Thursday, November 19, 2009

Architecture and Morality

In many ways, 1981's 'Architecture and Morality' was the culmination of all of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s early-era achievements. Up to that point, the Liverpool synth-pop outfit had specialised in churning out basically structured three-minute pop songs that updated the synthesised Krautrock of Teutonic electronic-music pioneers Kraftwerk, scoring respectable entries on the British charts with quirkily accessible trinkets like the 'Electricity', 'Messages' and the irrepressible 'Enola Gay'.

It was all well and good, but after two albums of the same sort of ear-friendly melodies, OMD stood at an artistic crossroads at the turn of the decade and needed to develop its sound.

This was where the grandly titled 'Architecture and Morality' came in. Imbuing its fundamental pop-based template with liberal dashes of atmospheric experimentalism (including tape loops, found-sound samples and more organic instrumentation), utilising more ambitious production values, and generally tightening its songwriting focus, OMD emerged with its finest hour, and an album that can truly be called its magnum opus.

It was also the first OMD album to be welcomed as a critical success by those unreasonably merciless music-mag hacks who, up till then, had perennially derided the group’s music as rather derivative and lacking any real musical soul.

Given the recent renewed interest in all things synth-pop, 'Architecture and Morality' is well worth a detailed investigation, given its near-legendary stature in the OMD scheme of things.

The incredibly cagey-sounding, proto-techno 'The New Stone Age', with its fragments of random electronic pulses and processed-guitar riffs provides an ideal start to the proceedings, while the following 'She’s Leaving' is a polar opposite, a polished, archetypal synth-pop number that is arguably the most melodic moment on the record.

The impossibly ethereal, stately 'Souvenir' is another memorable instance, with its unidentifiable church-choir samples and a widescreen, cinematic synth backdrop, while 'Sealand' is an eight-minute tone poem that could well be a direct precursor to the ambient movement of the early 1990s, with its almost freeform synth drones and wordless vocalisations.

The pair of songs about Catholic martyr Joan of Arc are up next, a true study in contrasts and musical styles. While 'Joan of Arc' is a lighter-than-air ditty laced with tinkling wind chimes, spectral choir samples and shuffling electronic percussion, the subsequent 'Maid of Orleans' is anchored by a primary melody of a wheezing synth bagpipe, underscored by a clattering martial-sounding drum pattern.

The instrumental title track is another proto-ambient workout in the manner of the earlier 'Sealand', but tighter in overall form and secured by an insistent Moog synth-bass undertow. Penultimate number 'Georgia' is a conscious nod to the synth frivolity of their first album, while the closing 'The Beginning and the End' is as good a conclusion as there ever is, a melancholic, down-tempo, after-hours piece heavily influenced by baroque-era choral compositions.

While OMD can never hope to attain the heights of 'Architecture and Morality' ever again (even with the recent reformation of the classic line-up and their ongoing artistic renaissance), it can be assured that the album has helped to cement its reputation as a luminary of late 20th-century electronic pop. Simultaneously sweeping in its musical scope, considerately theatrical and complete with avant-garde sensibilities, and yet strangely approachable in its reach, Architecture and Morality is still an artistic accomplishment to marvel at, even after more than two decades since its initial release. An important milestone in the history of one of synth-pop’s most beloved institutions.


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