Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Great Star Wars mistake

I suspect that this theory is likely.  Rian Johnson is a major tool, but it's too much to give him credit for ruining Star Wars.  He did so with the full blessing and collusion of Jar Jar Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy, and even Bob Iger, for that matter.

The Force is female, indeed.  No place for white men anymore a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Despite misgivings, I went with my wife to see Last Christmas the other day.  It's not a good movie, and I don't recommend it, but it does manage to settle on a good message after farting around for more than half the movie.  That's not worth watching it, though—the main character is completely unlikable, and the movie is insulting in most respects to its audience.  The worst part, the part that stood out to me the most, was a scene where the movie made it clear that there is no place for British men in Britain; the future belongs to interracial lesbian immigrants.

Unreal.  The evil of the SJWs knows no bounds.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

(Off schedule) Friday Art Attack

A Superman redesign concept; darker and more futuristic and alien.

A Styracosaurian ceratopsian.  I can't keep track of every described new dinosaur, but I can't find that this is a real one at all.

The murder of Julius Caesar.

Fantasy landscape.

Rome landscape.

Ken Kelly and Conan on a book cover.

Another great fantasy landscape.

The King in Yellow.

Some Star Wars fan art.

A great digital model of a space ship.

Depeche Mode Rankings Podcast Episode: 0 — Establishing Context

An hour and a half of me talking into my phone while sitting in my car about Depeche Mode in preparation for the detailed, annotated album rankings.  This episode is all about establishing some context before I rank them, about me, about the band, about its history, about my musical tastes, etc.

If you have any interest at all in listening to the rankings (I've recorded two, and they are both over half an hour each.  Sigh.  I'll get those annotated review podcasts out soon, but first; the context...

I've also added the first two reviews; album 14 of 14 and 13 of 14, by my ranking.  I'm not going to continue to post on the blog everytime I add an episode of the podcast review, but I did put a page link to the Depeche Mode reviews over there along the top row, and I'll make sure and update there when new episodes are available.  This way, it'll keep my gaming blog from getting too gummed upw with talk about Depeche Mode (too late!) although that's where I'm working right now, so the blog posts will probably just happen a little less frequently until this project is complete.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Depeche Mode Five Questions: Spirit

I'll do a belated Friday Art Attack on Monday, I think (my schedule looks hopefully light, but today's has not been.)  But first, let me get a bit closer to my wrap-up review of Depeche Mode and their career.  I'm also reading the book Stripped by Jonathan Miller.  It was published a while ago, so it came out about in time to coincide with the release of Exciter nearly twenty years ago now, and obviously there's more to say about them in the years since, but it also gives some behind the scenes information that as far as I know can't be had anywhere else.  Between reading Stripped and watching the documentaries that came out with the deluxe edition remastered re-releases, that's probably the best way to get the "Depeche Mode story", as much as can be gotten without actually sitting down with the band members yourself, getting them drunk, and getting them to talk about the good old days.  Going through this process has had me fine-tuning the scores and rankings just a bit as I've done this; I've found that some albums that I'd kinda slagged off as uninteresting were perhaps a tad unappreciated, and at least once or twice I had the opposite reaction too.

Now that I'm reviewing and rating the last album by the band, I'll be ready go post the finalized rankings soon, as well as give a bigger, broader, retrospective.  I'm actually thinking about recording rather than writing this, though—probably with my voice recorder app on my phone, and then loading it up to YouTube or something and talking about DM there.  That will be a lengthy (because I missed my calling in life; I should have been a lecturing professor.  Plus, I love the sound of my own voice) summary, and I rather like the idea of rambling about it in vocal form rather than typing.  It'll be different, but what can I say?  I've had a lot of podcasts and youtube casts on Depeche Mode going on in the background these last few weeks; in fact, it's specifically a review series by Vaughn George on his channel that got me started on this as well.

I said earlier at one point that one of the things Depeche Mode was like to me personally could be encapsulated by the metaphor of some old girlfriend that you had and you were crazy in love with, but whom you grew apart from, eventually having to break up, and because of nostalgia or whatever, you still occasionally check in on Facebook or whatever to see what she's up to only to be amazed at how different you've become in the years since.  Of course, the reality is that those differences were likely always there, and you just didn't see them because you focused on the things that you did have in common when you were living high and loving life with each other.

Depeche Mode is very different from my ideal in a number of key elements: 1) they're often very insulting to my identity, contemptuous of religion and Christianity, and resentful of some supposed "oppression" that they've suffered at their hands comes through between the lines.  It sounds like, after reading Stripped as far as I have, that a big part of this was Martin Gore being a hopeless and hapless beta all his life, who had a ball-buster girlfriend early on in high school and the first couple of years of his career.  Once he left her and ran off with some skanky German girl, he did a complete about face, declared himself an atheist, cross-dressing, and dressing like he was in the S&M scene (although whether he really truly was in that scene or not is, I suppose, not really confirmed.)  For whatever reason, this hasn't bothered me too much in the past, both because the band themselves hinted at a somewhat allegorical use of the sex and religion metaphors in their music, and I was only too eager to accept that apologia. But that's the definition of passive-aggressive, isn't it?  They insult you and then when you call them out, pretend like that's not really what they meant, and you're misinterpreting them, and somehow they're the victim after all.  I think this is probably hard-coded with Gore's personality, at least.  Maybe some of the others too, but who really knows, because Gore does almost all of the song-writing.  Gahan's foray into the task hasn't given us nearly as much to work with, plus it's less personally revealing in most respects. 2) I don't like Depeche Mode because I cultishly follow them personally; I'm a huge fan of electronic music and a bit of pessimistic, sarcastic personality who naturally gravitated to the darker and more bleak and melancholy, and at exactly the right time for me to get into music, Depeche Mode was carving out their own niche that was perfectly suited to me.  They've, however, moved in different directions with both their sound and even some of their themes over the years.  This has had me feeling a bit left behind, and I've turned to other types of music, or looked at the better Depeche Mode imitators over the years.  As an aside, none of them are as good as Depeche Mode during their peak, but some—De/Vision, Camouflage, Red Flag, and Mesh in particular—are still very credible, and certainly they're putting out stuff that I like better than what DM themselves are doing lately.  The worst part of this is the addition of all kinds of new elements that take them away from their slick, dark, European electronic pop music roots; lots of really noisy rock, gospel, jazz or whatever influences dilute what Depeche Mode so unique and amazing in the first place.  3) Depeche Mode feels tired and old lately.  When they veer too far from their sound, their fans lose interest.  But when they stay too close to it, they seem to get tired and bored themselves, I suspect.  Certainly that's the sound, I think.

In that light, Spirit is very much a part of the four album trajectory that started after Exciter; Playing the Angel was a deliberate "back to roots" sounding album, but they've gotten more tired and filler-sounding every album since then.  Most of what I said for Sounds of the Universe or Delta Machine applies to Spirit as well; there's no moments of stand-out brilliance, such as Wrong or Oh Well.

A lot of people have talked about liking Cover Me, but I think it's tired sounding myself and doesn't do much for me.  It's not bad, but if that's the stand-out track, that's not saying much.  So Much Love is the one that tries to be accessible in a more traditional way, as do the first two tracks, Going Backwards and Where's the Revolution.  Eternal is the obligatory terrible Martin Gore ballad that nobody ever likes, but which he keeps doing.  And for an unusual reason, he did another one and ended the album with it on Fail.

