Revisiting the Classics: Violator (1991)

ViolatorThe other day my iPod shuffled up Enjoy The Silence and I thought to myself, you know, I havent really sat down and listened to Violator in its entirety in years.  I thought it might be an interesting experiment since I loved the album when it came out, but that was 20 years ago and since then Ive learned a lot about production, mixing and songwriting.  I thought it might be interesting to listen and see how its aged, particularly since my ears are now much more jaded, and see how the production tricks stack up to a modern song.

If this works, I may write a few more of these.

“Violator” was, at least to my mind,  really Depeche Mode at the height of their powers.  It was before the rock-n-roll excess and substance abuse tore the band apart in the mid 90’s, but after they had shed some of the boyish new-wave affectations of their earlier years.  Martin Gore’s songwriting was mature, admittedly drawing from his usual slightly-but-not-overtly-naughty well of religious and sexual imagery, but lacking the more dated cold war references or hamfisted political commentary.  While arguably Dave Gahan’s voice has improved in the intervening decades, it was really around this album that he found his voice for the material – he lacked the icyness (or boyishness) of his earlier works.  And when it came to sound design and production Wilder was at the top of his game, and the Wilder/Flood combination was near perfect.  Even the graphic design fit – their simmering relationship with Anton Corbijn was bearing fruit in more ways than just arty videos.

In short, it was a good time to be Depeche Mode.

So did this make a timeless album?  Well, mostly.  Some of the tracks hold up as well now as they did then.  A few tracks don’t.  And in some ways, the album was a victim of its own success – a track like “Personal Jesus” was so iconic and, frankly, popular, that legions of imitators have sort of dulled its shine.

The opener, “World in My Eyes” has several strong hooks, starting with the modular-synth bassline right out of the gate.  A straight-up dance drum pattern drives the song, particularly notable for its snare, a weird sort of choked electronic burp that manages to not be distracting while still being interesting.  Also interesting is the fact that overall, much of the track is pretty dry in terms of reverb and other effects.  In an era of pop records leaning heavily on lush processing, this comes across almost as dry as a hip-hop track.

Looking back, the track has aged fairly well on its own, but lives somewhat in the shadow of its own remixes and remakes.  20 years of remixes and some truly astounding live arrangements have left the original sounding a little empty by comparison.

“Sweetest Perfection” doesn’t fare as well over the long haul.  It’s still an interesting track, and has a few modulations of stereo pan  and reverb levels help give the track a sort of uneasy, funhouse-mirror feel.  Unfortunately both Martin Gore’s knife-like vibrato and two decades of angular electronic music have undermined the bits of the track that are actually interesting.

“Personal Jesus” is one of the more notable tracks on the album.  Partially because it’s been nearly omnipresent in dance clubs for 20 years, and partially because it just has a very strong (and very insistent) hook.  Up until this point in their career, dM had dabbled a bit with guitar-based rock, but never really formed a song around it.  Here, we get a sort-of-unfunky blues riff right up front and center.  The lyrics are pretty minimal and almost meaningless in many ways.  Interestingly, they’re processed with a slapback-y reverb that’s mixed very high, rendering the vocals almost unintelligible on anything other than a large, widely-spaced system – listening to the song on headphones garbles things a bit – reinforcing the idea that this is a big-room dance track through and through.  The drums sound enormous, but on closer inspection, actually aren’t mixed as high as one might think – the clever mix of a standard snare sample with Wilder’s samples of roadies jumping on flight cases in a stairwell gives this illusion of hundreds of drummers without actually needing to layer dozens of samples.  Clever, and while found-sound was sort of de rigeur for the time, it was still pretty novel, even by today’s standards.

Historically, this song basically became the template for a lot of electronic dance music to follow, particularly in the more radio friendly side of “electronic.”  The pattern of “looped rock riff”  and minimal repetitive vocals with a hefty dance beat and an extended outtro has dominated dance music for decades.  Norman Cook’s career is basically variations on this theme.  I don’t know if Mode was the first to do this (I rather doubt it) but they certainly were the biggest.

“Halo” in a lot of ways pairs with “World In My Eyes” – it has a lot of the same production styles and even opens with a similar bass sound and riff.  It lacks some of the hookish-ness of “Eyes” but builds up to a nice crescendo, with sampled strings that have aged surprisingly well.  It’s a bit overly awash in bombast, with big piano stabs punctuating important lyrics, and that’s a bit silly, but that’s sort of the point of the song.  Interestingly, Alan Wilder recently explained that one of the underlying drum loops is John Bonham’s classic “When The Levee Breaks” beat, and if you know what to listen for, sure enough, it’s there, but at the same time it’s cleverly processed and gated in such a way to not be an obvious classic loop – in a track like Bjork’s “Army of Me” it’s entirely the opposite – so it both borrows the muscular sound of the Zeppelin drummer without actually announcing “hey, look, we’re sampling Led Zeppelin!”

