Old Sounds: Depeche Mode’s 1990 Violator
By Mike Angus ~
Throughout the 1980s, emerging technologies were slowly revolutionizing the way music was created, recorded and distributed. From portable computers to digital instruments, synthesizers and simulators, artists were inspired to new heights in innovative sounds and genres. While mainstream pop music struggled awkwardly to harness its potential, electronic music was already a confident underground movement, emerging from dance clubs in Europe, eventually being embraced by DJs in North America. Nowhere before, however, had the collision of electro and pop been so tastefully expressed as on Depeche Mode’s 1990 Violator.
Certainly at this time, Depeche Mode was no stranger to success. The band’s previous album, Music For the Masses, had been warmly received in Europe and North America, and cemented its place in alternative music circles. It’s an epic, experimental record, however, and one that owes its sound more to dark, Goth-rock impulses than its hit single ‘Strangelove’ would have the listener believe. With its instant dance appeal and pop sensibility, though, that song would definitely serve as a sign for where the band was heading.
Violator opens with a disorienting synth ricochet—a timeless dance club trick to cause the crowd to pause in both confusion and anticipation—before the looping drum’s urgency punches in behind the paranoid fog of keyboard swells and singer Dave Gahan’s brazen baritone. Despite this tension, there’s still this sexiness, this curiosity, this danceability that draws the listener in. The next few songs demonstrate the band’s ambition in pushing the boundaries of rock and electro. ‘Sweetest Perfection’ and ‘Personal Jesus’ show chief songwriter Martin Gore’s innovation and ingenuity when bridging the gap between crafting a radio-ready three-minute pop song and maintaining a sweaty momentum for clubbers.
There are also experimental moments here, like ‘Waiting for the Night’ and ‘Clean’, but ‘Enjoy the Silence’ changes everything. With its throbbing, relentless beat, cloaked cleanly in refracted guitar tones and framed by Gahan’s haunting, alluring melody, not only does ‘Enjoy the Silence’ elevate the record to a new level, it would go on to become the most successful single in the band’s history, and mark the end of electronic music’s chapter as an underground genre.
Rounded out by standout tracks ‘Policy of Truth’ and ‘Blue Dress’, Violator is able to convince the listener—even today, 20 years later—how confidently and deftly Depeche Mode introduced electronic music to the mainstream. Thanks in part to Flood’s impeccable production quality, the record marks the end of pop music’s chaotic relationship with computers and the beginning of a whole new phase of exhilarating, invigorating and, thankfully, tasteful innovation in music.
Above all else, Violator introduced dance music with both a widespread appeal and real artistic credibility. There had been popular dance records before, of course, and no one can question the quality and integrity of pioneering electronic musicians like Kraftwerk, the Human League, New Order or Brian Eno, but one would be hard-pressed to ignore how seamlessly and tastefully Depeche Mode blended such an addictive formula of new technology and pop sensibility.
Source: VUE Weekly