So, it's about the same level as Delta Machine, really.  If I didn't speak English and it were just about the music, I'd probably rank it just a tad higher; maybe about the same level as Sounds of the Universe (although noting that lacking anything as good as Wrong would put it behind it still.)  In fact, I initially had done so, because I had listened to it in the background without really paying attention to the songs that closely, and certainly not to the lyrics.  However, of course, I do speak English.  This is the album where Depeche Mode tried to apply the "get woke go broke" mantra and stepped up their low grade passive-aggressive attacks on Western civilization in favor of hitting you over the head with it.  Appalled that the people of the Anglosphere would actually attempt, even as weakly and half-heartedly as they did, to assert their self-interest in their own countries by voting for Brexit and electing Trump, the themes in the songs are about as subtle as they were in The Last Jedi and just as welcome.  This was a step too far, and I am genuinely kinda pissed off about it.  Shut up, Martin.  Nobody cares what you think about politics.  All of you entertainment types are too stupid and uneducated about anything substantial to be able to say anything about social or political topics without sounding like morons, as well as being too psychologically, emotionally and mentally broken to have any reason to think that any serious person should listen to you anyway.  Seriously; knock it off.  Your job is the entertainer.  You're the court jester.  The musician.  Nobody wants to have their entertainment turn into a smug, holier-than-thou lecture about lunatic left-wing politics by people who are too lacking in self-awareness to realize their own projection and emotional and mental crippling flaws anyway—which I'll point out that by watching the documentaries and reading the Stripped book are now kinda public knowledge after all (not to spoil anything.)

In any case, this get woke go broke attitude drops Spirit below Delta Machine in my estimation; it's the second worst DM album, with only Exciter standing behind it.  I just got it recently; after the last two albums before this had disappointed me I wasn't in a big hurry to rush out and get more of the same, and the Where's the Revolution track on youtube didn't exactly thrill me either or cause me to reevaluate that approach.  So I've heard it the very least of all of the Depeche Mode albums so far.  As more time goes by, will I like it better and get over the stupid political posturing and virtue-signaling, or will more time only cause that to piss me off even more to the point where I like this album the least?  I suspect the latter, but we'll see.

As noted; the best songs are probably... I dunno.  Going Backwards, if you can ignore the words, and Cover Me is OK.  I'm not sure if Fail or Eternal is worse, but they're both terrible.  Three out of ten.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Depeche Mode Five Questions: Delta Machine

After being somewhat enchanted by the song Precious and the entire Playing the Angel album, including the great concert experience I had at the Palace (where LeBron had recently thrown a chair at some fan, prompting a bunch of jokes about getting into a brawl with Dave Gahan.  Needless to say, nobody threw a drink cup at Gahan, and he didn't hit anyone with a chair either.  Would've been really awesome if that had happened, though...) I was a bit disappointed at first by the fact that the Sound of the Universe wasn't very accessible other than the brilliant track Wrong.  I did pick up Sounds of the Universe fairly quickly, although I admit I didn't listen to it all that often, and overall, I'd still rate it as one of the lesser DM albums; a kind of tired retread of the "golden years" of the early 90s, which as you may recall, weren't the golden years of DM in my book (which would rather be the half decade earlier.)  So, although not terrible, it wasn't really one that I was super excited about either, and the "revival" if you will that I went through with DM because of Playing the Angel was stalling out.  And then, of course, a few years later (2013) Delta Machine came out. (►ELTA ▲▲ACHINE?) The bluesy alternative rock band with a bit of a synthesizer new wave legacy continued in the same vein; Dave Gahan went even further into that growly Las Vegas voice, and the music followed his lead (he wrote, again, three tracks on the album. although he now had a different musical partner; remember that Dave is a lyricist on the songs he's credited with only, not a musician.  He's actually pretty upfront that he doesn't really know what he's doing musically; he just has the right personality and voice to be the frontman DM needed.)

In general, given that I've talked about the trends a lot in the other reviews I've done, I'm not sure what else to talk about except this album specifically.  I'd say that it's definitely in the same vein as the last two, but the weakest of that three album series.  Whereas the smoothness; the echoes of the polished European synthpop outfit that were still present on Violator were carried forward to some degree on the other two albums, this one went with a more overtly Songs of Faith and Devotion vibe; a bit scuzzier, growlier, and dirtier sounding.  I never really liked too much of that, so bringing it even more to the forefront again isn't a good move towards getting me enthused, if nothing else.  The gospel wasn't brought back, but somehow this doesn't sound like a polished European synthesizer new wave act at all; it's almost as if Depeche Mode were trying to channel just a touch of Johnny Cash, or something, except the songs weren't generally as good.  Again; this doesn't mean that the album is terrible; even Exciter has some merit, after all, and this album is better than Exciter (although less so than it should have been.)  But most of the songs are filler, and they just aren't the kind of stuff that fits with the brand of DM very well.  Granted, that doesn't mean that they're terribly out of place, because unfortunately, over the last couple of decades, they've released several albums that don't sound like their brand (or rather, I suppose that the brand changed on me too much for me to recognize it anymore) and they've released plenty of filler tracks too.  I continue to maintain that the likely explanation is that Martin Gore is himself kinda tired and bored with writing this stuff; he can still crank it out, but it just doesn't have the genius that it used to.

Curiously, where Sounds of the Universe started out (relatively) strong and kinda faded into silliness and self-parody at the end, Delta Machine starts off relatively weak and gives a bunch of tracks that sound like DM trying to figure out who they were going to be this year, but wrapped it up a bit better.  Or maybe I'm just trying to say that the best two songs on the album are within the last three.

The worst song on the album is probably Slow, which sounds like one of the weird awkward Martin Gore ballads that even Gore got tired of and let Dave sing.  It's also emblematic of why I don't like Depeche Mode nearly as much as I used to.  I'm not a Depeche Mode cultist, as I've said before—I was a fan of polished European synthesizer music, and Depeche Mode literally created their own niche within that form as moody, dark, industrial yet also poppy, poppy yet also serious and artistic, etc.  Slow isn't an electronic music song at all.  Oh, sure; they do eventually play something on a keyboard before they're done, but it's a bit, broad, hoaky, "soulful" country-sounding song, if country were Johnny Cash trying to write some of the less memorable of the Depeche Mode oeuvre of songs.  The actual terrible Martin Gore song is The Child Inside.  It's a contender for worst song too, which shouldn't be surprising to anyone by now, but for some reason it doesn't bother me quite as much as Slow does.  Soft Touch/Raw Nerve is another one that kind of sounds like a parody of a Depeche Mode song; the kind of Dead of Night for Delta Machine.  Eagh.

Curiously, and for the first time, the Gahan songs are some of the best songs this time out; Broken and Should Be Higher join Gore's Soothe My Soul as among the better songs on the album.  Should Be Higher and Soothe My Soul were also two of the three singles released; I didn't nearly as much like Heaven, the lead single from the album and an earlier appearing track.  Alone is another decent track which wouldn't necessarily be one of the better tracks from an album like Playing the Angel, but stands out from this collection.  And the album ends weirdly; the cowboy sounding Goodbye (or wanting to sound cowboy, anyway; Martin Gore sure isn't a cowboy, so it doesn't quite work; like a cowboy trying to cover a weird European song written by someone who's only exposure to the wilderness was in a carefully controlled photo shoot situation) just is another out of place song that wandered in from another section entirely of the record store.

There's also four bonus and/or b-side songs from this era, but most of them aren't very good either; only All That's Mine is really worth bothering with.  Depeche Mode doesn't see themselves as a b-sides band; y'know, one of those bands that has great b-sides that make collecting the singles important because it's the only way to get the b-sides (Pro tip: classic Depeche Mode soundalike band Mesh have GREAT b-sides.  In particular check out the tracks Let Them Crush Us and From This Height, both from 2002.)  That said, there are some really good Depeche Mode b-sides here and there, and other non-album tracks, like a handful of non-album singles releases, so one can have hoped for better this time around.