“Waiting For the Night” is the one that surprised me.  I had expected this one to sound more dated than any, but it surprisingly has held up better than a lot of the rest of the album.  Part of it is the sheer Spartan-ness of the arrangement – it’s basically the looped modular line for most of the song, with a big pedal bass, and a few effects floating in and out.  There’s not even a monster hook, but there is some very clever vocal processing going on.  Gahan’s lead voice is washed with a good bit of lush processing, setting it back into the mix, and then Gore’s countermelody and harmonies are brought in much drier and more up-front, inverting the standard mix-rules and giving the song a very unsettling feel.  Also, an intimate, almost claustrophobic song such as this following immediately on the heels of a big room track like “Halo” just amplifies the effect.  The weird and clearly artificial pitch-shifting during the runout of the song presages in some ways the modern love of weird, inhuman vocal effects, from the abuse of autotune to The Knife’s fondness for formant and pitch shifting.  These probably weren’t related, but the use of such effects in 1991 helps keep the track sounding modern.

Then we hit the biggie.  “Enjoy The Silence.”  I’ve touted this one as the perfect electronic pop song for a long time, and it still holds.  Parts of it, particularly in the area of drum programming and processing, sound a bit dated.  Still, what fascinates me is that despite it being a pop song, the underpinnings of it are clearly very much tied to the house and dance scenes of the era.  That bit of it is understated, but there’s a basic 4-on-the-floor analog kick, punctuated with a splatty snare on the 2 and 4; a basic disco beat.  The weird processed percussion loop running through the song is at its core a mangled version of the standard dance-music conga riff.  While those features peg the song as a 1991 dance classic, it’s really not until the sampled horns come in that there’s a smack in the face of “oh, right, early 90’s.”  It’s still got a great hook, and you can still dance to it.  Interestingly, even the recent mixes by Timo Maas and Richard X and other “superstar DJ” types have kept the core of the track pretty much intact, only updating a few drum sounds.  It’s a testament to the staying power of a good arrangement.

“Policy of Truth” is similar in that regard.  The song itself is a basic dance-pop track, with a good vocal hook.  Unfortunately, the sound I remember thinking was so cool back in 1991 now sounds like a bad idea.  Those sampled, processed saxophone quacks during the chorus now share the same part of my brain with those early dM videos that showed someone playing trumpet every time a vaguely brassy synth sound was going on.  It occupies that no-man’s land between “cleverly-used sample” and “interesting synth sound” and it’s kind of distracting for me now.  Still, the vocal harmonies are nice, and the slide guitar sample is immediately recognizable as a hallmark of the song.  Shame about the saxophones.

“Blue Dress” is…well, it was my least favorite track in 1991, and it remains so now.  The piano-ish sound in the chorus is a bit overly clangy and harsh, the bassline is sort of hammer-y, and the nasal analog pads in the background of the song just sort of bother me.  However, Martin’s vocals are surprisingly nuanced and there are some nice modulations in the chorus.  There’s also a subtle wash of distorted shoegaze-y guitars in the background that fill out the song nicely.  I’d never noticed that before.  I’d want those to be brought forward, but Martin’s vocals are a bit too delicate to fight with that.  While the song probably suffers a bit in terms of presence because of that, in the end it was probably the correct production choice.

The album closes with “Clean” which is an interesting song on many levels.  It feels a bit like a dance track, but it’s slow.  It’s in 3, but it doesn’t feel like it, and doesn’t fall into the “electro waltz” trap.  The arrangement and programming is downright kraftwerkian, all blippy electronic drums, minimal looping bass and choir pads.  The only thing that separates it from something like “Radioaktivitat” is Gahan’s nearly-histrionic vocals.   And the really brilliant bit is that the song ends, then starts up again with just the main drums and bass before going to the fadeout.  There’re two bars of weird resonant bleeps right at the end, which to this day surprise the hell out of me, even 20 years on.   It’s a good way to close out an album.

So has it held up?  For the most part, yes.  There are a few sounds and production tricks that haven’t aged well (primarily with the samples, which often sound dated) and there are a few that were far ahead of their time and set some standards.  Certainly this album’s influence is undeniable.  While Depeche Mode’s fortunes waxed and waned over the next two decades, “Violator” remained their touchstone album, and the reason for that is pretty clear.  It’s a very cleverly-produced album, polished without being overly-slick.