Depeche Mode - Ultra
Strangely, in the aftermath of Alan Wilder's departure, Depeche Mode never really considered calling it a day. Dave Gahan was in a mess, but Martin Gore showed no intention of quitting. Andy Fletcher felt that they had something to prove - that they could go it alone without Wilder's influence in the studio. And so Daniel Miller, the boss at their record label, suggested that now might be right time to issue a second "greatest hits" album, bringing together all the singles since their last collection.
Four studio albums behind them since the last compilation meant no shortage of singles - sixteen songs, including one live single and one released only in Germany. However, perhaps to prove Fletcher's point, it was suggested to Gore that he might like to write some new songs to accompany the album. He hooked up with Tim Simenon, who would produce these sessions, and Dave Clayton, who would partly perform Alan Wilder's role of playing the keyboards. Along with Tim Simenon came his team, an engineer (called Q) and a programmer (named Kerry Hopwood). This caused Fletch to comment that "we just replaced Alan...with a team of people". Gore himself was happy with the new arrangements, spending more time in the studio than ever before. The first fruits of this time in the studio became "Useless", "Sister of Night" and "Insight".
As the sessions developed, Gore wrote more songs, and it became clear that this was more than filler for a singles collection. These expanded into the album, "Ultra". Recording though took place over a span of 15 months. The first attempts to record the vocals were a complete disaster - once the backing tracks were completed, the team flew to America, where Gahan was incapable of barely standing at the microphone. Hardly any satisfactory vocals were recorded - those that they had pieced together from numerous takes. Gahan's addiction meant that he was in and out of hospital and rehab, including a suicide attempt. While all this was going on, the production team continued recording at Abbey Road, but Gore started to face the very real fact that this might end up as a solo project.
On the 28 May 1996, Gahan overdosed, and lapsed into a coma. Paramedics arrived and thought that he was dead, his hands blue. Thankfully, he was revived, and immediately arrested. Released on bail by Depeche Mode's loyal manager, Jonathon Kessler, Gahan made a rambling and frankly embarrassing statement to journalists about his desire to combat his addictions. However, he carried on using for a couple more days, until Kessler managed to get Gahan into a rehab unit, and began the long and arduous process of coming off heroin.
This gave Gahan new vigour to complete the Ultra project. Depeche Mode's old engineer Gareth Jones was drafted in as a vocal coach, the record finally completed in February 1997. Was it worth it?
Ultra does sound worlds away from Songs of Faith and Devotion, the songs stripped down, electronics more to the fore, "real" instruments taking a back seat, but still with plenty of guitars in the mix. Album opener "Barrel of a Gun", the lead single (reaching number 4 in the charts) is a slow burning groove, the guitar line snaking round Gahan's vocal. Like the rest of the album, it is relatively slow paced, Gahan voice fuzzed up in the mix. Next track is "The Love Thieves", which falls into the same trap as most of the other songs on this album - it is just too darn long. At over six minutes, it ambles along, outstaying its welcome.
However, the next trio of songs are quite outstanding. "Home" is sung by Gore, and is one of his best vocal performances to date - his voice sounds totally genuine to the words he is singing, a beautiful and powerful song of gratitude and love. Next "It's No Good", one of their strongest singles. An amazing Gore lyric is sung (almost crooned) by Gahan on one of the greatest vocals on the album. The backing track and instrumentation to this song are excellent, which is also true of "Useless". Again, the lyrics to this song are (with the exception of "with your fist in my face") brilliant, and the music, with its effective guitar line and tumbling drums, complete possibly the greatest side 1 of any Depeche Mode album.
And then quite frankly, things get rather boring. Side 2 is a crashing let down, full of bloated, boring songs. "Sister of Night" starts promising but soon gets dull, sounding almost identical to "The Love Thieves" in parts. "Jazz Thieves", "Freestate" and "The Bottom Line" are also lessons in tedium. "Insight" is better, but again goes on for far too long. And then "Jnr Painkiller", which is just a bit of nonsense.
For an album that very nearly didn't happen, Ultra is very good. However, the bland second side really lets things down, especially after the excellence of the flip side. However, it shows that Fletch was right - they could survive without Alan Wilder, and make pretty fine music as well.
(much of the research and information for this review came from Steve Malins excellent book, available at Amazon).