All in all, this is probably the weakest DM album other than Exciter.  The folksy pseudo-country sound just doesn't suit them at all, and it serves to effectively mute (no pun intended) the classic DM voice.  It just feels like it doesn't know what it wants to be.  More grist for my theory that Depeche Mode is a bit tired of writing the same kinds of albums that made them famous, but sadly, every time they veer very far from that formula, they produce something that is just confusing and weird.  Maybe there are a few musical artists who are able to play successfully "outside of their lane"; I think specifically here of guys like Danny Elfman, who after being frontman and main man for that matter of Oingo Boingo went on to write symphonic film scores, where he's had a lot of success and where he appears to be quite talented.  When I was a kid, Bo Jackson was famous for being named an All-Star in two sports, the only person ever to have done so and probably the only one who ever will.

But Depeche Mode works best when they stay in their lane.  Three stars.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Depeche Mode Five Questions: Sounds of the Universe

2009's Sounds of the Universe was the first album after Playing the Angel, which means that we're now well into a new phase in Depeche Mode's history; one where they're a bit less experimental, and making sure that they hit the beats that their fans expect.  I'm surprised, or maybe not, that what I see now starting on this album, is attempting to retread the same place as Playing the Angel, but maybe a bit more tired and bored.  It has a similar sound to Angel, but overall, the song quality just isn't as good.  There's way too many filler and mediocre tracks, and way too few honestly good ones.

To be fair, there are a lot of tracks from this era, though.  The album itself has thirteen normal tracks, and there are five b-sides or bonus tracks that are also associated with the album, and appear on "complete" versions of it, such as the Deluxe boxed set version.  (It also has some "demo" stuff and more that are older tracks repackaged in different versions.  The Deluxe boxed set really is overkill.)

In that vein, the album doesn't offer much that's genuinely new.  The sounds are now well known.  Dave's Las Vegas vocals are now no longer something worth remarking on.  Although I hadn't listened to this in quite some time, that was my impression before, and listening to it a couple times again in advance of writing this review has convinced me that that's still true.  I maybe shouldn't speak too much until I've had a chance to do the same for Delta Machine and Spirit, but both of those gave me the same impression.  Change and innovation were tamped down considerably in order to provide the fans what Depeche Mode decided, somewhere between Exciter and Playing the Angel, that they wanted.

Now don't get me wrong.  That's not a complaint.  In fact, let me address at this point two separate, yet related and widespread fallacies.  The first is that innovation is automatically good.  It's perfectly possible to innovate in ways that are really stupid.  Maybe, for instance, one could say it was really innovative for Depeche Mode to integrate lots of polka influences in their sound.  I doubt that this would appeal to much of anyone, or make anyone happy.  One could reasonably make the case that that would be really stupid, in fact. Not because polka is stupid, but because it just has absolutely nothing in common with Depeche Mode's sound, and adding it to Depeche Mode's sound would be too far out of alignment with expectations to likely be a good idea.  (I would have used the example of gospel music here instead of polka, but... y'know.  Depeche Mode actually did that, sadly.)  So it's not a complaint that Depeche Mode recognizes what their brand has become and are wary of deviating too much from that at the risk of alienating fans and confusing everyone else.  My personal belief is that this is kind of what happened with Exciter, and DM recognized it, and made a course correction with the latest and current phase, which includes Playing the Angel and all subsequent albums so far.

The second related fallacy is that a true fan likes and appreciates everything that a band does, even if they do add polka and gospel to their slick European synthesizer new wave music.  Or, a slight variation on that, is that if the fans don't, then the fans are like Kathy Bates from Misery, trying to lock Depeche Mode up and forcing them to retread Black Celebration and Music for the Masses forever.  I would think that either of these variations on the same theme shouldn't need debunking; I'm a Depeche Mode fan, not a Depeche Mode cultist.  But sadly, it does need specific debunking, because I hear that kind of crap all the time.  The reality, of course, is that a band like Depeche Mode can produce whatever music that they want to produce, or even throw in the towel and produce nature documentaries about meerkats instead of music for all I care.  Nobody is stopping them from expressing their artistic vision however they please.  But the flipside to that is that the fans can react to this artistic vision however they please.  If I don't like everything Depeche Mode does, that doesn't make me a heretic to the Depeche Mode cult, it just makes me a normal person who has a spectrum of taste that DM (or anyone else, for that matter) may or may not hit with everything that they produce.  And if I don't like certain elements of their oeuvre as much as I do others, I mean, honestly, what normal, healthy person would expect anything other than that?

However, the juxtaposition of attempting make something that the band is pleased with and something that the fans are pleased with, as people change, grow, evolve, etc., can be a tricky balance.  At some point, every entertainer will usually find that they are locked into a rather narrower spectrum than maybe they'd like, because if they deviate too much from that, they'll lose the majority of their fans.  But this can mean that the band themselves gets tired or bored or at least unenthused about doing the same thing again and again.  And even if they don't, even the fans themselves, ironically, will start to lose that giddy enthusiasm; how many years can a fan really be excited about another DM release that'll sound pretty similar to the last several DM releases, for example?  It's a trap that I'm not sure that I see any real way out of other than to recognize it and quit while you're at the top of your game, maybe reinventing yourself with a different brand name if you want to experiment in a different kind of sound.  So all of this discussion about this (and the next two) albums needs to be filtered through that lens.  I personally am a little bit bored with the sound that Depeche Mode is doing right now, but at the same time, I'd hate for them to deviate so much from it that I couldn't even recognize what the heck they're doing anymore.  Also, I suspect that the loss of Alan Wilder as well as just the years and number of songs that they've done means that the quality will gradually go slightly downhill; the copy of a copy of a copy phenomena.

So I've decided that one needs to temper ones expectations of a band with the longevity of Depeche Mode.  The two biggest problems I have with them are 1) the sound that they're replicating as best as they can, more or less, is the Songs of Faith and Devotion (without the gospel) and Violator era, which is not my favorite era of theirs anyway, and 2) both the band and I are probably honestly a little tired of treading this same stretch of water by now, which means that there are diminishing returns for the release of new material.

All that said, this isn't meant to completely damn the album to either irrelevance or disappointment.  Sure, there aren't that many tracks that I really love from the era, but few of them are actively terrible, and there are at least two brilliant songs from this album (or its associated bonus tracks); notably Wrong and Oh Well, and Fragile Tension is also quite good.  Wrong and Oh Well are among the standout tracks crossing multiple decades, so the album wouldn't be a complete loss even if that was all that was any good on it.  Most of the rest of the tracks are serviceable, if a bit forgettable, and the Gahan songs this time around are among the most forgettable—although again, not terrible.  In Sympathy and Perfect I also think are better than average.

Jezebel is the closest thing to the terrible Martin Gore ballad, although it's both better and yet worse than most.  It doesn't sound as bad, but Jezebel and Corrupt both have lyrics and themes that are so ridiculous that they sound like parodies of Depeche Mode songs rather than actual Depeche Mode songs.  Seriously; what?!  Maybe the bonus track The Sun the Moon and the Stars is "really" the terrible Martin Gore ballad from this collection.  Spacewalk is a really strange instrumental.  I try not to bag on instrumentals too much, because they're already handicapped to some degree as it is, but this one definitely should have been a b-side, and Oh Well should have replaced it on the album; it would have greatly improved the overall album to have had Oh Well on it.

A few ancillary observations.  The band thought the cover art for Speak & Spell and even moreso Black Celebration were weird and they didn't like them; then again, this pick up sticks absurd cover somehow made the cut, and any of the weirdest covers previously are better than this one.  Also, the music videos from this era were interesting; Wrong's is actually kind of fascinating to watch in a weird way, but the Hole to Feed was bagged on—deservedly so—by pretty much everyone, as near as I can tell.  It's like a case study of what Anonymous Conservative says about r-selected versus K-selected people and their disgust factor; at best, the video is off-putting, while in reality, it's mostly just kind of an endurance challenge of weird grossness that nobody wants to see.

