I can still remember the first time I heard Depeche Mode. Shortly after the ’90s wrapped up in, say, the fall of 2002, the now-defunct radio station 99.1 WHFS in the Annapolis/Washington/Baltimore area debuted a “Nineties at Noon” feature, where they played nothing but ’90s rock songs from 12-1 PM. Since I had school, I almost never got to listen to it, which is too bad, since they frequently played songs per listener request that yielded some really interesting nuggets from my favorite decade in music. But one day we had a half-day for whatever reason, and I can remember my dad picking me up just after noon and driving me home. He wasn’t impressed by modern rock radio in the slightest, but one of the songs they played was a song I knew for sure I had never heard before, and he perked up and said, “Well, I dig this tune.”
I had absolutely no idea what the song was; I can’t stress enough how different it sounded from even the other ’90s songs that were seeing the light of day on this specialty hour of programming. At some point a few years down the line, I checked out a two-disc compilation called The Singles 86>98 from the library and ripped it onto my computer, since by this time I was familiar with “Personal Jesus” and wanted to hear what else Depeche Mode had to offer. It wasn’t long before I came across “Enjoy the Silence,” which I immediately recognized as the song I heard in the car that afternoon years earlier. The song’s that distinctive; it sounds like it’s from another planet. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I have ever quite encountered an album like Violator, at least in terms of sound.
Precise and cold without succumbing to the clinical clichés of early, synth-driven electronic music, Violator manages to haunt and enthrall in equal measures as it spins off one stunning, eerie track after another. You know how when you’re swimming in the ocean and a big wave comes? Every single time, the water ahead of the wave gets sucked out to sea to become part of the wave, and you’re left standing there, with water zipping quickly past you, and it’s simultaneously a humbling and exciting experience every time. Listening to Violator is like that: standing in the shallow water, facing a big wave. Indeed, the grunge explosion, the mother of all big waves (at least as far as the music industry is concerned), was just around the corner, but Violator sounds absolutely nothing like grunge, even though it falls under the broader alternative rock subgenre. In fact, one of the reasons why I can’t find anything else that sounds like this album is because right after Violator was released, the course of the pop music narrative changed direction.
So Violator sounds strange all these years later, since it doesn’t belong in the post-Nirvana pack. And even though Depeche Mode ruled the ’80s British electronic scene, it doesn’t really fit into the post-Blue Lines trip-hop and electronica scenes either. And, actually, Violator doesn’t quite fit into the synthesizer hell of the ’80s either. Sure, there are synths all over the place, but they’re employed as actual instruments. They aren’t used instead of traditional instruments (i.e., a synth keyboard instead of a piano). If you listen to mainstream ’80s music, you’ll typically come across then-new synthesizers — they’re pretty much unavoidable — that sit badly in the songs’ mixes because there’s usually a ton of tacky reverb, as well. By 1990, things had clearly evolved. What makes Violator so riveting is that this was mostly unexplored territory when Depeche Mode crossed over into the mainstream with several hit singles, including “Personal Jesus,” “Enjoy the Silence,” “Policy of Truth,” and “World in My Eyes.”
Obviously, though, the music (and more specifically, rock) world ultimately went in another direction. Grunge, Britpop, DJ-based electronica and later even rap-metal took hold over in the years that would follow in a big way, and Depeche Mode has always kind of been stuck as the band that did Violator just before the grunge explosion. Even in my review of the 2013 album Delta Machine, I couldn’t help but compare it to Violator. (News flash: it’s not as good as Violator.) It’s pretty much unavoidable, which is too bad, since Depeche Mode is actually a really interesting band. Like R.E.M., Depeche Mode is a band that helped diversify and, perhaps even more critically, popularize the alternative sound before Nirvana took it completely mainstream.
I say this all the time, but the narrative that Nirvana came out of absolutely nowhere is more than a little misleading. The fact that Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains had all already released albums on major labels by the time Nevermind was released is an indicator that even though alternative had not fully crossed over into the mainstream, the major labels had clearly picked up on the fact that the momentum was steadily building. They may not have had particular reason to believe that grunge or Nirvana specifically was going to be the turning point, but without Depeche Mode songs like “Personal Jesus” (#28), “Enjoy the Silence” (#8), “Policy of Truth” (#15) and “World in My Eyes” (#52) all charting nicely on the Billboard Hot 100 over the course of 1989 and 1990, major labels may not have looked so closely at the Seattle scene.
A more overlooked dynamic in the “big wave” analogy is that a wave can only be big if it can pull in the water ahead of it. Of course, once that wave crashes ashore, the water that was once ahead of it becomes indistinguishable to those who only look at the wave after landfall. But those few who observe the entire process, who look past the explosive crash, will know that there are some hidden treasures in those explosions, reserved only for those who know where to look. And Violator, despite being a hit record, is one of those treasures now, isolated in a permanent 1990 exile by a movement it indisputably helped create.