeche Mode continue to push out vastly textural and richly venturous synth pop that is both gestural to their former 80s New Wave glory, as much it shows it's cards to the blissful newcomers whom hold a pair or two, only for their Essex seniors to sit fully-grinning with a full house.
But four years after what was more synth than the title Synth Pop might suggest in contemporary times, does Delta Machine stand any more tentatively taller or worthwhile, or is DM's 13th studio output as welcome and needed as the number 13 is so often depicted in the Western World? In terms of stature - and as much the Depeche fan that I am - I must proclaim that the album comes off rather overshadowed and minor in the face of the band's back catalog. While ambitious and passionately fueled, the album falters in lapses over its thirteen-track hour-long duration. What we have is an album heavily focused on synthesizer hooks, laced beats and vocals that are as much wane and faint in one part and bluntly strong in others. Welcome To My World grinds its way into the starting blocks, industrial-like electro hooks bobbing and throbbing against the empty backdrop, Dave Gahan's vocals a lot more straight and bare against what is a bass-heavy offering. But as violins jaggedly creep into the mix, the music lifts itself from off the industrial ground it's treading and out into the lofty air that Gahan's raised tones entice us in. As the track adds more mechanical drums and the rhythm becomes more stern but rampant, there's definitely more an intense and crucially pin-pointed direction in how the track develops. And even in the song's still-minimal swatch, there's enough evidence to suggest the band know how to use such simple electronic leads to create denser, more provoking atmospheres.
So it's rather disappointing then that the album from this point on fails - in terms of structure and expectation - to meet that same height of interest in its use of minimal beats and focus on synthesizer leads. Angel, though not the first to demonstrate, is the first to clearly express Gahan's lyrical focus on religious subject matter. 'The angel of love was upon me, and Lord I felt so small/My legs beneath me weaken, and I begin to crawl.' And though he expresses this in quite the bold and flamboyant ting, it doesn't excuse what is still a rather amateurish and skeletal void of word choice. Even if the crunchy sparkle of synths and sharp hit of drum beats try to take centre stage here, it doesn't even begin to drown out what is clearly Gahan's show here, and sadly, it's rather more melodramatic than perhaps what is required. Ascending in that same religious perspective to lead single Heaven and we at least get some consolidated peace in Gahan's more intricately emotive and focused richness of vocals - the man's signature smooth baritone stretching across the track's rather melancholic whimper of electric guitars and off-shoot percussion. It's no surprise then why this was chosen as the official musical promotion for this record, given how more melodic and structurally dense it comes off as. Though as you'll soon discover, you'd rather wish it was one of the gems you'd come to discover, than the track you'd already recognized and affiliated with, prior to this album's first listening.
But that's not before we're greeted by some interesting play on this supposed more minimal choice in electronics. My Little Universe is rather the affectingly attractive mash-up of sub-techno wandering and acid house tweaks. You can almost come to visualize the lights glimmering on the beat patterns of the machines, yet it's the track's quirky rhythm and surrounding space that allows the sounds to breathe and expand. Gahan's vocals may not be the most leading or complex in terms of word choice - 'Here I am king/I decide everything/I let no one in' - but given how simple and naive the electronics come off in, it all fits neatly together, even if the synth's sumptuous expansion into more acidic momentum does leave its listeners wanting more. When Depeche Mode are at their most engaging - be it emotionally trickling like some thickly gloom - Slow treats the mood with that same slow uncurling of mopey instrumentation and heavy-dropping beats. The swooning riffs of guitars and descending drums certainly add (or perhaps remove) colour to the track, and even Gahan's lyrics and tonal delivery, emphasize the rather sweeping veil the track slowly crawls its way out from under. Broken follows suit in a rather more upbeat lead of synthesizer beats and halogen-like electronics that tend to flicker and spark from out the darkly surroundings. But even with this, there's still that presence of a more tense and pessimistically-viewed perspective, 'You can make it, I will be there/You were broken from the start'.