To be fair, that's not really an issue unless you go out of your way to watch the video, which I certainly recommend that you not do, though.  The album cover; well, you just have live with that, but even then, it could be considerably worse.

Overall, I give this album a score of four.  It's hardly one of the top tier DM albums, in general sounding kind of bland and tired, but at least giving us the brilliant Oh Well and Wrong tracks, and not actively offending us too much except by how laughably unserious Jezebel and Corrupt are.  I'm not sure that that's entirely fair; I think Wrong is better than almost anything on Songs (except maybe In Your Room) and it doesn't have Condemnation or Get Right With Me to bring it down, and yet I'm ranking it one point lower than Songs.  Is that a balanced fair assessment?  I'm not sure, except to point out that the context isn't quite the same either.  Songs is the album that followed Violator, and it was still a new direction for DM, whereas by now, Sounds is... well, it's been done already, and it's just older and more tired.  I can't remove over fifteen years of context from my evaluation of the two albums.  Other than Exciter, this is the lowest score I've given so far to a DM album.  But some album had to be here, otherwise there's no point in reviewing them if there's no criticality, and if I'm planning on ranking them, I need to put them in context with each other.  I guess I'm just suggesting that the album isn't really quite as bad as the score would seem to indicate, though.  I don't mind listening to it, although I don't get excited about doing so either; reviewing it a couple of times so I could write this wasn't unpleasant.  But overall, this album will rank as one of the more forgettable ones.

The Mandalorian

In their effort to mitigate the damage of The Last Jedi and the Jar Jar Abrams series, Disney seems to be putting all of their eggs in the Mandalorian basket.  Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni were probably about the best choices to helm this show.  As it probably should be, The Mandalorian is a kind of Clint Eastwood type western in space, except missing all of the white guys.  It has a good trailer.  It looks like it'll be nice, at least for a while.  But I have no confidence in anything Disney does.  I have no confidence in anything Hollywood does.  They almost entertain me on accident, rather than on purpose.

Disney is putting a full court press on The Mandalorian.  But it will not save Star Wars.  Most likely, after a flashy start, it will end up deeply disappointing, the same way everything else from Star Wars has done.

I'll catch it on DVD or Blu-Ray after it comes out, maybe.  From the library.  Assuming that it doesn't tank in fan reviews.

Harveywood delenda est.

This is why we read Galaxy's Edge.  This is why we watch  This is why Hollywood will soon be replaced.  Nobody cares anymore.  The zeitgeist is happening, folks.  You know it.  You can feel it.  This is why the Left has become so hysterical.  Their narrative is falling apart before their eyes even as they'd convinced themselves that it was invincible and inevitable.  But they can't help but double down, so they will fail all the faster and all the harder.

Interesting times ahead for America and the rest of Western civilization, for that matter.  But in the shorter term, our entertainment industry has completely failed to be able to fulfill its primary purpose, i.e., entertain us.  It's running on inertia and fumes.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Friday Art Attack

I missed this last week!  Here's a selection for today.

This is, of course, Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, one of the mysterious sorcerers of Lankhmar of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story game.

A nice fantastic landscape; kind of Thailand's karst shoreline except on steroids and more temperate and European-esque rather than tropical southeast Asian.

A nice design for a starfighter.

The so-called Archbishop, a so far still unnamed and undescribed (officially) brachiosaurid from Tanzania of the late Jurassic.

For a while there, there was an idea that Dimetrodon's spines actually didn't support a sail after all, but rather a lowish hump, and then stuck out as spines.  This is a restoration of that flavor.  It looks like that interpretation is probably not correct, but I do really like the pseudo-mammal depiction regardless.

Shallow undersea cities, or at least office campuses.  I could live here, I think.  At least for a while.

Pseudo-Egyptian style architecture, with a weird lady with a torch checking out the hieroglyphs.  I like the harsh pure black and white of ink drawings, and it particularly serves this type of illustration.

A couple of Necrons, Warhammer 40ks interpretation of space undead.  It's less overtly fantastic than what Starfinder has done, with actual undead in space, but only relatively so.

This is a more conventional undead illustration, a very bizarre lich of some sort.

Not quite sure what this is, but I really like it.  Some kind of necromancer or witch or something, with some kind of strange summoned alien-style undead.

Several images of Nagash, Supreme Lord of the Undead from the Warhammer setting (now god of the dead in their weirdo Age of Sigmar setting.)

What's not to love.  This picture just kinda tells all kinds of stories on its own without any input from me.

A Neanderthal character study.

Depeche Mode Five Questions: Playing the Angel

The super good documentaries, which although hard to find online now I've mostly seen, dried up after Exciter.  There was a small one for Playing the Angel, but it talks much less about the context behind the album, and just shows them chatting around a bit in the recording studio, and introduces Ben Hillier, who was their production partner for this one as well as some of their subsequent albums.

Even way back in the 80s, I thought that the dancier tracks were more immediately accessible but a really good slower song was often the best song.  It's just that really good slower songs were rare compared to mediocre and unexciting slow songs.  One thing that Martin Gore did mention in the Making the Angel mini-documentary is that he had been DJing a lot, and he was perhaps a little surprised even himself at the tempo that Playing the Angel had.  So it's not surprising that when Precious was a remarkable enough single to motivate me to go buy the new DM album; the first time I'd done so in fifteen years, I might add, I found the album pretty accessible overall, and never had much problem adapting to it and liking it right away.

There's some stuff that is not said in the documentary, but which almost certainly plays into the formulation of the album.  There's chatter that Dave Gahan and Martin Gore were really at odds about song-writing.  Gahan, having released his own solo work (with a couple of collaborators) Paper Monsters in 2003, really wanted to contribute some songs to this album.  He had mentioned earlier that he mad material for Exciter, but didn't feel that it was the right time to bring it up.  Apparently Fletch patched up this rift and offered some kind of compromise that was accepted.  In any case, of the twelve tracks on Playing the Angel, three are Gahan tracks (with Christian Eigner and Andrew Phillpott; the latter two wrote the music while Gahan wrote the lyrics.)  Given Gore's writers block last time out, this was probably a good thing.  Gore was also undergoing a divorce or separation at the time, which may have contributed to the rougher, edgier sound compared to Exciter.  I have to also suppose, not that any of the band have admitted it, that the general reception to Ultra and Exciter may have been a bit of a wake-up call to the band that they were migrating too far from their branded sound to retain their fans' good will.  Playing the Angel is often seen as a kind of throwback sound to their "golden years"; I think it actually sounds quite a bit like Songs of Faith and Devotion in many ways.  A Pain That I'm Used To has a very I Feel You sound to it in particular.  Precious is often compared to Enjoy the Silence.  In fact, I've even seen some fans go so far as to say that Playing the Angel is a tired and cynical retread of their Violator/Songs era.  I think this is a bit unfair; it certainly returns a bit to the sound that Depeche Mode had cultivated for a long time.  And Precious in particular is one of their better tracks overall; it compares well to anything that they've done in their entire repertoire.

I think that that becomes a bit of a feature going forward, though. Depeche Mode needed to put stuff out that pleased the fans, so that they can sell albums and have an excuse to tour, which is where the real money is.  Their concerts play a few songs from their current album; half a dozen at the most, and then focus on old fan favorites in general, if reports are to be believed (I've only seen Depeche Mode once in concert, and it was the Playing the Angel tour; that certainly summarizes that show.  Which is fine; that's exactly what I would have wanted too.)

