Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration comes from their 80s heyday, and was recently re-released in a great looking and sounding CD/DVD package. Mode, particularly in the 80s, has a unique sound, one you either embrace or dislike, and if you like them, there’s plenty of great songs here. It’s not an achievement on the level of Violator, but it’s still a very strong album.
The first two tracks are the highlight of the album, the moody, building title track, and driving “Fly on the Windscreen.” Both songs are examples of the way Depeche Mode builds atmosphere with echoing synths, driving percussion and the uncanny instrument that is Dave Gahan’s voice. He sounds like no one else, and has a theatrical presence that makes this band unique from other synth pop groups of the era. "It Doesn't Matter Two" is another highlight, its repeated high pitched chanting sounding like a Danny Elfman song gone crazy.
A lot of people would probably complain that the album sounds “dated,” but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Yes, it sounds like something made in the 80s, but that doesn’t mean it sounds bad. This isn’t “Axel F,” with really obvious, artificial sounding synths. The sounds they create have a majestic beauty that holds up today. And, the hard edged synth sounds Timbaland employed on massive songs like “Sexyback” and “Promiscuous” owe a debt to the work Depeche Mode did here.
My issue with the album is that there’s a few too many slower ballads. On the dance inclined tracks, the synths work great, but something like “Sometimes” doesn’t work as well. I see Depeche as a pop dance band, and the ballads just don’t gel with that. They can do emotional songs, “Precious” off last year’s Playing the Angel is as emotional as anything they’ve done, but keeps up the dance momentum. However, some of the tracks here just sort of die, and it takes the more up tempo, or at least rhythmically driving songs to get things back.
As I mentioned before, this re-release package is pretty slick. The DVD sounds amazing, and has some strong live footage. Is it worth an upgrade from the CD? It probably depends on what kind of system you’ve got. On surround sound, it was gorgeous, but in headphones, I didn’t hear much different between the CD and DVD.
So, this is a really strong album that gives Depeche Mode fans what they want, moody, catchy synthpop. They’re one of the best bands of the 80s, and are still putting out good work today.