With their 12th album being billed as a return to the sounds of their creative zenith (1990's Violator, 1986's Black Celebration), if there's ever going to be a chance for the group to readdress that balance, now is probably the time. With the entire band clean and sober, synths back in fashion and the '80s revival allowing people to remember even Spandau Ballet with a degree of affection, Sounds Of The Universe could potentially become the group's biggest record in 15 years. Chief songwriter Martin Gore, the latest member of the group to go booze-free, has been scanning eBay for vintage Moogs and drum machines and the band themselves have described the recording process as "fun". Not a word you'd often associate with the collective.
The idea of The Mode softening or growing old gracefully will probably have hardcore fans smashing up their '80s discs in disgust. But they needn't have worried, because despite early reports Universe is no mainstream cross-over. With its throbbing beat and confrontational barked vocals, the almost-gothic lead single 'Wrong' is a fair indicator of what to expect - you won't see them playing this on Ant And Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway anytime soon. Opener 'In Chains' finds Gahan painting S&M imagery over sparse electronica, chimes and squelching guitar effects. The bizarre instrumental 'Spacewalker' sounds like it should be sound-tracking an updated Buck Rogers TV show, while 'Corrupt' is a creepy, crunching album closer that's dominated by the darkly comic refrain: "I could corrupt you, it would be ugly."
The melancholic synths of 'Fragile Tension', fuzzy euphoric rush of 'Peace' and poised, electronic bliss of 'Perfect' hint at more radio-friendly tunes, but they're still a fair way off the brash synth-pop that's proved so popular for other acts ditching guitars in 2009. Depeche Mode remain very much a BBC 6Music band rather than a Radio 2 one, with distinct limitations to their appeal. For fans of the sinister and sneering Basildon boys, this is something to be cherished and celebrated. They may not be mentoring X Factor upstarts anytime soon, but their desire for musical experimentation and dark explorations remains alive and well on their latest record.