- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Depeche Mode
Sounds of the Universe

While digging into the back catalog of Depeche Mode, I came across a video of one-time keyboard player Alan Wilder explaining the basics of the Emulator II, the electronic music sampler that won widespread appeal with musicians in the mid-1980s because of its keyboard interface and relative portability.

As part of the demonstration, Mr. Wilder popped out a now-obsolete 5¼-inch computer disc to show how recorded samples were stored for playback. It made me wonder how many of the samples on “Sounds of the Universe,” the 12th studio album by the durable pop group, reside on that very same floppy.

After 30 years together through evolving lineups, Depeche Mode has become a museum of itself. The electronica that once pulsated futuristically is present as a species of techno-kitsch — like stylized robots from 1950s sci-fi movies. Few bands stick around three decades without succumbing to the same fate, but there’s something incongruous about a group once so steeped in cutting-edge technology sounding entrenched in the past.

Having said that, “Sounds of the Universe,” produced by Ben Hillier with songs by Martin Gore (with contributions from vocalist David Gahan), uses its Atari sound effects and Drumulator beats to good effect. Depeche Mode has always been the master of a kind of darkly compelling sound, downbeat yet weirdly catchy.

The album kicks off with “In Chains,” with a cool, industrial-sounding intro that sounds like a synthesizer squaring off against a chain saw before it resolves into a sonorous, haunting melody that is buoyed by quiet, metronomic beats. Mr. Gahan’s low voice is, as ever, mysterious and honeyed, like a gloomy prophet.

“Wrong,” the album’s third cut, opens with a grungy, menacing synth part that’s combined with an array of gentler, more subtle keyboard sounds, which fade and return here and there. Like a lot of “SOTU,” it sounds best at high volumes.

Likewise, “Little Soul” is another contemplative song. It pairs a surprisingly sweet vocal line with a layered sonic attack that combines fluttering birdlike sounds with strings and mechanized rattles and bells before closing with a sumptuous bluesy guitar riff courtesy of Mr. Gore. Here, the multitextured effect manages to convey brutalism and delicacy all at once.

“SOTU” is being released in a multiplicity of formats, including the basic 13-track album under review here. There’s also a digital version with two bonus tracks, and a special “iTunes Pass” version that features a host of remixes — including four takes on the single “Wrong” by different producers and DJs.

The extra effort in creating these pricier packages shows that the band and its label are taking full advantage of the group’s longevity and huge following. Die-hard fans will find “SOTU” to be more evidence of Depeche Mode’s lasting creativity — although some may fault the band for not including at least one can’t-miss danceable single. However, with “Sounds of the Universe,” more casual listeners will just hear more of the same.

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