Welcome, chip enthusiasts, to the second installment of Office Hours! This time I will be reviewing the 8-Bit Operators ‘Enjoy the Science,’ a collective tribute to Depeche Mode. If I had to pick my earliest musical influence, it would be tough to name anyone other than DM. I must have listened to ‘Everything Counts’ hundreds of times, both to steal that bass line and to learn how to program vibrato commands in MIDISoft Recording Session, my first DAW. So when I discovered this tribute album would be released in June, I was incredibly excited to hear what the artists could do with some of my favorite tunes. First, a tiny bit of band history for those of you who might not know these sires of the synthesizer.
Formed in 1980, Depeche Mode has three consistent members: Dave Gahan (vocals), Martin Gore (guitar, keyboards, vocals), and Andy Fletcher (keyboards). After the departure of Vince Clarke in 1981, Martin Gore assumed the majority of songwriting duties. DM is one of the most successful popular music groups to embrace largely electronic means of sound production; they were highly influential in the 1980s with their extensive use of the Minimoog, Synclavier, Oberheim, and various samplers.
Given the immense popularity and longevity of Depeche Mode, one might be forgiven if tempted to dismiss another collection of covers. However, I would argue that the covers in ‘Enjoy the Science’ are perhaps the most unique arrangements of these songs since DM originally wrote them. The desire to stretch hardware to its limits and explore new timbres are common links between DM and modern chip artists, and the sounds that the 8-Bit Operators get out of their sound chips are incredible. Some timbres are incredibly close to the original analog synths, and some are what we come to expect from chip artists – unique interpretations of the original sounds through limited hardware synthesis.
Given that I have so clearly professed my love and obsession with Depeche Mode, I am going to approach this review as fairly as possible and treat it how I might when grading a final exam. I love giving high grades when earned, but loathe giving out 100% marks. Nothing is ever perfect*, so I will attempt to temper my affections with a few honest criticisms. On to the grades!
The most important part of any cover album, and there are some ups and downs on this collection. Depeche Mode has released 13 albums of original material, and six are represented in ‘Enjoy the Science.’ Their first album ‘Speak and Spell’ gets five slots, while two albums are tied with three tracks apiece. I assume the artists had free choice over their selection, but I am really missing something from ‘Construction Time Again’ or ‘Exciter.’ There are some surprising semi-deep cuts – Bacalao’s ‘But Not Tonight’ and Aonami’s ‘(Set Me Free) Remotivate Me’ were originally B-sides in America – but thankfully no one chose that karaoke warhorse ‘Personal Jesus.’ Herbert Weixelbaum’s ‘Enjoy the Silence’ is really nicely done and is most likely the track that your average listener will have heard before. His chip treatment of the tune is fabulous; the square wave basses and shimmering arpeggios sound spot on, and that little noise drum break after the first chorus is great!
One unique aspect of chip music is that most arrangements and transcriptions do not contain vocals. In fact, I was actually surprised the first time the vocals entered in this compilation! My favorite thing about every track on ‘Enjoy the Science’ is that each artist took the source material and did something creative with it: the arrangements are not simply note-for-note MIDI files run through a plug-in. Yerzmyey’s ‘I Just Can’t Get Enough’ is a perfect example of this transformation, taking the synth-heavy original and turning it into an ecstatic, bubbling track. The chip version reminds me of those incessantly happy and quirky Mario platformer soundtracks from Koji Kondo. Another non-vocal track that I really enjoy is ‘(Set Me Free) Remotivate Me’ by Aonami, mixing the original DM melodies with chaotic LSDj glitch elements and driving bass lines. Honorable mention goes to the ultra-hip detuned solo section in ‘Dreaming of Me’ by gameboymusicclub.
Vocals / Melody
While he may not find himself in the top five, Dave Gahan’s name routinely appears on those frequent lists of ‘Top 100 Vocalists’ and ‘Greatest Frontmen (EVER!)’ The man can flat out SING, and Martin Gore is no slouch, either. So, as with many cover albums, the vocalists on ‘Enjoy the Science’ have big vocal folds to fill. All of the performances are better than you will find at an open mic night, but a few did leave me wanting a bit more since the source material is so rich and vital to the song. Although I am accustomed to hearing these songs in Gahan’s Essex accent and vocal tone, there were some pleasant surprises in these covers. The vocoder-heavy ‘Strangelove’ by ComputeHER is ethereal and absolutely gorgeous. My favorite vocal performance with minimal studio effects is Bacalao’s ‘But Not Tonight’ – it is pitch perfect and floats wonderfully above the chip arrangement I mentioned above. Honorable mention goes to Helen Eugene’s singing on ‘Behind the Wheel’ from Inverse Phase – beautiful!
Although the 8-Bit Operators describe the project as ‘lo-bit,’ do not be fooled: the production quality on ‘Enjoy the Science’ is as high as you will find on any Depeche Mode studio album. The levels are perfectly balanced, and there is a richness in each track that emphasizes the best tones of each unique hardware configuration and vocalist. Listen to the perfect balance between melody, accompaniment, bass, and drums on gwEm’s ‘Martyr’ and the counterpoint between the synth and vocals in ‘New Life’ by Patokai for an example of what you will find throughout the album.
Mass Appeal / Replay Value
The first time I heard ‘Enjoy the Science’ was on the day of its release, and listened to the tracks not as reviewer but as a long-time Depeche Mode and chip music fan. There are three tracks that I stopped and listened to immediately again: ‘Enjoy the Silence,’ ‘Strangelove,’ and GOTO80’s ‘Boys Say Go.’ The latter is a fantastic and unique cover of a quirky DM song, with its bouncing bass and accompaniment swells. If you are a Depeche Mode fan, this collection is an interesting interpretation of songs that you know and love. If you are a fan of chip music, this is a fantastic study in what can be done when old hardware is put to new use. The blend of vocals and chiptune on many of these songs is contrary to what one may be used to when listening to chip music, and serves as a great addition to similar sounds from scene regulars The J. Arthur Keenes Band, Anamanaguchi, and Br1ght Pr1mate.
Following the success of chip albums covering The Beatles, Devo, and Kraftwerk, the 8-Bit Operators continue to impress with their Depeche Mode interpretations on ‘Enjoy the Science.’ Creative arrangements and unique solutions to hardware limitations abound on this release, and some of the tracks actually manage to create far more interesting synth sounds than originally heard on the DM studio albums. The integration of live vocals with chiptune is a welcome addition to a musical style that is largely instrumental, and fans of both DM and chiptune will not want to miss this collection.
Final Grade: 47.5/50 (95%)
That’s the end of an extra-long Office Hours session! Thanks for reading to the end, and enjoy the summer break while you still can – fall is coming!
* – except perhaps for that Martin Gore bass line in ‘World In My Eyes’, hnngggg…