I have no problem with lyrics that as far from bliss and any other blinding allure of happiness and promise - it would be rather close-minded to limit yourself to music that aims to be this pure, self-assuring state. But if the band decide on sticking to either the same mood set, or even the same subtexts and concept (be it religion, faith, romance), you'd expect some more variance...or, at the very least, have these tracks - minimal or not - be fleshed out. Sadly, what may present itself as minimal or secluded in its stance, doesn't entirely hold the credential and emotional impact to back its rather safe and stripped-back approach. I don't deny Depeche Mode's skill in crafting some interesting synthesizer hooks and richly textured beats. But the way they're presented, and the way they play out from start-to-finish on a particular track, makes itself out less a fully-fulfilled track and more just an idea floating around waiting to be complete. Tracks like The Child Inside demonstrate the band can generate some emotive context behind their choice of synth tones, but even with Gahan's deeply-passionate focus on lyrics, the way the sounds dither and show little drive or energy makes the overall song feel rather deflated and incomplete. Likewise on the track Soft Touch/Raw Nerve, the way the song begins immediately with a punchy, stern delivery of beats alludes to a promising delivery thereafter. Take that away, and the emptiness becomes clear to see. It feels rather reliant - almost too reliant - on its main drive, and even then the main beat of the piece doesn't hold as much development and substance to carry the song through.
Alone offers some promise because where the track relies on its bass-heavy roll of beats, the way the sounds vibrate and spread about the space creates some interesting echo and relay of an after-image in what is a rather sprawled and distant track to begin with. And so too the accompanying climb of high-reaching synthesizers - that shine as much as they flutter, like candle-light - create a much more engaging and intense atmosphere in the music. It's rather more symphonic and scaled-up because of it, and because of it, the track succeeds in crafting something that is more for the listener's mind as much as it's for the ears. But I do question at times, especially on Soothe My Soul just what it is Dave Gahan offers in his vocal swing, but more-so, why such a direct and frontal role is needed throughout. True, the chorus cries of there being 'only one way to soothe my soul' are richly deserved. But the accompanying verses of the piece, could have easily been stripped back verbally and left for more an instrumental emphasis - especially when the part-glitchy, part-jittery synthesizers are some of the best on the album. And the music is benefited even more by the appearance of, surprise surprise, some thorough meshed strumming from Martin Gore's guitar playing. Goodbye sees Depeche Mode end on a rather blues-rock tone as synths pierce in stinging bursts in one part and drums violently clatter against the foreground in others. Though the track title may have felt out-of-place anywhere else, I feel - given how less a development there is here too - that this would have been better placed somewhere else on the album. There is some rocketing springs of guitars and coiled synths in the closing section of the track, but even this feels less a fitting climax, and more just a bold outburst to attempt ending on a high.
In hindsight, the inevitability that Depeche Mode will have invested heavily on synthesizers predominantly running the show on Delta Machine, was always clear to see. And yet, speaking both as a fan and as a critic, I longed (and probably still do long) for a time when the band were more for the inclusion of guitars and physical drums as opposed to relying on utterly mechanical sounds. Much like bands nowadays that include synths alongside the more common-term palette of guitars and [physical] drums for their outfits, I would have preferred Depeche Mode to see guitars and drums in the same light. As much as we hope to see any band return to creating sounds of yesteryear that still to this day remain with us - and this speaks true about DM fans - it may be the case where we have to come to terms that albums such as Violator and Songs of Faith And Devotion will never surface in twenty-first-century form. For Depeche Mode, their 13th output could arguably be the last before they disappear either in credible investment of our time...or disappear altogether. While Delta Machine isn't universally bad or lacking, there's a clear gap in its development, and the visible potential screaming in numerous spots, is tragic in how it goes uncalled; lost to the empty silence lingering in many of the album's thirteen vague offerings. Where DM succeed, is where their established base for melodic synth pop reflects the emotions and atmospheres envisaged. But where they try their hand at minimizing the approach and going for direct emphasis on the few elements present, it not only falters...it quite simply lays itself open to criticism. Perhaps my hopes for that classic late 80's/early 90's identity are just too much for these Essex lads. But even then, and for a man who strives for perfection of electronics that are both crafted and considered for full composite format, I find less here than what I was expecting - and more than likely, what others may have come to expect likewise.