I’d like to preface this review by pointing out that, in my opinion, Depeche Mode are hands down one of the best live bands in the world. Ever since the ground-breaking tour for ‘songs of faith and devotion’ saw the band evolve from an electronic act to a fully-fledged, arena-slaying rock band, Depeche Mode have continually raised the bar for live shows, sitting precariously at the top of the heap alongside similarly innovative acts like Nine Inch Nails. The fact that Depeche Mode have been releasing consistently good albums since then has helped inestimably because no Depeche Mode tour is simply a nostalgic release – each tour has plenty to offer in terms of new songs and, as someone who was there, I can tell you that on the ‘Delta Machine’ tour the band simply crushed the opposition by not only offering up plenty of cuts from that excellent album, but also by burrowing into their back catalogue and serving up darker, heavier versions of much-loved hits. However, whilst this expansive (and expensive), ‘deluxe’ box-set contains five discs, the overall feel of ‘Live in Berlin’ is an opportunity missed due to some rather strange artistic and aesthetic decisions.
As mentioned above, ‘Live in Berlin’ offers up five discs of Depeche Mode goodness. There are two DVDs, the first of which features ‘Live in Berlin’, the 130 minute concert without interruption, whilst the second features ‘Alive in Berlin’, a 155 minute extended cut with distracting backstage footage in the vein of ‘three sides live’ by Genesis; two CDs featuring the concert in its entirety (and, thus far, the only part of the set available separately) and a Blu ray disc featuring ‘Delta Machine’ in hi-res audio. It’s a comprehensive package but also a perplexing one. The concert footage, although presumably filmed in HD, has not been made available on Blu Ray because Anton Corbijin apparently wanted to capture an old-school look but, even if this is the case, it does not explain why the audio couldn’t be high-res. Moreover, whatever the artistic decisions, a lot of the footage just looks plain bad. Whilst an authentic, aged look is not necessarily a bad thing, there are parts of the show where the pixilation is so bad that it looks like a low bit-rate download. It’s distracting and it entirely fails to do justice to the stunning light and staging design the band employed on the tour. Another perplexing decision is the lack of a DTS soundtrack for the concert given that DTS is pretty much the audio-standard these days and there is no question that an uncompressed track would hugely benefit this release even if the downgraded visual were left intact. Moreover, why do we need two DVDs offering ostensibly the same thing when most companies would have opted for a branching edition (yet another argument for producing the set on blu ray) and finally, why, when the package costs £30, is it in a rather lame clam shell box rather than a deluxe hard-back book in the vein of recent Eagle Vision releases? When you consider the releases from Dream Theatre and Peter Gabriel, both of which were beautifully packaged, it’s disappointing that Depeche Mode have produced such a dull box set, especially considering how appealing the Depeche Mode aesthetic is, and the overall decision to relegate the film to a poorly authored DVD is, frankly, just bizarre. In short, the box set provides a muted and, in some cases even annoying, record of a tour that was typically excellent and the majority of the blame must lie with the normally excellent Anton Corbijin whose visual acumen seems to have entirely deserted him this time out.
However, whilst the package and many of the artistic decisions within, are disappointing, the audio content, for the most part, isn’t. The ‘Delta machine’ tour was one of Depeche Mode’s most enjoyable outings, capturing the band in full on industrial mode, and the DVD/CD set captures, for the most part, the sonic splendour of the tour. The expanded band, joined by a live drummer and keyboardist/bassist are on fire throughout and it is noticeable that a number of songs are significantly rockier than their recorded versions packing a mighty sonic punch and showcasing the band’s versatility, all of which makes the decision to include only low-res audio even more aggravating. It’s a lengthy show the band played on the Delta Machine tour, offering up plenty of cuts from the new album as well as plenty of hits form across the band’s catalogue (happily including songs from ‘playing the angel’ but sadly ignoring the excellent ‘sounds of the universe’) and the band themselves deliver the songs, as always, as if it’s the first time they’ve played them rather than the thousandth, an endearing trait which goes a long way to explaining Depeche Mode’s longevity.
Highlights include the tracks that are either new (‘welcome to my world’, ‘angel’, ‘soothe my soul’, ‘should be higher’) or rarely played (an epic ‘black celebration’, a beautiful ‘precious’ and a deeply personal rendition of ‘shake the disease’) whilst the only considerable mis-step is the now strangely bouncy ‘a pain that I’m used to’ that does not benefit at all from a jarring transition caused by the addition of a completely inappropriate bass-line in the verse that stands entirely at odds with the crunchy chords and wailing synth of the chorus/bridge. Alongside the new tracks and unearthed gems there are also, of course, plenty of standards including a crunchy ‘question of time’ and an extended ‘personal Jesus’ which sends the audience nuts. It is a well-balanced set that offers more variation than the previous live releases which duplicated far more content, and if it had been better filmed and presented it might well have become the go-to Depeche Mode live concert whereas it shall now exist as a rarely viewed curiosity.
There is one element, however, that does encourage the purchase of the box set. Having reissued the entire back catalogue as dual SACD / DVD-A sets with 5.1 mixes and then continued that tradition with 5.1 mixes of both ‘Playing the Angel’ and ‘Sounds of the universe’ coming as standard, eyebrows were raised when ‘Delta machine’, with its multi-layered songs, failed to offer a surround version. This has happily been rectified here with the album included as a blu-ray audio disc and this helps to offset the weighty price tag. It’s a reasonable effort, although, it has to be said, not as innovative as the excellent surround mix of ‘Sounds…’ and for long-time fans keen to hear the new album in surround it does add a very tempting edge to the overall package.
Overall ‘Live in Berlin’ feels like a missed opportunity. For every positive there is a negative: whilst it’s great to have the film in two different editions (with and without backstage footage), to limit it to DVD seems a strangely backward step; whilst the package has a handsome photo booklet it seems ridiculous to restrain the excellent photography to a mere CD size, especially in what is supposedly a deluxe package; whilst the audio is good throughout there is no DTS or hi-res option; the surround disc is only offered in blu ray which, whilst appreciated with those who have players, prohibits those without from benefitting from it and, finally, Anton Corbijin’s direction lacks the punch and clean precision of old, as if the director decided to wilfully sabotage the film and the picture quality varies from the poor to the downright awful, spoiling a view of the band’s immense stage set. For fans this is a valuable collection of new live tracks, but for those with less interest, there are better quality live sets out there (not least the amazing ‘devotional’) which offer far better cinematography than this oddly bumbled affair. The merely curious and those without a blu-ray player with which to enjoy the surround disc are advised to stick to the CD-only version.