Bizarrely for a band who rely so heavily on sequencers, repetition is death for Depeche Mode. They have always shifted their sonic vista somewhat from project to project. The electro-post punk outfit developed into a serious proposition over the course of the ‘80s with numerous hit singles, but it wasn’t until 1993’s ‘Songs of Faith and Devotion’ that they would land a No. 1 album in the UK.
The journey to credibility was as varied as their sound. Their sixth offering, ‘Music For The Masses’ hinted at the dark perfection that was to follow with songs such as Never Let Me Down Again and Behind The Wheel. And for the masses it was; the live album ‘101’ would document their success in front of 70,000 people at the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena - but this was only the beginning, rioting broke-out at a record signing in America on the eve of the release of 'Violator' as their popularity reached fever pitch.
However, much like U2’s decision to go away and dream it all up again after the monumental success of ‘The Joshua Tree’ and the disappointment of 'Rattle and Hum', Depeche Mode found themselves at somewhat of a crossroads when it came to their seventh album, ‘Violator’. In an effort to keep things fresh for themselves Dave Gahan (vocals), Martin Gore (vox, guitar/synth) Andy Fletcher (Synth, Bass, vox) and Alan Wilder (Vox, Synths, Drums) endeavoured to change their working practices.
They brought in producer Flood for the project. His attention to detail and scant regard for rules and convention played perfectly into the group’s wish to mix it up. Recording sessions took place in Milan, New York, London and Gjerlev. The middle-of-nowhere feel of the Denmark town provided the perfect final leg for the band to get their heads down following fun-filled sessions in some of the more luxurious locations.
Notable curiosities from Flood included stamping on metal for the intro to Personal Jesus, getting Gahan to scream in tandem with the slide guitar to create an unusual blend of sounds, and getting the band to play live in-studio as a traditional rock band.
As per usual, all songs were written by Martin Gore, but that’s were convention ended, with the other members of the band entering the creative process much earlier than usual, steering early versions of tracks, rather than polishing fully formed ideas.
This increased agency gave Depeche Mode more options than ever. Enjoy The Silence was transformed from a funeral march ballad demo into the dance anthem we know today at the behest Alan Wilder, much to Gore’s consternation. The tracks were created by copying the rhythm of a disco classic and experimenting with a modular synthesizer that Flood had recently purchased.
Gore would go onto explain in interview with Michael Gambaccini that he is often too close to the creative process to get a good gauge on the material: “I wasn’t sure if I liked it [Violator] or not until about a year or so after it was out.”
The mixture of organic and synthetic sounds gave Depeche Mode a new opulent, almost preternatural sound. Gore’s increasingly dark lyrical themes gave Gahan license to take more risks with his vocals, step out from the shadows and stake his claim as one of the best vocalists of the era.
Gore’s sensual world is never far from view: punishment, pleasure and pain, yearning and shame are constant reference points throughout. Violator’s singles; Policy of Truth, Enjoy The Silence, World In My Eyes and Personal Jesus attack these murky taboo corners of life.
Gore has always written about the dark underbelly but Violator goes further and deeper than ever before Personal Jesus for instance was inspired by how Priscilla Presley described her relationship with Elvis in the book Elvis & Me and as a reaction to the unsavoury nature of American television evangelists who prey on the viewers by using their beliefs to extort money from them.
‘Violator’ stands as Depeche Mode’s finest album to date. ‘Songs of Faith and Devotion’ would propel them further into the limelight in 1993, but would almost destroy them in the process. Alan Wilder subsequently left in 1995 and Depeche Mode would continue as a trio, releasing Ultra in 1996. The group have since released five additional albums, most recently 2017’s ‘Spirit'.