Hide & Seek Records – 18th March 2016
I’ve been less than complimentary about Department M in the past. They’re a band I feel I ought to like, and, truth be told, really want to like. I very much get – and like – so many of their reference points and influences. I like their sound, overall, and in terms of the component parts. I kinda think their highly stylised image – specifically that of Owen Brinley – is cool, in a way. That doesn’t mean I don’t think the mac and headphones getup is a tad affected – it’s a chronic affectation, in fact, but there’s a sense that Brinley’s homage to the 80s is sincere and very closely studied in its affection.
But for all that, they’ve always felt somehow lacking, the music too controlled, the look too much of a contrivance, the sounds too preoccupied with recreating the vintage. Style, yes, but substance?
As is standard for department M (stylised with a lower case ‘d’ in the latest round of promo), Deep Control has a lot going in its favour, at least on paper, featuring as it does Owen Brinley (ex-Grammatics) and Tommy Davidson (Pulled Apart By Horses), while having been produced by long-term friend James Kenosha, who has a staggering resumé. Again, that’s a fact. It was also mastered by Tom Woodhead, formerly of Forward Russia, at Hippocratic studios, and it looks good. A decent album cover matters, and this works, although it is an unashamed reconstruction of many things 80s.
And I would love to froth at the mouth with enthusiasm for this release, or at least be forced to reconsider my stance. I actually wanted to be wrong, to declare the error of my previous perceptions of the band. But sadly, Deep Control only reinforces everything I find troublesome with department M.
But while their eponymous debut showed clear promise and a bit of edge, Deep Control is the sound of a band slipping into its comfort zone. The album’s tile and many of the tracks imply antagonism and frustration which simply don’t translate in the delivery.
It’s ironic, given the circumstances of the album’s creation. As the press release explains, ‘the lyrical undertow of the album is a discourse on coming to terms with disorders such as Anxiety and OCD whilst living in the sometimes harsh modern worlds of work and play in a Northern city. After years spent in the spin of these facets, there’s the essence of time escaping at speed – you can only sit back and watch the years whirl by.’ Again, I can relate: every landmark birthday I approach is prefaced by abject terror in the face of the ageing process, and I have a handle on stress, anxiety, panic. Despite all of this, Deep Control fails to speak to me.
The album as a whole simply lacks bite. It feels, and sounds, simply too insular to communicate any kind of message. And yet there’s no real sense of inner turmoil either.
The songs are wet, as is their delivery. There’s an eternal threat of breaking out, cutting loose, giving it some nuts, that remains unfulfilled. There’s a moment where the final bars of ‘Bad Formulae’ turn dark, and a shuddering cybergoth groove kicks in that suggests that – it being only the second track – things are going to take a turn for the intense on album number two.
But sadly, it never happens: the Depeche Mode (I very much doubt the band’s initials could be accidental) meets Howard Jones stylings lack any real meat, or sense of direction, and it transpired that Deep Control is tame in comparison to its predecessor.
‘Stress Class’ sounds like an outtake from Black Celebration, and there’s no doubt it’s better than the stuff they played before the start and during the break in the stress class I attended, but then I never dug Norah Jones or Coldplay.
Brinley’s vocals strive toward soul, but lack any guts or character – which pretty much sums up Deep Control as a product.