Tracking Surround: Depeche Mode

Touring the Angel: Live in Milan Sire/Reprise (2 DVDs, 1 CD)
Performance •••• DVD Picture •••• DVD Mix •• Extras ••
A Broken Frame Sire/Reprise/Rhino (CD+DVD)
Music ••• DVD Mix ••½ Extras ••••
Some Great Reward Sire/Reprise/Rhino (CD+DVD)
Music •••• DVD Mix ••½ Extras ••••
Songs of Faith and Devotion Sire/Reprise/Rhino (CD+DVD)
Music •••½ DVD Mix ••½ Extras ••••
Depeche Mode are the Beatles of synth-rock, electropop, death disco, or whatever you want to call the musical movement they helped pioneer in the 1980s. They've sold more than 50 million albums (only a fifth of those in the U.S.) and are more popular now than ever. In fact, their fame just seems to grow the more they hibernate between albums and tours. Case in point: The 2005-06 tour, their first in four years, included 69 sold-out arena dates and found the band playing to 2 million people worldwide.

That trek is captured on Touring the Angel: Live in Milan, a two-DVD set with a bonus CD. The first DVD is a two-hour concert at an Italian enormodome. All well and good: The staging is fantastic, as the band has long since figured out how to fill big spaces with lights, cameras, action, and plenty of music - expanding on Pink Floyd's notion of live concerts as arty, high-tech events.

Onstage in Angel, vocalist Dave Gahan is as outgoing as his knob-twiddling bandmates are reserved. He works the crowd with bare-chested, mike-stand-twirling gusto while the others are fretting over their gizmos. To be fair, Martin Gore - bandleader, songwriter, synth player, guitarist - has stepped into the spotlight a bit more, playing rudimentary strums and licks on various guitars for a good portion of Angel while wearing an eye-catching getup that must be seen to be believed. His head is crowned with what looks like a knit Mohawk, and a set of feathered wings is strapped to his back. Gore resembles nothing so much as some lost freak from the Mad Max movies, but he has a droll perspective on his bizarre appearance (stay tuned, if you care, for the documentary on the second DVD).

Touring the Angel is, of course, tilted heavily toward material from 2005's Playing the Angel, though it becomes a crowd-pleasing, hit-filled retrospective in the second hour. There are some slack spots toward the middle, including Gore's two-song turn at the mike, which has an overdone air to it. But "Personal Jesus" has never sounded better - like a trippy Delta blues, really - and it's the centerpiece of a five-song run that even electropop haters would have to admit rocks pretty hard.

With Gahan, Gore, and synth whiz Andrew Fletcher joined by drummer Christian Eigner and keyboardist Peter Gordeno, the band certainly delivers the musical goods on Angel. But the concert is a dizzying feast for the eyes as well. No wonder: Complementing the show's live video director, Blue Leach, is the tour's "artistic director," photographer Anton Corbijn, who has an unerring eye for movement, contrast, and dramatic chiaroscuro. At times, the camera fixes on the digital countdown of the time remaining on a song, reminding you that this is not only music performed by human beings but precisely programmed data bits. And who's to say, Depeche Mode would seem to be asking, that the true spirit of the endeavor resides more in men than machines?

Unfortunately, the sonics are the weak link here. The Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 mixes are so pointless that they sound like an afterthought, with the surround speakers projecting little more than muffled crowd noise. The center channel makes a brief appearance at the start of the program and then pulls a disappearing act. The left and right fronts adequately broadcast the heavily echoed roar of a rock band playing for tens of thousands in a domed arena.

As a package, Angel is arguably too much of a good thing. The concert on the first DVD would have been quite enough. The second DVD is packed with extras that only a diehard fan could love: "Touring the Angel Screens" of five songs, an electronic press kit, the brief press conference announcing the tour, and a 20-minute talking-head documentary in which the principals say predictable things about not liking to tour but enjoying the playing and, of course, how peachy everything is within the band these days. Worse, the 35-minute "bonus" CD - eight tracks plucked from the 23 on the concert DVD - serves only to highlight the fact that audio quality is the least of this package's assets.

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