Anyway, it's a bit curious about Playing the Angel and my reaction to it.  After having been disappointed and even in fact quite apathetic or even antagonistic towards picking up new Depeche Mode following Songs of Faith and Devotion (I didn't pick up or even listen to Ultra or Exciter until after Playing the Angel was out, and I'd never bought Songs of Faith and Devotion either, although while I was still hanging around close to home, I could always listen to my brother's copy when I wanted to) I heard Precious on the radio (itself a pretty monumental thing, given that I don't really listen to the radio and haven't since about 1987 or so, unless I'm accommodating someone else in the car.  I went out and got this album (and eventually the other three that I had missed previously, and kind of made my peace with Depeche Mode and where they were.

In general, I'd say that the quality and sound of this album compares very closely to Songs of Faith and Devotion, but my attitude towards it had changed quite a bit; rather than being disappointed with that, it was more than I'd hoped for after so many years.

Anyway, I'm going to modify the five questions some what; rather than talking about the most radical track, because I don't think that I've been able to pick one that I thought I had anything interesting to say on that topic for most of these albums, I'm going to change question 2, 3 and 4 to just discuss a few highlight tracks in general, and then I'll pick a best track out of that discussion.  I won't number my questions anymore either; it'll just be a discussion on what songs I don't like, culminating in my least favorite, a discussion on the songs I do like, culminating in my favorite, and then a ranking.  I'm finding with regards to the rankings, that going through this comparison and listening to the albums again as part of it means that I'm reassessing a lot of stuff that I thought that I knew about the albums, or thought that I thought about them, maybe more accurately.  When I'm done after catching the next three, I'll do a big summary, where I rank all of the albums worst to best.  I might even do it as a YouTube or podcast format rather than a blog post.

But before I start discussing the tracks I should point out that the selection is rather broad, and should include a number of other tracks that have the same general vintage as the album but which aren't on the album itself, notably Martyr, which they decided to save (it was supposed to be the opening single from this album) for the greatest hits compilation that they put out a little bit later.  There are also three really quite good b-sides from this era; Free, Newborn and Better Days.  They are quite good; certainly better than the ugly, awkward Martin Gore ballads and the somewhat pointless instrumental, at least, although I don't think I'd say that they necessarily are the same calibre as the best tracks of the album.

I guess without really meaning to, I introduced the three worst tracks on the album right there.  Introspectre is a little two minute instrumental, and it's not nearly as good as some of the very early instrumentals.  Although even then, I don't think the Depeche Mode instrumentals are really wonderful; even back on Speak & Spell or A Broken Frame, I'd rather have had some of the b-sides in their place, I think.  (Curiously, for the American release of those two, the tracklistings were quite different than they were for the British releases, and the b-side instrumental Further Excerpts from: My Secret Garden was an album track for us.  Go figure.)  In any case, Introspectre is kind of pointless, but it doesn't offend.  For that "honor", not surprisingly, the uncomfortable Martin Gore ballads get nominated.  Damaged People is actually the less offensive of the two, and there are times when the melody and vocal harmonies remind me of some of the slower work by Erasure at times, which I thought was odd.  Macro is definitely the worst song here, and the one that is just terrible.  It absolutely gets the boot if I were the producer.

Much of the rest of the work on the album is quite good, actually.  This is why I'd prefer this to Songs of Faith and Devotion; just the overall song quality is higher; Songs had more songs that I actively didn't like than this one, and this one has more songs that I do like, even though there are gradations there too.  I actually don't think the Gahan songs are as good as the good Gore songs, but they're competent and I don't have any problem with the fact that they were included.  Gore's writer's block seems to have given way to plenty of tracks this time around, given that the album itself has twelve, and a non-album single and three b-sides all came out of the same recording sessions. Even with three Gahan tracks thrown in, that's a decent number.  Of the remaining tracks, much of which are quite good, I'll pick three particular standouts; John the Revelator (although the lyrics are very confusing; maybe that's a good thing; it's hard to be offended by the song if I can't tell for sure what it's talking about, although I kind of suspect that maybe I ought to be), Lillian and Precious.  Precious may indeed have been somewhat similar, by design, to Enjoy the Silence, but it isn't a retread.  I think it's clearly the best track from this period, and in fact, one of the very best tracks of Depeche Mode's entire oeuvre.  But A Pain That I'm Used To, Suffer Well, The Sinner In Me, I Want It All, Nothing's Impossible, and Darkest Star are all quite good too, and as I said, the three b-sides from the era, Free, Newborn and Better Days should all not be missed.

I give the album a seven out of ten.  That is the same score I gave the first three albums where Depeche Mode was figuring out their sound, and the same score I gave Violator.  In general, I'd say I like this as much as Violator.  Maybe it's not quite as much concentrated goodness, and it has a few miss steps (Macro, especially) but it works pretty well, and it's got a lot of good material.  I like listening to it quite well.  It's the high point of the last couple of decades, certainly.

I suspect, although I can't prove it, that DM are trying to kind of recreate the same type of album to keep the fans happy, but that they're also kind tired and bored of it.  There are still some bright moments and good songs that come out in the albums after this, but it's almost by accident, because Gore and the rest of them are kind of phoning it in, trying to recreate the Violator/Songs era without trying to sound too much like that's what they're doing.  I think they were burned by Exciter and the reception to it, and are worried that it will impact their ability to sell future albums and specifically ticket sales to their shows.

Realistically, they could probably do the shows without releasing new material completely, and maybe that would be fine.  But then again, I could be wrong with my suspicion.  It does do a pretty good job of explaining what we're seeing, though.

In any case, as I've gone over this, I've revised some of the scores for earlier reviews that I did, because I ended up giving Ultra a better score than I thought I was going to after listening to it again for the first time in quite a while, and listening to this and trying to figure out how well I like it compared to others.  I actually dropped the scores for Speak & Spell and A Broken Frame just a bit to put it in better context, and because having five of fourteen albums all sitting at a seven seemed kinda like a cop-out, honestly..  I'll make a big summary when I'm done, but in the meantime, here's where I am right now:
  • Speak & Spell (1981): 5
  • A Broken Frame (1982): 6
  • Construction Time Again (1983): 7
  • Some Great Reward (1984): 9
  • Black Celebration (1986): 10
  • Music For the Masses (1987): 10
  • Violator (1990): 7
  • Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993): 5
  • Ultra (1997): 6
  • Exciter (2001): 2
  • Playing the Angel (2005): 7
  • Sounds of the Universe (2009): TBD (4) - added in edit
  • Delta Machine (2013): TBD (3) - added in edit
  • Spirit (2017): TBD

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Depeche Mode Five Questions: Exciter

There's been a lot going on at the Desdichado place of work and at home, so I've found that I'm often just kind of intellectually exhausted when it comes to making posts.  My normal topics of discussion, such as my DH5 or AD ASTRA settings, custom rules for m20, or whatever, are too hard at the moment for me to think about much.  I know, I know—that sounds ridiculous, but when I sit down to think up a post, I just get tired thinking about it.  Home life has had it's turning point; young Desdichado #3 departed for his two year Church mission to Peru yesterday, after a lot of preparation on the part of Mr. and Mrs. Desdichado.  Now, other than Mrs. Desdichado being sad a lot as she can't stop thinking about missing him while he's gone, home will swiftly return to a routine that's predictable and kinda nice, really.  Can't wait.  I don't see a similar change coming for work too soon, but as we get later into the fall, we do eventually get into "holiday season."  Because we have use it or lose it vacation, the end of the year nearly grinds to a halt every year, because so many people are out of the office that it's hard to get anything done.  This isn't necessarily unwelcome to folks like me who use my vacation earlier in the year (I was out of it before Labor Day), but in the meantime, gaming related topics are a little bit slim right now, and I don't know exactly when that will turn around, although I don't think it'll continue in that vein too much longer.

On the other hand, as you've no doubt seen, if you're looking at this blog, I've been interested in chatting about Depeche Mode, about whom I'm having a bit of a personal renaissance, after slowing down just a bit on my long-lived obsession with hard dance.  I still love hard trance and hardstyle, of course.  I'm not that fickle.  But I'm not quite so obsessed with it.  It's not all that I'm listening to; I'm getting back into stuff that I've always liked and always will once again.

