The first wave of English synth-pop stars sold themselves on sinister dreams and shadowy fantasies.
Now, more than a quarter century down the line, only one of these acts retains the clout to both stay on a major label and headline arenas around the world -- those masters of sonic S&M themselves: Depeche Mode.
Ample reasons for this can be found on the group's latest CD, "Sounds of The Universe." It's an amazingly vital work for a nearly 30-year-old band, full of fresh textures and new hues. Once again, Depeche Mode has made their aging synthesisers gurgle and ping in novel ways.
That's an even more notable feat considering the stasis in their point of view. The group hasn't softened its vision a whiff over the years. While the new Pet Shop Boys' album finds them in an almost sentimental mood (by their standards), and ex-Eurythmic Annie Lennox has long since turned from a dominatrix into an earth mother, Depeche Mode still loves writhing around in their own personal dungeon of joy.
"I know what it's like to be in chains," frontman Dave Gahan sings with equal parts winking pain and excited lust. At another point, he moans, "There's something wrong with me chemically...inherently."
And it sounds like he wants to be punished for it. The music surrounding him provides just that -- whipping him with synthetic lashes, torturing him with bone-chilling organs, and spiking him with shards of guitars.
Nearly every song on the CD finds Gahan acting the slave in this equation, though in the last track ("Corrupt") he flips the script and sneers "Watching you suffer...it would please me."
Of course, all this would seem creepy, instead of attractive, if the music weren't so hot. Key credit should go to Ben Hilliar, who oversaw the group's last work (2005's "Playing the Angel") as well as rich albums by sonically attuned bands like Doves and Elbow. Hilliar put great space in the sound. There's an invigorating distance between the wah-wah guitars, churchy organs, and scolding synths during "In Chains," giving the whole song movement and funk.
Credit should also go to Martin Gore, who provided the pop melodies that play sweetly off the dark censure of the sythns. Gore's work here even hints at a possible future career for him.