It has been a long haul for this 16-year-old English synth-pop band. Over the past few years, Depeche Mode has peaked by filling the Rose Bowl and plummeted to stardom's darkest depths, bottoming out with the departure of Alan Wilder and singer Dave Gahan's heroin addiction and sad, headline-grabbing OD and suicide attempt. It is truly remarkable that this album happened--period.
The against-all-odds, underdog aura that surrounds "Ultra" makes you want to love it as much as, say, Steve Earle's noble resurrection. Despite a talented roster of guests--including production wizard Bomb the Bass (a.k.a. Tim Simenon) behind the boards, ex-Living Colour bassist Doug Wimbish and Can percussionist Jaki Leibzeit--it never approaches anything that inspirational.
Nothing much has changed, except Simenon's emotive, multilayered, high-tech sound, which would be far better suited for a subtler band but tends to wash out any hooks on this gloom-and-doom-y album. "Ultra" never surpasses the seductive dungeon feel and gripping, tormented lyrics of its first track, "Barrel of a Gun."
Unsteady, lyrically weak, but occasionally interesting (especially on the eerie, cultish "Sister of Night" and "It's No Good," a nearly nubile, bittersweet reminder of the band's happier days), "Ultra" won't woo any new fans grooving on electronica's latest wave. For now, however, it will cheer longtime supporters happy to have a band called Depeche Mode at all.