Of course, in my Depeche Mode review, I'm definitely in the period of their work that's my least favorite.  In fact, sitting here at Exciter, I'm at the absolute low point in their trajectory.  Not that I think albums like Delta Machine or Spirit are great, but they are at least an uptick from the low point of Exciter.  Let me reiterate, or perhaps clarify something that's come out a bit in my earlier reviews, but which may have not stated quite right out.  I fell in love with Depeche Mode's sound during the later 80s.  However, that doesn't mean that I'm a victim of nostalgia, merely that that sound was a great sound that I loved and, in fact, still do.  What was Depeche Mode in the later 80s?  Hyper-electronic synthesizer new wave (or synthpop) with an aggressively bleak and dark tone and an industrial edge over catchy pop songs.  This isn't the only kind of music that I like, of course, but it's probably my absolute favorite type of music, and Depeche Mode was the absolute best at it.  Nobody has ever been as good at it as Depeche Mode was during especially the Black Celebration and Music for the Masses albums, and Some Great Reward was nearly as good too, although it still had a few lingering social justice themes, which were more common in Construction Time Again.  Martin Gore was at the peak of his songwriting, Alan Wilder was at the peak of his production talents, Dave Gahan was at the peak of his vocal and stage presence performances, and Andrew Fletcher... could clap on stage pretty well, I guess.  Or whatever it is exactly that he does.

Prior to Some Great Reward, Depeche Mode were certainly an all electronic synthpop act still (with the very occasional guitar sound here and there at most) but they were still in search of their voice and a "brand" if you will that was their own.  After Music for the Masses, there was a lot of drift in terms of what Depeche Mode was.  Martin Gore's songs often wandered farther afield from the recognizable brand that they'd built up, and arguably, he's just kind of tired and phoning it in half the time nowadays anyway.  Alan Wilder is gone now, of course, but even before he left, he allowed or participated in the drift of Depeche Mode from being an electronic synthpop band to an alternative rock band that experimented with a lot of grunge and industrial guitar stuff, as well as bizarre experiments with gospel music and other themes that I can't really believe anyone thought that a fan of Depeche Mode's signature brand would find appealing.  Dave's voice, in part due to abuse, in part due to aging, has changed too, but I think part of it is a stylistic choice; he's trying to be a growly Las Vegas performer now.  Even their live shows have changed, and for the most part, the band likes these changes; tour musicians on keyboards and drums have more of a typical rock and roll over-the-top performance thing going on.

Arguably, in at least some cases, Depeche Mode were really good at being this different kind of band; Violator, Songs of Faith and Devotion, and even Ultra, for instance, I see as good albums for what they were, just that what they were was too much of a departure from what I loved about Depeche Mode into something that I wasn't interested in.  Yeah, yeah... I get it.  I don't expect Depeche Mode to be locked into a permanent 1986-7 phase forever; they can evolve, and change, and honestly, they can do whatever they want, including throw in the towel altogether.  What they can't expect is that if they make dramatic changes to their brand, sound, and whatever else, that all of their fans who loved one version of them will come along for the ride just as excited as they always were.  And, of course, the other problem is when they get tired, lazy, or phone it in, while also experimenting with gospel (Songs of Faith and Devotion), grunge, or in the case of Exciter, lounge lizard crooner songs. 2001's Exciter was the ultimate moment in DM's trajectory of a direction that I had no interest in combined with a band that just didn't seem to know who they were or what they wanted to be, or what they were doing.  I think it was a bit of a wake up call for them... I think, given that the obviously purposefully retro Playing the Angel was what followed in 2005 for the next album, and to some degree, Depeche Mode have toned down their experimentation in weird directions following Exciter.  I still think that they're getting tired, and maybe should just call it quits.  Wilder was the oldest of the band, but only by a couple of years, and I'm pretty sure he's 60 by now.  The rest of the gang has got to be about that age too.  (Just checked on Infogalactic; Gore and Fletcher are 58, Gahan is 57.)  Their shows aren't what they were in the 80s or even the 90s, and their new output isn't bad, but y'know; I wouldn't exactly be terribly sad to not see another new Depeche Mode album anymore either.  But again, it's Exciter that we're reviewing now, and it's also the album that I think they were really going through a bit of an identity crisis.  With A Broken Frame, although there were a lot of new directions that Gore took them, they were still reluctant to break too far away from the destination charted by Vince Clark, I think Ultra, where they came together after a near catastrophic implosion of the band, they were reluctant to go too far afield from where they'd been, but it's with Exciter that they came a bit unmoored; wanting to do something differentish, but not quite sure where they were going or even why they were doing what they were doing.  The documentary The Intimate and Delicate Side of Depeche Mode (the title itself suggests this change) says that Gore struggled with writer's block in this phase, and Gahan suggests that the whole band had just become bored with the process and output.  I think this shows on this album.

There really isn't anything on the album that I think is a real stand-out.  I mean, I'm not kidding.  There isn't a single good song on Exciter.  There's a number of mediocre songs, and some that I really don't much care for at all, but there's nothing that I think I would pick out as a standout track (it's going to make answering the five questions quite difficult)

1) What song would I lose?  Lovetheme and Easy Tiger are rather pointless instrumentals (not that instrumentals are always pointless, but these two certainly are) and the Gore ballads (quelle surprise) Breathe and Comatose, especially the latter, are pretty bad.  Of the whole, I think Comatose is the one that most deserves to be tossed.

2) Hmm... again, having Dave act like a lounge lizard crooner on a bunch of ballads wasn't a particularly radical move, although it was certainly different from what they'd done to date.  I think maybe I'll pick Goodnight Lovers, even though it's not radical really—if anything, it seems to be kind of a continuation of the direction Insight took at the end of the last album too.

3) What have I listened to the most?  (Can I pick none of them?)  Probably Dead of Night.  It was the most easily accessible, I think, although it didn't age well; it sounds really corny after a while, like a caricature of a Depeche Mode song, really.  In fact, I don't even like it very much anymore at all.

4) Favorite song now.  Oof.  Well, I've already said I don't think the album is very good and that it doesn't have any really, truly good songs.  I do think Goodnight Lovers is probably the best, though, and the one that almost rises to the level of, "hey, that song's actually kinda neat in a non-Depeche Mode kinda way."  Almost.

5) Two out of ten.  Easily the worse DM album; a nadir of their sound and vision, although it has a few bright(ish) spots here and there.  Although I think they improved again after this, they largely did so by simply imitating the past to a greater or lesser degree, and I don't find that newer Depeche Mode is wonderful.  I suspect the band themselves are kinda going through the motions to at least some degree, pumping out stuff that they know the superfans will buy and not be too disappointed with, and which will allow them an excuse to tour and sell tickets to their shows.

I dunno.  Maybe that's not really very fair.  And let's not get ahead of ourselves.  Still four more albums to do, and then this series is finished.  I'll top it off by ranking the albums, including fine gradations between the ones that have the same score.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Depeche Mode Five Questions: Ultra

Once again, the five questions are:
1) Which song would you lose from the album?
2) Which song is the most radical on the album (he's using the vinyls as masters; I'll use the complete CDs with the bonus tracks, i.e. B-sides as the masters myself; although they won't be eligible for answering in #1)
3) Which song have you listened to the most?
4) What is your favorite song on the album at the moment?
5) How would you rate the album overall?

A lot of fans don't like Ultra.  It's also hard to separate Ultra from the drama the band experienced during this era.  Alan Wilder quit.  Dave Gahan was clinically dead for two minutes after overdosing (he had also been hospitalized earlier for ODing, and for a suicide attempt.)  There was no tour.  In particular, Alan Wilder's leaving is seen as a black mark on the album... many fans say that his influence was sorely missed on this album, which is usually seen as fairly low in fan acclaim relative especially to the run of albums that came before it, but even the run of albums that came after it (well, relatively speaking.  Exciter is usually considered even worse by almost everyone.)

