Album: Delta machine
Artist: Depeche Mode
Sounds like: Is this a return to form, or is it a heartfelt goodbye?
In a lot of ways — modern pop music is electronic. From the squeals and wub-wubs of dubstep, to the glitch beats that permeate so much of Hip Hop and R&B these days, there’s a computerized sheen that lays on top of it all.
But for electronic music to truly work — there has to be a human element that keeps the robots from taking it over, injecting the emotion that connects us to lyrics and feelings in the songs.
Otherwise it’s not music as much as it is programming.
But when painted on in sparse strokes – used as a texture as much as it is a musical statement, and paired with singers who can fill space on their own with character – what you find is that electronic music is as much about the spaces in-between the tones as much it is the sine waves and the LFO generators. Letting the lyrics sink in, giving the mood a chance to filter into the air all around.
The result when it’s done correctly is a dark romance. Songs can be about the depth of love or the connection of lust, but when you have those empty spaces in between synthesized tones and electronic drums, there’s always a shadow lurking within it all, like a Hitchcock movie.
It’s a lesson that Depeche Mode has been teaching listeners for decades.
While the Essex born popsters started out in the 80’s as a brighter sounding alternative to groups like the Cure, they really began to flower into their own as they opened the door to influences to more Eastern European electronica groups of the time, which brought more of a gothic sensibility to the music that keyboardist Martin Gore was creating to match with singer Dave Gahan’s romanticized lyrics of lust and lonliness.
There was always something kind of sexy about the way Depeche Mode delivered a song. A trend that continued as their star began to truly rise in the early 90’s with albums like Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion. Electronic music has many faces, some more aggressive and angry and some even more sparse and dark – but in many ways it was the pulsing rhythms of Depeche Mode that continually reminded songwriters in the genre that the style could have a heart.
But a funny thing happened to the band itself over the years. As rock stardom and the trappings that come with it began to descend on the group, you found a singer who began to appear shirtless more often, and a keyboard player who began to play guitar a lot more. While sometimes the results of this shift became timeless (songs like “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy the Silence”) – what it really meant in a lot of ways was a gradual departure from the vibe that had come before.
Later albums like Ultra and Sounds of the Universe had Depeche Mode almost pretending to be U2, headlining stadium tours and frequently flirting with a pretension in their music that made it feel less personal than ever before.
For my money, the best Depeche Mode isn’t the one you share with thousands of other fans in general admission seating, but the one you hear in your car alone driving to nowhere in particular. Depeche Mode may be many things, but for me they were always a very personal band. They were talking quietly to me, or to you. Maybe not even talking about the same thing, or conjuring the same memories and images – but a private conversation nonetheless.
Depeche Mode was never dance music. It’s dancing by yourself music.
Which is perhaps what makes the bands 13th studio release “Delta Machine” so intriguing. It’s not a home run cover to cover – there are still moments of schmaltz that are hard to ignore (the growly vocals of “Angel” or the forced guitar blues of “Slow”) – but as you get deeper and deeper into the disc what you start to find is a re-embrace of the spaces in-between the keyboard noises. Songs like “My Little Universe,” “Secret to the End,” the bonus track “Happens All the Time,” and especially the albums closer “Goodbye” that feel hungry and familiar.
At the same time, the fact that the album feels so similar in places to previous work and ends with what seems to be a farewell message makes you wonder just where all this energy is coming from. Could this be a final dance for the band that laid so much of the foundation of how electronic music is today? There’s no way to know for sure just yet – but when Delta Machine is good — it is very, very good.
See what you think, here’s “Heaven”
Ambition. For some it’s a monetary thing, for others it shows itself in a striving for position and power. And for some – the creators of this world especially – it will often lie in how they stake their claim, in what they do that sets them apart from the crowd. Be a Björk, a Prince, a James Brown, a Kraftwerk, a Brian Wilson, a Fela Kuti – and whether or not you sell by the truck-load, you’ll be remembered, and will be an influence on others.
Mvula has this certain something, this last form of ambition, that makes her stand out. Just listen to Can’t Live With the World, the opening track on this, her debut album, and try not to be a little bewitched. It’s a lovely thing, fragile and playful all at once – the melancholy of the words balanced perfectly by the most delicate of harps, pizzicato double bass and masses of vocal layers forming waves of sumptuous harmony. It’s a start to an album of a kind I haven’t heard for a very long time. But then she solidifies the sound with the next track, Diamonds, which confirms other little hints I’d heard in that first song – that she is no mere copyist, no rider on the tails of others who have gone before. Mvula’s doing things a little bit differently – you’ll find no normal guitar, drums, bass, keyboards set up here; the arrangements have a drive and a scope that few songwriters would aim for. Melodies go off on flights of fancy, rhythms break away from the traditional stomp of pop and into the realms of jazz and folk-prog rock. It’s not often, not often at all that you can write that about a piece of pop music. As the songs pay you a visit, one-by-one – and yes, that phrasing is deliberate, they sound warm and enveloping, like the closest of friendships. It’s those harmonies, those divine harmonies – I find myself swept along, almost uttering the words before I know what they are. Usually, if a set of lyrics contains copious mentions of the moon, the stars, and the light therein to be found, I might roll my eyes a little, as sometimes this star-gazey way of looking at the world seems terribly twee to my ears. Yet Mvula plants these words firmly in little character and scene snippets – instead of the rather painful generalisms and pat affirmations that they usually signal, Mvula is using them as metaphor with weight behind them.
