The context of Martin Gore's career in Depeche Mode doesn't lessen the achievement of MG; in fact, it complements it.
Martin Gore is at the point in his career where he can release a solo instrumental album just because it's something he has never done before and, hey, why not? Having penned some of the most indelible modern-rock tunes of the last 25 years as chief songwriter for one of the world's most influential and successful bands has certainly earned him that right. Entitlement doesn't ensure quality, however, so the question is: does MG hold up as more than an excuse for diehard Depeche Mode fans to thicken their record collections?
It does, and for reasons that go beyond the music itself. With the caveat of ultra-clear mixing from Timothy "Überzone" Wiles, the 16 tracks that make up the hour-long MG represent the first original material Gore has released under his own name. Throughout all his band's ups, downs, and drama, Gore has steadfastly protected the Depeche Mode brand, his only solo material consisting of cover versions. Even as an instrumental album, MG holds considerable weight as a statement because it's the boldest one Gore has made on his own to date.
And Gore still may have a chip on his shoulder as well. Since Alan Wilder left Depeche Mode in 1995, Gore has been the only member of the band who consistently plays an instrument. He has been Depeche Mode's de facto sonic architect. Or has he? Conventional wisdom has held that the band's overall sound has been more a product of producers' knob-twiddling than Depeche Mode's. Gore has been the songwriter and guitar player, but he's hardly recognized as a synthesizer pioneer.
In 2012, Gore hooked up his ex-bandmate Vince Clarke, who is lauded as a synth genius, for the VCMG project. Their Ssss was a pretty good, pretty straightforward techno-dance album, and part of the fun was guessing who did what. Everyone knows Martin Gore can write deceptively catchy, heavily atmospheric songs. If there were ever any question, though, MG establishes that he also knows his way around a modular synthesizer or three.
What does it sound like? The generally slow-moving, cinematic instrumentals that for a long time served as Depeche B-sides are a good place to start. These are definitely not Depeche pop songs without the words; rather, they are the soundtrack to the movie playing in Gore's head. On the best tracks, synthesizers build, swell, and sweep over glockenspiel-like arpeggios, and rhythms bubble under the surface. This is a modest, low-key, yet substantial work.
While much of Depeche Mode's recent Delta Machine went heavy on the blues, MG brings on the pensive, foreboding moodiness. Opener "Pinking" doesn't progress so much as rise up out of the speakers, lifted by ghostly choral effects. "Exalt" balances ominous thrashing and banging with a broad, calm synth sweep, while "Elk" conjures up a misty wonderland that eventually reveals a towering cathedral.
The yearning, delicately percussive "Europa Hymn" is most reminiscent of the classic Depeche Mode sound. But more often than not, Gore seems to be expressing his interests in experimental music, krautrock -- even prog. Witness, for example, the nervous pulsating of "Featherlight" or the minimalist, Steve Reich-like cycles of "Hum". Remixes will surely abound, but MG proper will disappoint anyone looking for 4-on-the-floor dancefloor fodder or even VCMG-like techo.
Take almost any soundtrack away from its attendant film, and a fair amount of it will fall victim to lack of context. So it is with Gore's imaginary soundtrack. In general, it's surprisingly rich and revealing, but a fair amount of it still fails to take hold. This is especially true of the more noisy, musique concrete-like material.
In terms of palate, MG confirms what the last several Depeche Mode albums have suggested: that Gore these days is far more interested in quirky, esoteric analog synthesizer sounds than he is in sampling. Which leads to the conclusion that, yes, like it or not, Gore is indeed the primary hands-on factor in Depeche Mode's sound.
Does discussing MG almost exclusively as it relates to Gore's famous band render it voiceless as an individual record? No; the album will surely appeal to plenty of people who are not Depeche Mode fans. But Gore's career and legacy have rendered the larger context completely inescapable. What's impressive is that context doesn't lessen MG's accomplishment so much as complement it.