Given that I didn't really love Violator and said that Songs of Faith and Devotion was the album that made me know that my break-up with Depeche Mode was coming, you'd think that I'd really hate Ultra.  I didn't buy it for years.  I didn't even listen to it all the way through for years (for some reason, I had a cassette single of Barrel of a Gun for years, though.  I don't even know why I would have bought a cassette single that late. (Maybe because I still didn't have a CD player in my car, and because it was cheap, and it was a good way to sample the output at very little cost to myself?  I honestly don't even know at this point.)

However, you'd be wrong to think that.  I actually don't think Ultra is all that bad.  Oh, sure—I don't think it's great.  But it's not terrible.  By this time, I'd come to grips with the fact that Depeche Mode wasn't the band that I used to love anymore, and they were doing something different.  But ironically, in at least some ways, Ultra got back to its roots.  It was more of an electronic band output again.  The grunge phase in pop culture was waning, if not terminally so during 1996 and early 1997 when Ultra was recorded, so that influence was mostly gone.  The should have been untried experiments with gospel and blues were muted if not gone entirely.  Ultra actually, even without Alan Wilder, sounded more like Depeche Mode, in many respects.  Although Wilder was gone, he'd already shown everyone his production genius, and it was possible to imitate it to some degree by then, and Tim Simenon was already a highly regarded and very competent producer who was certainly able to imitate the influence of Wilder at least enough to make his loss...  well, it wasn't completely devastating to their sound.  There were a few "conventional" things that were done, like bringing in an orchestra for Home, but then again, they'd already experimented with guest non-electronic musicians like the gospel choirs on Songs even with Wilder.

Where Ultra deviates from its predecessors is actually in tone and theme, and I don't know how much (if any) influence Wilder had on that versus Gore's songs that he brought to the table that time around.  True, only Construction Time Again had the experiment in depersonalized "socially conscious" themes (granted, a few lingering echoes of this persisted into Some Great Reward), but the personal introspective themes on this album were different than the bleak—even dramatically and violently so, in many respects—approach of the past; a bit quieter and maybe rather than bleak, the less dramatic and significantly toned down adjective of melancholy is the strongest that can be applied to them.  And maybe after the drama that surrounded the Devotional Tour and the Songs album generally, a more understated, quieter, thoughtful album was what was needed.  Even the band's appearance reflects this; Martin Gore doesn't look like "a nightmare of knees, nipples and nonsense" this time around, and Dave Gahan gave up his skinny British Jesus look. I actually find that while sure, I don't love Ultra, I actually kinda like it more than I thought I would when I resisted (or more fairly, simply couldn't be bothered) to pick it up for years.

I'll also point out that early in Depeche Mode's career, non-album singles were more common; Get the Balance Right, Shake the Disease, It's Called a Heart, etc. Although associated with the slightly later The Singles 86>98 release, Only When I Lose Myself is also from this same general time period, and should probably be loosely associated with Ultra as well.  The Remastered re-release of Ultra does so, and includes it plus it's b-sides as bonus tracks.

Anyway, before I start talking about the five questions, let me also point out just a few other minor things about this album.  While Music for the Masses and Violator in particular had instrumental bridge tracks, like the three interludes, they were "hidden tracks" that were just extensions or codas of other songs.  In Ultra, they were called out specifically as additional tracks.  This makes the five questions a bit unfair; I don't consider Mission Impossible (Interlude) at the end of Music For the Masses to be a track that was eligible for being cut, because it's just a weird little coda at the end of Pimpf.  On the other hand, Junior Painkiller and the other interludes on Ultra are separate tracks and are called out and labeled.  In the interest of a fair comparison, I've decided that Uselink, Jazz Thieves and Junior Painkiller don't count, because they're too obvious, and their truest correspondences from earlier albums weren't really in a position to be considered either.  It's also worth pointing out that because these interlude tracks were called out as separate tracks, it gives the album a slightly inflated appearance.  If they had been folded into the tracks that they followed, as was done on on previous albums, this would be yet another slim 9-track album  There's simply not as much material here as there was on most albums of the past.

Anyway, on to the questions!

1) I would cut The Bottom Line.  It's one of two Gore ballads, and yes, it is almost always one of the Gore ballads that gets the ax if up to me.  I don't love Home either, but it's better than The Bottom Line.  And to be fair, I don't hate The Bottom Line and think it's absurd, like I do some of the Gore ballads *ahem* Damaged People, I Want You Now, but it's the weakest non-instrumental bridge track on the album, certainly.

2) Plenty of tracks sound like they're trying to recapture past glories, or echo past successes; with greater and lesser fidelity depending, and I like plenty of those tracks (Barrel of a Gun, Useless, It's No Good, etc. but I actually think one of the most radical track, at least for Depeche Mode, is Insight.  It really explores a different tone than any other track to date that they've done, I think.

3) Barrel of a Gun, although only because I had that cassette single mentioned above.

4) It's No Good.  This is perhaps an obvious and easy, safe choice, but it's the one that sounds the most like the Depeche Mode everyone loves, so it's... well, yeah.  It is easy to pick it.

5) Six out of ten. I like it better than Songs of Faith and Devotion, in part because of it's greater fidelity to what I believe the Depeche Mode brand was always supposed to be, but I certainly don't love it or think that it lives up to the reputation of the older, greater work. 

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Depeche Mode Five Questions: Songs of Faith and Devotion

Once again, the five questions are:
1) Which song would you lose from the album?
2) Which song is the most radical on the album (he's using the vinyls as masters; I'll use the complete CDs with the bonus tracks, i.e. B-sides as the masters myself; although they won't be eligible for answering in #1)
3) Which song have you listened to the most?
4) What is your favorite song on the album at the moment?
5) How would you rate the album overall?

Might as well keep this series moving.  As you can probably surmise, given that I saw Violator as a step backwards from the high point at Black Celebration and Music For the Masses, I liked Songs of Faith and Devotion even less.  Songs was even more of what I didn't like about Violator.  It's curious, too—synthpop fans, which is what the genre has kind of been labeled in the years since, although it was always a European label that I never once heard in America until nearly the turn of the century, still really like Depeche Mode, and talk about them when a new album comes out, but Songs wasn't really a synthpop album at all, or even an electronic album, for that matter.  Even on discogs, the album is listed as Alternative Rock before it's also given the label synthpop, which is kind of dubious.

With Violator, I saw Depeche Mode as the girlfriend you had where you were starting to have a rougher time and drift apart; but there was still enough that you had in common and that you loved about her that you had hope that you could still make it all work out.  By Songs, I was convinced that Depeche Mode and I were inevitably breaking up.  In the future, there would still be some stuff that the Mode would put out that I'd like well enough to not regret that I picked it up, and they did do a kind of "for old times sake" album of sorts in the form of Playing the Angel (which is when I finally and belatedly was able to see them in concert live), but nowadays when Depeche Mode puts something out, I'll listen to it on Spotify or YouTube or whatever, but it's like when you look up your ex girlfriend on Facebook and you have no sense at all of how she ended up like she did or what you once saw in her, because she isn't that person anymore.  Depeche Mode is a bluesy alternative rock band that still makes a few nods here and there to their past as the electronic synthpop (I would have used the term New Wave, or maybe synth New Wave to keep them distinct from guys like U2 or The Alarm or The Church or whatever back in the 80s, but synthpop is the label that I've learned to retroactively apply to them).

