There is little question New Order were the undisputed masters of the 12-inch single as a self-contained art form during the 1980s. But Depeche Mode were right behind. If the band’s late ‘80s breakthrough was driven by MTV and alternative radio, it was fuelled by years of dancefloor exposure. During Depeche’s crucial, formative period, the idea of the remix underwent an important transformation. During the disco era, extended remixes, issued on 12-inch vinyl, served as a simple way to lengthen a track’s playing time, giving clubgoers more time to get into the groove and making life easier for DJs. But by the early ‘80s, forward-thinking bands were using 12-inch remixes to experiment in the studio, treating each mix as a de facto new recording, often with added verses and/or instrumentation.
Depeche Mode were at the forefront of this practice, creating 12-inch versions that played like mini-symphonies. Sometimes, the longer version was the definitive recording and was then edited down for a single or album release. In any case, you haven’t really experienced “Leave in Silence” or “Get the Balance Right” or even “Strangelove” until you’ve heard their 12-inch mixes. The advent of digital sampling gave the band a set of infinitely-alterable new sounds with which to play.
Several of these classic ‘80s mixes were featured on Remixes 81-04, to which Remixes 2: 81-11 serves as a sequel. But the new volume ignores Depeche Mode’s self-produced remixes, instead highlighting a later transformation. With the rise of do-it-yourself computer technology came the rise of “DJ culture” as it is now understood. Electronic music artists discovered a way to make good money on the side, and bands and record labels discovered an ingenious way to cross-market and build up club cred. DJs were commissioned to create new mixes, often stripping away most of the original elements and adding their own instrumentation. Hence the the birth of the “remix and additional production by…” credit.
This is where Remixes 2 is focused.
Previously-released versions are, well, mixed in with some all-new remixes, and the list of those involved reads like a brief history of electronic music since about 1991: Francois Kevorkian, the Orb, Dan the Automator, Stuart Price, M83, and Röyksopp are only a few of the luminaries who have gotten their mitts on Depeche Mode’s songs here. Understandably, the sprawling 37-track collection goes heavy on material Depeche have released since Remixes 81-04, so that means a lot from Playing the Angel and the polarizing Sounds of the Universe.
Ralph Moore’s hyperbole-heavy liner notes dare to suggest Remixes 2 might serve as an introduction to Depeche Mode for some. If a “newcomer” wants to fork over the money for a three-disc set of Depeche Mode’s songs set to other people’s music, that’s fine. But the truth is Depeche Mode and their labels have mastered the art of keeping their name and cashflow vital by selling hardcore fans well-packaged re-issues, compilations, and live albums in addition to a studio album every so often. And Remixes 2 is another in the series.
Listening to DJ remixes is not a good way to get a first impression, or a retrospective appreciation, of a band. But that doesn’t mean this collection is without merits. The remixes showcased here, selected by the band themselves, generally keep the vocals and vocal melodies intact, so there isn’t that much of the “what the hell song am I listening to, anyway” effect. Also, you can really appreciate how Dave Gahan’s voice goes from an adolescent rasp on an early track like “Tora! Tora! Tora!” to a warm, rich, multifaceted instrument on “In Chains”, nearly 30 years later. Despite such a wide timespan, hardly anything on Remixes 2 sounds dated. This is amazing, and is testament to Depeche Mode’s consistent, sometimes even baffling, refusal to play into trends, even when commissioning remixes. It’s also testament to the high quality of the source material.
Outside of a dance club or a completist’s record collection, remixes are good for addressing “What if…” questions. Some are questions no one has asked, like What if “Fragile Tension” were a middling Peter, Bjorn and John album track? (see the Peter, Bjorn and John remix of said track), or What if “Never Let Me Down Again” were created in a world populated only by broken laptops and distortion pedals? (Digitalism Mix). Or, What if “Tora! Tora! Tora!” were a song worth remixing? (Miike Snow Mix). Like it or not, you’ll get answers here.
But you’ll also get answers to some more interesting questions. For example, What if the sublime, airy blues feel of “Dream On” were transferred to a deep house setting? (Bushwacka Mix), or What if “Puppets” had been written as a Europop hit for Robyn or Sophie Ellis-Baxtor? (Röyksopp Mix). For many fans, the two most tantalizing questions involve former Depeche sound-masters Vince Clarke and Alan Wilder. Each has contributed a new remix to the project, the first time either has been involved in the band’s music since their respective departures, both acrimonious. What does a 2011 Vince Clarke remix of “Behind the Wheel” sound like? Damn good, with Clarke’s trademark brand of irresistibly quirky synth work taking on much more weight and power than usual. What would Depeche Mode sound like if Wilder were still in the band? That’s the big one, and the thrilling, dramatic coda of his “In Chains” mix is enough to make you want to get the petition going—at the very least, sign this man up to produce!
So, then, Remixes 2 offers more than a pretty package and some poorly-proofed liner notes (“World in Your Eyes”? Never heard that one). As far as excessive, inessential, borderline-cash-ins go, this one’s a keeper.
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// Notes from the Road
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