The sound, though, that’s the thing – and those intricate and fulsome harmonies (sung in part with her brother and sister). That’s the thing that really makes this album buzz, vibrate, hum with life. Laura Mvula comes from a choir background, and even directs one in her Birmingham (England) home town. She is also in possession of a degree in music composition. Put these two things together in the hands of someone with a potent imagination, and you get this – beautiful psychedelia, mixed with choral thrust, peculiarly English melancholia (of the type embedded in our folk music traditions, and which has been in the blood of many of our most successful pop and rock artists), and always with an invigorating poppy fervour.
If you agree than album, whilst often containing a highlight or two, should mostly be regarded successful if it holds together as a piece of work, as something which is all the stronger for hearing the tracks together in the sequence the artist intended, then this album fits the bill. It is strong from start to end. No filler. No mucking about. Just serious, bold intent all the way through. The harmonic work, and the production going on in the background with its subtle and gorgeous instrumentation (I mean, a celeste on a pop album, for fecks sake! A double bass, played pizzicato!) fair knocked me and Lady C until we were dazzled. Laura Mvula comes fully formed; she is ambitious, the definition of it played out on this album. If you had any doubts about that, then she signs off with a confident, strident proclamation – ” I will never be what you want and that’s alright/ Cause my skin ain’t light and my body ain’t tight/ And that’s alright/ But if I might, I must stand and fight.”
I had to scrap a whole lot of material for this review, as I kept noticing little points of influence – whether conscious or not on Mvula’s part. I’m sure some of you will also spot some others. But I decided against that because one of the most vital things about this debut album, it strikes me, is that no matter what the influences are – or how many – this recording is, above all, 100% Laura Mvula. I haven’t heard an album quite like this – it is her sound. Unique – quite a challenge in a day an age when you might think that you’d heard it all. It may be crafted from many influences, but like the best artists, she has molded them all to make her own form. Already, so early in the year, I have my contender for album of the year. Love it.
Album: Black Out the Sun
Genre: Heavy Metal/Hard Rock
Sounds like: All the power, less of the nuance.
Maybe I’m alone in doing this, but when one of your favorite bands starts to talk about putting out a new album, and gets all kinds of social network activated with “updates from the studio” and teases of new tracks – it’s not uncommon for me to find myself listening to their previous work. Completely fan-boying out to the classics while waiting for that new new to drop.
Whether it was extra rotations of Justified before Timberlake finally debuted The 20/20 Experience or listening to a bunch of Periphery the day of the concert – you want that feel, and until you get the new stuff, why not wrap yourself in the blanket of what you like about the group to begin with?
But then a funny thing happens. The new stuff comes out and all you can think when you first hear it is “What the hell, JT — this ain’t no Justified”
I’m a huge fan of Atlanta rockers Sevendust. One of the most consistent, heaviest live acts out there – the band is never far from appearing on my playlist rotation. I love how big the guitars are on their albums, the interlocking riffs, the multiple textures they bring into each song, the deep harmonies, and the hooks that get into your head and stay there for days later.
But even with all that, I still wasn’t ready for their last album Cold Day Memory (2010) to be such a revelation.
Sevendust has always had a knack for bringing out the dark side of the alt-metal component of their sound, but in 2010 the band got together and injected a heavy dose of thrash into the mix. That added flavor of classic Metallica and Pantera seemed to re-invigorate the group’s songwriting, pulling it into a more aggressive stance than before.
So when I heard that the group was back in the studio working on a follow-up album called Black Out the Sun I was naturally excited. And if the first single (“Decay”) was any indication – the band was following right in the footsteps of that vibe, promising even more of what I had felt was their best work to date.
But when the actual album came out and I started to spin it in my headphones – something weird happened.
On first glance, the whole thing felt a little underwhelming. There were songs I found myself fast forwarding through. I liked it, and I recognized it as the band I loved, but it was like there was something missing. The brutal force was there, the harmonies – it was Sevendust to be sure, but unlike the last album these songs weren’t by and large leaping out of the speakers and grabbing me by the shirt the way so much of their previous work had.
Production matters in any form of music. You want snappy beats and the vocals to be warm in your ear. You want to hear nuances. But especially in heavy rock and metal, you need to be able to hear all the pieces working together. Sevendust is a two guitar, two singer band that specializes in mixing different guitar textures and electronic drum sounds in each song. There’s a lot going on in their songs – but it’s all designed to fit together like a puzzle. And for all its bombast and soul – there are huge parts of Black Out the Sun where it’s actually hard to hear the parts mixed together.
In the past Sevendust has been criticized for album production that sounded “dry” in comparison to all the other pro-tool overloaded albums that were coming out alongside theirs. But when you listen to those older albums, what you get is a clear picture of all the components coming together. Something that is missing in large parts of Black Out The Sun.
Once you start to acclimate to the vibe of it all you realize the power and passion in the songwriting – as the 13 tracks on the album explore the feelings of vulnerability and sadness that come with the loss of love, or the death of a father – but the delivery at times seems muddy, more blended than in the past. Perhaps there was a push to get everybody in a room and re-create the live experience – but it comes with a cost. There are guitar solos that are hard to pick out, lyrics that seem to get lost. It’s like watching a youtube video of your favorite clip from a movie, except that the footage is actually someone taping their TV with their cell phone. The joke is still funny, but the translation itself is too noticeable not to get in the way.
What’s funny though is that there are singles all over this disc. Individual moments where the clarity breaks through. Tracks like “Decay”, “Black Out The Sun,” and especially “’Till Death” bring a raw power with them that reminds me of what so much of the rest of the disc seems to be missing. Simply put, there’s a lot of filler on this disc – which isn’t usually the case with these guys.
See what you think, here’s “Decay”