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Depeche Mode: Little synth, less sync


It's amazing how long some cliches seem to linger. Even though more than a decade has passed since all-synth bands like Depeche Mode proved that rock could be made without guitars or drums, there are still those who equate synthesizers with soulless, empty pop music.

Never mind that synths can be heard everywhere these days, from jazz bands to jeans commercials; the perception holds. As far as some pop fans are concerned, synth bands are cold and robotic, while guitar bands are the epitome of warmth and humanity. And nothing, it seems, will ever convince them otherwise.

Too bad. Because those are exactly the sort of people who would benefit from hearing Depeche Mode's latest album, "Songs of Faith and Devotion" (Sire/Reprise 45243, arriving in record stores today). Unlike the band's previous efforts, which owed their angst-ridden allure to the metronomic clank of sequencer-driven synths, "Songs" finds the band bashing away on drums and guitars -- playing, in other words, like any other rock band.

And does that make the music sound warmer, richer, more vibrantly alive? Hell no. These guys are just as whiny and annoying as ever, from the first feedback shriek of "I Feel You" to the final, effects-laden chorus of "Higher Love."

In other words, don't blame the technology if Depeche Mode's music seems empty and robotic -- blame them.

Start with Martin Gore, whose minor-key melodies and romantically despairing songs are at the heart of the D. M. aesthetic. By far the most inventive of the Deppies -- it was he who twanged away in the band's first guitar song, "Personal Jesus" (from the 1990 album "Violator") -- he continues to add to the band's stylistic range on this outing, adding touches of gospel, blues and funk to the band's mix.

Trouble is, these new spices don't do much to change the overall flavor of the music. Take, for example, the gospel-inflected "Condemnation." Although the band dutifully employs all the expected elements -- a thumping tambourine, a church-style choir, a touch of sanctified piano -- its trudging, dirge-like pace leaves this would-be gospel lament sounding like something that wafted up from the depths of a Russian monastery. While that may be spiritual music of a sort, it's not the kind that makes good rock and roll.

Likewise, the grinding guitars on "I Feel You" may draw from a blues-based vocabulary, but the phrasing is too stiff and un-swinging to beconvincing (unless they're trying to show what "Boogie Chillen" would have sounded like had John Lee Hooker been an android). And as much as "Get Right With Me" tries to show the band's funky side through turntable scratching and soulful backing vocals, the effort is undone by the mechanistic pulse and David Gahan's pallid vocal.

In fact, about the only time Depeche Mode really seems in its element is when it digs into the urgent, electronic percolation of synth-heavy "Rush." But that probably has less to do with the instrumentation than with how well the song's melody suits the band's limited emotional range.

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