And that's fine.  Nobody's saying that Depeche Mode has to continually churn out the same style of album over and over again.  I, for once, am glad that they didn't continue to try and stick with the Speak & Spell style for the last nearly forty years.  But then again, when you evolve and change your style too much, you risk losing the fans who liked you because of the output you put out, not because they bought into some kind of cult of personality about you personally.  And Depeche Mode were hardly cult of personality type people anyway; they kept a very private public profile up to this point, although when Dave Gahan nearly died from a heroin overdose following the devotional tour, Martin Gore was drunk all of the time and having seizures, Fletch had to bail on the tour due to depression and/or anxiety or other mental health issues, and Wilder split with the band in disgust afterwards, they were even less likely to be nominated for cult of personality status.  The Devotional tour was called by Q magazine "the most debauched rock'n'roll tour ever."  After this, Gahan became very open about personal issues, and whatever chance their could ever be a cult of personality about the band was ruined for good—curiously, with the exception of Alan Wilder, who in retrospect is often seen as the true genius of the band (although he readily admits that without Gore's songs, he wouldn't personally have had anything much to work with, and Wilder wasn't really a fan of his own songwriting) as well as the emotionally stable, mature, and sane one of the group.  Hardly anyone talks about Depeche Mode these days without wistfully hoping that somehow Alan Wilder would be reconciled and come back; but at this point, as the principles are sixty years old, or at least almost so, the chance that such a reunion would be of much interest to me other than as an academic curiosity is pretty low.  And I think it's not of any interest to Wilder, or the rest of the band either, for that matter.

That said, despite my personal opinion on the album, Songs is one of the most popular ones, and seen, along with Violator, by most fans as part of the Golden Age of Depeche Mode, who are, I guess, in their minds a kind of grungy/bluesy electronic act of the 90s instead of a very slick electronic New Wave act of the 80s, which is how I see them.  And that's the Depeche Mode I liked, especially the darker, heavier, angsty stuff of the second half of the decade, although I do have a fondness for the lighter, bouncier pop stuff of the first half too.  To the extent that Depeche Mode isn't doing that kind of stuff anymore, they're not really a band that I'm nearly as interested in anymore.  I tend to like bands that sound more Depeche Mode than Depeche Mode does nowadays, if I'm looking into synthpop; stuff like some of the later Camouflage releases, or what Mesh and De/Vision have put out.  I don't think that they're as good as Depeche Mode at their peak, but they're better than Depeche Mode now, certainly.

All that said, Songs isn't a complete disaster.  It does have some songs that I like.  I Feel You is pretty good, as is Mercy In You, Judas, In Your Room, and Rush.  Walking in My Shoes and Higher Love are OK, although they tend to sound like rather bland album tracks from the Violator era, like Clean.  One Caress is the terrible Martin Gore ballad that I really wish he'd stop trying to do, and I really dislike the odd gospel-influenced songs Condemnation and Get Right With Me.  I know a lot of people really like Condemnation and say Gahan's vocals on that track are among the best he ever recorded, but they were wasted on a song that really doesn't sound at all like the kind of song that fits on this album, or in this band's repertoire at all, for that matter.  I almost prefer the incredibly awkward Gore ballads to either of these tracks, especially since Condemnation had a single release and is therefore a regular part of their live sets in the years since this release.

All in all, Songs is a product of its time; even someone like Depeche Mode who's a pillar of electronic New Wave had to basically sound like a grunge act.  Truly, the 90s were a wasteland of pop culture in Western Civilization, and the embrace of grunge and the deep-sixing of almost anyone who'd been anybody in pop culture in the 80s unless they sold out and became grungy themselves made the time an absolutely terrible one for fans of music, of fashion, of movies and television (aside from a few blockbusters like the original Jurassic Park), etc.  I'd blame Bill Clinton, but even he was just a symptom of the times, not its cause.  The occasional bursts of bright spots in pop culture were often in the underground scene, or they were unusual new acts like Garbage, who managed to rise above their genesis to actually be really good, or they were outside of the coastal pop culture matrix and tied with Nashville or something else instead. There's a reason why Garth Brooks became such a huge star in this era, even though he wasn't any better than 80s country artists like Randy Travis or George Strait.  His timing was good; he hit during a pop culture nadir.

Since I obviously don't feel any nostalgia for 90s pop culture, Songs of Faith and Devotion being both a product of a time that I dislike, and very reflective of that time in general, as well as being an experiment with very odd directions that don't fit at all, like gospel music and choirs, is obviously not one of my favorite DM albums.  I like it less than I like Violator, but I still like it better than most of what followed, so I guess there's still that.  (Alan Wilder's influence was sorely missed on the next two, at least, if not on everything since.)  The biggest disconnect I have with it, though, is that it changed much too much.  Depeche Mode were trying to be a different kind of band than the one I fell in love with in the 80s, and while they may well have been very good at being that kind of band, it's not the style of band that I was ever going to like as much as the kind of band that they had been previously.  And I suppose that's no knock on them or their direction or this album in particular, just an admission that we were becoming incompatible, and this is the album that made me realize it (I didn't even buy it for years, although my brother had it, so I had access to it without buying my own copy.  On the other hand, I had Music For the Masses and Black Celebration on both cassette tape and CD before I even bought Violator.  Which I did rush out and buy right away, to be fair.)

Although aside from how Songs drifted away from my tastes and what I was likely to like, it's also notable that the recording session was particularly difficult, the tour was a catastrophe for the band members personally, and the band very nearly tore itself apart because of this album and its related support activities.  Wilder quit.  Gahan practically died.  Gore and Fletch were significantly mentally and emotionally broken.  Given that, maybe it's no surprise that I liked most of the output of the band after Songs even less than I liked Songs.

1)  Condemnation.  It's my least favorite.  Although Get Right With Me and One Caress are nearly as loseable.  I don't like any of the three, and struggle to not skip them.  In fact, I'm less likely to even try to not skip them now, as I get older.  I just don't care to listen to songs I don't like very much anymore.

2) Condemnation and Get Right With Me were radical relative to the band's output of the past, and not in a good way, but copying elements from a long established unrelated genre isn't really a radical thing to do in and of itself.  I actually think In Your Room maybe the most radical, as it's the darkest song Depeche Mode did since Blasphemous Rumours in some ways.  It really raised the bar.  That said, going that direction isn't really radical, is it?  I don't know.  I'm not sure that I like this question all that much the more I've entertained it across multiple albums.  Being radical isn't really all that important in its own right, and the radicalness of Depeche Mode was usually best described at the album level rather than the song level anyway.

3) Nothing on this album has been listened to by me as much as pretty much anything on any prior album.  I'd say almost certainly that I'd give about equal times listening to I Feel You, Mercy In You, In Your Room and Rush.  Rush maybe gets a slight nod, as in some ways, it's the most accessible of the tracks on this album to fans of the previous albums.

4) In Your Room is the best song, in my opinion.

5) Five out of ten.  Notably and noticeably lesser than the seven ranked albums I've had before, and very disappointing compared to the nine and ten ranked albums.  Although—spoiler alert—as I said, it's still better than most of what they've done since.  Not all of it, but most of it.  I'm not going to have a lot of higher scores as this series comes to its end, and because I dislike the later albums so much compared to the earlier albums, this whole series might slow down considerably.  I've already done all of the ones that were fun to write about.  Now come the ones that came out after I'd already considered myself "broken up" with Depeche Mode, and while although I did eventually get all of those albums, I haven't even listened to many of them all that many times, honestly.  At least not relatively speaking.

I will say, though, that in today's climate, it's harder to listen to albums.  I tend to get songs, and I get so many of them, and buying an entire album and listening to it over and over again until I can sing the entire thing word for word is a thing of the past.  It's been many years since I felt I could do that with just about anything anymore.  So although I do still pick up albums sometimes, I usually just rip them to my phone and don't really listen to them in order anymore anyway.