As the principal songwriter in Depeche Mode, Martin Gore has had an incalculable impact on the landscape of electronic music, but he hasn’t done so without help. Gore’s best-known songs, of course, have been inhabited by Depeche Mode frontman David Gahan, who has consistently infused them with a rare combination of melodrama and raw authenticity, not to mention the powerful allure of his voice alone. Likewise, the moodiness that has always been so integral to those songs has largely come courtesy of other hands on deck: producer and Mute Records founder Daniel Miller at first, followed increasingly by the band’s one-time resident producer/multi-instrumentalist Alan Wilder who, for a 10-year stretch from 1983 to 1993, supplied the lion’s share of the sonic architecture for classic Depeche Mode albums like Music for the Masses and Violator.
Which is not at all to diminish the value of Gore’s contributions. In fact, one of Gore’s greatest strengths lies in his ability to let others like Gahan and Wilder go all-in on bringing his material to life. But even on his own—whether putting his own electro-pop stamp on a set of pop/rock covers for his 2003 full-length solo debut Counterfeit2, or unveiling his own instrumentals for his 2015 sophomore full-length MG—Gore has managed to summon the essential spirit and tone of Depeche Mode’s sound, if in more rudimentary form. For fans who find themselves craving those familiar DM ingredients, only without a strong narrative thrust, there’s probably no better place to turn than MG, which gives listeners a kind of assembly-line view of the individual motifs that comprise Gore’s vocabulary.
On his new EP The Third Chimpanzee, Gore once again reaches for his usual trademarks: the clanging of synthetic marimba-like textures (“Howler,” “Capuchin”), siren wails that conjure images of sentient machines crying out in torment (“Howler”), throbbing bass interlaced with ticking beats (“Mandrill,” “Vervet,” “Capuchin”) and—let’s not forget—melody (all of the above). Absent are the pinging synth arpeggios that mimic nylon guitar strings. (Or is it vice-versa?) Either way, Gore does splash the tracks with some typically spartan electric guitar flourishes. Longtime followers of Gore’s work, though, might find themselves thinking they’ve heard all of this before—many times. They wouldn’t be wrong.
At first, listeners will have to squint for indications that Chimpanzee offers anything that Gore didn’t already serve up on MG. And, at just five tracks to MG’s 16, it’s easy to get the impression that Gore, admittedly at something of a creative ebb from being stuck at home all day lately, was content to half-ass it through a handful of instrumentals just to fight off boredom at a time when he wasn’t feeling inspired to write any lyrics. Perhaps Gore didn’t have anything to say here? Well, appearances can be deceiving. Where each MG track consisted, more or less, of a repeating pattern that had yet to be stripped down to a hook and re-assembled into a proper backing track for a song, The Third Chimpanzee integrates those ideas into seemingly simple pieces of music. To put it another way, you can look at MG as a complete album’s worth of the demos Gore would present for a Depeche Mode record, whereas The Third Chimpanzee stands on its own.
Sure, longtime fans will find themselves playing an involuntary game of “name that tune” with all the elements here that could have been lifted straight from the DM repertoire. Over time, though, these new tracks reveal a delicate interplay of moving parts. On “Mandrill,” for example, Gore puts together a rhythmic jigsaw puzzle out of deep-pitched bass pulses, tap-dancing percussion, cymbal slurs, echoing thunder claps, synth gurgles, ghostly fumes and an alternating three- and five-note “guitar” hook. Not only do all the parts fit perfectly, but they also push and pull against one another so as to induce a not-unpleasant sensation of being spun around and tugged on by multiple pairs of hands—but that’s only if you stop to pay attention. The more immediate reaction is to want to dance.
The music on The Third Chimpanzee is supposed to be an ominous reflection of the moment, and it certainly achieves that. The tracks “Capuchin” and “Howler,” which are less groove-based and more spartan than “Mandrill,” both convey the eerie feeling of suspended animation that has permeated the last 10 months. But four of these five tracks end up being danceable, too. And though The Third Chimpanzee isn’t soaked with the exquisite, erotically charged torment that seeps into the bones when listening to Depeche Mode, there’s a sultriness to the way even the most cold, inhuman sounds here interact.
Gore has never been known as a forceful or even outgoing speaker. The Third Chimpanzee has a similarly reserved bearing—in the absence of Gahan chewing up the scenery, listeners will have to lean in a little to hear what’s being “said.” Technically, The Third Chimpanzee does contain singing. It’s just that Gore re-synthesized his vocals so that they no longer resemble a human voice. The first time he did so—for the track “Howler,” which pre-dates the pandemic—Gore thought that it came back sounding like a primate. He ran with the same idea for the other tracks, naming each after a different primate species and ultimately titling the EP after the 1991 book of the same name by evolutionary biologist and popular-science author Jared Diamond (also the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse).
When Gore first encountered the book The Third Chimpanzee, it was then titled The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee: How Our Animal Heritage Affects the Way We Live. So there is a “message” here borne of Gore’s apprehension about the fact that humanity isn’t nearly as evolved as we might like to think. Gore has always struck a balance between the organic and the mechanical—he has a way of investing cold, inhuman sounds with a sense of passion and yearning. Still, whatever point he’s making about the animal that resides in the human heart never makes itself explicitly clear. If it weren’t for Gore’s own explanation, or his choice in titles—or the cover artwork by Pockets Warhol, an artistically inclined capuchin monkey who lives at the Story Book Farm sanctuary in Canada—we would never know what he was trying to communicate with The Third Chimpanzee. That said, if it’s true that Gore errs on the side of being unobtrusive with his message, this EP shows that he’s in a class by himself when it comes to tastefulness.
Electronic music has advanced so much in the four decades since Gore first appeared on the scene that the inheritors of his legacy can do laps around him when it comes to sheer experimentation. (For proof, just listen to artists like Oneohtrix Point Never, Teebs, Prefuse 73 and Squarepusher, to name just a few.) And even Gore himself has drawn from a wider range of sounds when he’s brought gospel and doo-wop influences into Depeche Mode—and that was 27 years ago. So it takes several listens to realize that the tracks on The Third Chimpanzee each function on an interior logic that’s quite satisfying to climb into, like being inside a video demonstration of a Rubik’s Cube getting solved over and over.
Moreso than MG, The Third Chimpanzee gives us a window into Gore’s working process, which is apparently growing ever more refined, if less adventurous, as the years go on.
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. He also dreams of being a “setlist doctor” to the bands you read about in these pages, and has started making playlists for imaginary shows that your favorite band never actually played. You can read his work, listen to his interviews and playlists at feedbackdef.com, and find him on Twitter.