Wednesday, 12 October 2016

RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW - Depeche Mode - Synth Masters Still Deliver an Animalistic Thrill - First Direct Arena, Leeds, 13.11.13

There’s something idiosyncratic about Depeche Mode’s encore of their show at Leeds’s First Direct Arena when, from the midst of gothic, dark electropop, they throw out the bouncy, gloriously technicolour synth-fun of Just Can’t Get Enough. It’s almost a mood whiplash, a one-eighty turn – but the delirious outpouring of screaming women and dad dancing that suddenly erupt feel like a positively sunny form of cathartic release. Basildon’s finest may have made an international name as proprietors of sexually-charged dance rock at the dawn of the nineties – but before then, they knew their way around a pop hook or four.
Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode, performing live
in Leeds in 2013. (Courtesy of Gigwise.)
The band are touring behind their thirteenth record Delta Machine tonight, and their show in Leeds is the first in the city for thirty years. Their club days are long gone – exclusively a stadium act in mainland Europe – and with it, they’ve honed a vein of alternative music that has influenced everyone from girl group The Saturdays to German metallers Rammstein. Once a foursome, now a trio, they have survived drug addiction, in-fighting and all the typical big band issues, without ever really troubling the tabloids either. They’ve appealed to the critics and to the fans, the snobs and the weirdos; Depeche Mode are the odd breed of band whose appeal transcends most boundaries.

In part, that success can be laid at the feet of Dave Gahan, their charismatic frontman. The 51-year-old is magnetic, in every sense; from the slow, hypnotic doom-laden synths of opener Welcome to My World, he struts, twists and pirouettes like a coiled spring and a restrained tiger across the stage, a compelling presence that draws the eye. Partially bare, with a black vest, he exudes a seductive, seedy charm, a rambunctious devil-like figure who charms with howls and whispers. It helps that he still possesses a fabulous voice; during the darkwave of Black Celebration, his baritone is exquisitely measured, tempering the animalistic hunger that threatens to spring loose and devour the ecstatic crowd. On A Pain That I’m Used To, he snarls like a wounded beast, and slowly grinds his hips against his microphone stand. It’s an astonishing tour-de-force frontman performance that is exhilarating dirty.

In sharp contrast, the band’s other two key members – Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher – are relatively low key and all the better for it, aided by an additional keyboard player and drummer. Out of the limelight they may be, but behind Gahan, they deliver a frantic performance, transforming synth-heavy songs into primitive hard industrial rock, Gore coaxing out nuanced riffs and melodies out of his sparkling guitar. Depeche Mode have always had the influence of the blues in their veins but here, it shines through, the figures intertwined with yearning vocal lines. Gore – dressed in a silver kilt – bleeds his fretboard dry on the rapturously received Walking in My Shoes, and performs similar histrionics on a punchy Policy of Truth. Behind him, Fletcher presides over proceedings with the air of an elder statesmen, a priest of sound; his delivers foreboding flourishes on Precious, whilst on Enjoy the Silence, he brings an orchestral grandeur to proceedings. Behind the group, the large screens flash images at odds with the music; dilapidated wheelbarrows rusting in a farmhouse, innocent puppies and, most disturbingly, various naked women crushed together in anatomically impossible positions. It’s immersive, dark sensory overload – and it succeeds in enrapturing the crowd.
Martin Gore and Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode,
performing live in Leeds in 2013. (Courtesy of Gigwise.)

Twice in the night, Gore takes the spotlight from Gahan to recasts versions of Judas and Shake the Disease in a beautiful solo-acoustic format – and offers an intriguing glimpse of what Depeche Mode could have been without their lion-chested frontman. But when Gahan returns to power through a sleazy Personal Jesus, there is the undeniable knowledge that he is irreplaceable; he is one of a kind. There are only minor gripes about the show – no real early hits outside of Just Can’t Get Enough Feature – but by the time a roaring, blues-and-thunder take on Never Let Me Down Again concludes proceedings, they’re forgotten in the haze of euphoria. Depeche Mode may have left their days of light, fabulous pop behind them a long time ago – but when they still sound this deliciously dark and sexy, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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