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The turn of the decade caused many bands to re-think their sound, to refresh their ways of making music. U2 achieved this successfully and remain a powerful force to this day, but bands like Simple Minds did not and soon died. Depeche Mode, fresh from the success of the Music for the Masses tour and the accompanying live album, 101, took similar stock of what could be done, and launched into the 90’s with the superb Violator.
Although only nine tracks long, Violator reeks of quality, from the stark, simplistic artwork, to the well-planned running order of the songs, every track in the right place. The music shows a real attention to detail, where you can tell Alan Wilder and his production team slaved over every beat. Nothing is left to chance and the end result is a polished, professional album, accessible to everyone, not just fans of the group.
Biographies show that Depeche Mode have an unusual working arrangement in the studio. Martin Gore would craft his songs in demo form, often providing intricate arrangements. In the case of this album, after the demos for Music for the Masses were felt to restrict creativity, he presented very stark home recordings, allowing the work in the studio to breathe life into these songs. In the studio, Martin Gore makes very little input, Dave Gahan even less. Andy Fletcher, or so biographies suggest, was just an annoyance, contributing little more than “man in the street” comments on the music, often insulting Alan Wilder who would have his hard work dismissed with throw away comments. However, this is not to say that Fletch is not an integral part of the band. Most observers state that without his presence, Martin Gore would be a more difficult character, relying a lot on his old Basildon friend.
This would not stop this being hard on Alan Wilder. Because this, and the albums either side, are very much the work of Wilder and the chosen producer, in this case (and in the case of Songs of Faith and Devotion) the extremely talented Flood. Flood (real name Mark Ellis), although young at the time, had a wealth of experience (one of his earliest credits includes working on New Order’s “Movement”), and has gone on to work with bands as diverse as Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins.
Flood's nickname came about from his early days as a tape operator in a studio. A main part of being a tape operator is making the tea, and Ellis had a habit of presenting you with a fresh cup the second the previous one had been drained. Hence, he was nicknamed Flood, and it is clear that his intelligent, technical mind brings much to this album. However, great credit must be given to Alan Wilder, whose commitment to the band is huge, something (much to his frustration) was never attributed to him at the time or since. Yes, the material he was working with was great, but between him and Flood (coupled with the mixing skills of Francois Kervorkian and engineering talents of Steve Lyon), something very special was created in Violator.
This was evident when the lead single, Personal Jesus, was released, a song that crashed into the public consciousness, sounding like nothing else on the radio. The drums sound huge, an effect achieved by bashing the flight cases they used on tours, and the bluesy guitar line is inspired, driving the song forward, never sounding rock, but totally unique. Also released were a variety of different remixes across different formats, and for the album version a combination of the single and the 12” “pump” mixed are used, the extended ending really enhancing the track, giving a heightened sense of excitement as it kicks in.
It’s position on the album, as track three, is also a good choice, rather than as the album opener. This position is given to “World in My Eyes”, a fantastically crafted piece of electronica, let down by meaningless lyrics but with a fantastic sound. Switching to waltz time, “Sweetest Perfection” is a song sung by Gore, with an interesting orchestral middle eight.
After “Personal Jesus” comes “Halo”, a fabulous song, a tale of guilt and pain that is all for love. An amazing chorus, with excellent harmonies from Gore, lift this track, a contender for single if not up against such stiff competition. Dave Gahan’s voice soars on this track, perfect sing-a-long material, a song with real atmosphere. The same is true of “Waiting for the Night”, but in a more ambient way; this track bleeps and bloops along, and sounds boring at first, but becomes more and more interesting with each listen. This is a “late at night” song to have on your headphones.
Side two starts with “Enjoy the Silence”. The demo presented by Gore originally pitched this song as slower, more as a ballad, but Wilder in the studio speed it up with a more percussive arrangement. The guitar, although amazingly simple, works really well, bringing a New Order feel to the song. The lyrics are simple also, but the chorus is one of Gore’s best, the track reaching a wonderful crescendo at the end, a superb piece of pure music, possibly their finest single. Much is said about the video but it is the song that is the key to this tracks success – its close to the perfect pop song; the production is of the highest quality, the instrumentation superb.
After a brief interlude, “Policy of Truth”, a dark, sluttish song, let down by a meandering arrangement. Again though, the tune is all about atmosphere, and the choice of instrumentation is elaborate and works well, with more excellent, all be it simple, guitar from Gore.
“Blue Dress”, after all that comes before it, sounds like filler, and indeed, it is a second hand track, previously used as the b-side to Personal Jesus. Its inclusion on the album is puzzling and unnecessary, sounding out of place with the rest. Album closer though, Clean, sums up the sound of the band at this point, a wonderful, jittering bass-line leads into a clattering, awesome sound, Dave Gahan’s rich vocals and the extended outro marking a memorable conclusion.
Violator sounds as good today as it did back in 1990. It seems somewhat timeless, their desire for new sounds preventing the album from becoming dated. It took an already successful band to a whole new level of success, something that with their next album took all four members to their limit, one of them almost to their death. Violator, whilst not perfect, is a close to perfection as Depeche Mode ever got, an excellent piece of work that demands a listen.
Please see here for a review of the new CD/DVD Collectors Edition