Depeche Mode has led electronic music for three decades. These three seasoned musicians have entered their 50s, but they show no signs of slowing down in the 2010s. The group’s release of Delta Machine has a lot to prove — each new decade since Depeche Mode’s formation has been a turning point in the band’s creative direction. Whenever Depeche Mode releases its first album of a decade, it both reflects global changes in music and breathes innovative wind into the industry. Delta Machine, therefore, bears a lot of weight on its back.
The new record shows influence from every preceding Depeche Mode era, and the band’s strategy is seemingly to pick and choose from its existing repertoire and bolster these ideas with new techniques.
Listen to Delta Machine with a high-quality set of stereo speakers, because one of the main assets of the album is its production and the architecture of its sound space. This production quality emerged as a strength for the band with Exciter in the 2000s, and new technology and experience have allowed them to make this new release more of a sonic experience than an album. If you’re sitting in a room with some nice speakers, don’t make the mistake of sitting down and trying to listen to this record while doing your homework. You won’t be able to; the intricacy makes some of the tracks a sensory overload.
In the 1990s, Depeche Mode tipped its hat to rising grunge influence with gritty, angsty synths in Ultra. Some of these synths make a comeback in Delta Machine. There’s a strong low end throughout the album in general, and while sometimes dirty-rock synths fill the bottom, the band showcases some sounds that clearly represent the new decade. Smooth, thick bass synths that give up treble for subwoofer-level vibrations reveal influence from new techno styles and even hip-hop production.
On the vocal end, lead singer Dave Gahan experiments with his style on Delta Machine. A lot of the songs on the album are slower ballads, in the style of the last few releases, but on some of the tracks you can hear a rich bel canto style — strong, operatic baritone singing with Elvis-like vibrato — that shows a hidden power in Dave Gahan’s repertoire. On “My Little Universe,” he tries another new technique by getting up close to the microphone and singing with a whispery intimacy. The effect transforms the track, drawing the listener in and empowering the chorus.
Some of the 1980s Depeche Mode sound comes out in these compositions. The band brings back the repetitive, chorus-focused sound that defines its first albums, but it still manages to work in a modern context. The tracks succeed at sticking with the listener in a way that a lot of the band’s material since the millennium has failed to do.
The group even digs into its 1970s repertoire. The Cure influenced Depeche Mode even before its official formation, and you can hear it on Delta Machine. The guitar work on “Slow” and other tracks and the melodies in “Heaven” are at times so reminiscent of The Cure that you’d expect a credit in the CD booklet.
Depeche Mode presents an impressive and creative concoction of past techniques in Delta Machine. Unfortunately, while some new synths and techniques appear, the band just doesn’t steer itself or the industry in a new direction with this album. If these musical giants still do have a leash around the music scene, they certainly haven’t pulled hard enough to change its path. To its credit, there’s no denying that Delta Machine would have been groundbreaking if it had been released five years ago, and if Depeche Mode’s momentum hasn’t slowed for the last time, maybe its next album will do a better job of leaping ahead and pulling music forward with it.