Thursday, May 06, 2010

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

The recent reformation of 1980s British synth-pop pioneers Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark did come as a genuine surprise, given their virtual dormancy for the past two decades. After the original line-up went their separate ways in 1988, frontman Andy McCluskey did soldier on for three more studio albums, using the commercially viable OMD moniker, but failed to make the sort of significant chart impact that the previous incarnation enjoyed.

However, in early 2006, McCluskey announced plans for a regrouping of the classic group for a full-scale tour to promote a newly remastered version of the 1981 magnum opus 'Architecture and Morality', and even a possible new album. Responses to the tour were unexpectedly and overwhelmingly positive, with most venues registering sold-out ticket sales and fan forums notching up rave reviews.

And thus, as the OMD story comes full circle with the upcoming release of the new album, their eleventh proper studio endeavour, it does seem timely to go over their discography and pick out the bona fide highlights.

The band's debut album was a perfect example of how inventive a band could get with a couple of ancient analogue synthesizers and a basic drum machine. The legendary 'Electricity' was of course the lead track, but there were other high points as well. 'Almost' was a brilliant synthesis of icy synth drones and precise bass lines, and 'Mystereality' even featured a saxophone in the midst of all the blips and bloops.

The third album was the band's most ambitious and artistically realised, with a sense that they were coming into their own as a genuine synth-pop institution. Opener 'The New Stone Age' could best be described as some prototypical version of techno, 'She's Leaving' was a pure electro-pop gem wrapped in melodic synth washes, while 'Sealand' was an almost formless seven-minute epic that glided along on a synth-drone undercurrent, sort of an ancestor to the ambient-techno movement of the 1990s. The true standout here is the impossibly ethereal 'Souvenir', meticulously constructed from unidentified church-choir samples and orchestral (as it was) synth lines.

Deciding to move away from the distinctive synth-pop they were becoming known for, the band came up with what could well be the most misunderstood album in their oeuvre. 'Dazzle Ships' might have been dismissed at the time because of its wilfully experimental nature, but it was probably the first album in 20th-century music history to incorporate samples into every single track. But underneath all that clamour and machine-generated noise, there were several pop gems that stood out conspicuously, like 'Telegraph' and 'Genetic Engineering'.

CRUSH (1985)
OMD's most pop-oriented album to date, with two of its attendant singles ('So in Love' and 'Secret') even breaking into the conservative American charts. However, other tracks, with the exceptions of the sample-laden title track and the stream-of-consciousness narrative 'Bloc Bloc Bloc', were near-identicals of each other, and veered dangerously close to manufactured, cardboard synth-pop.

SUGAR TAX (1991)
The first 'solo' McCluskey album came as a bit of a surprise commercial success, constituting almost a partial return to the ethereal mood of Architecture and Morality, with just the right balance of art and commercialism. 'Sailing on the Seven Seas' sprinted along on a big, thumping, glam-rock-inspired backbeat, 'Pandora's Box' was a cleverly observant take on the story of tragic silent-film star Louise Brooks, while 'Speed of Light' was a pure rush of vigour, a thundering synth workout that successfully updated the classic OMD synth-pop sound for the 1990s.

The final album to be released under the OMD banner, at least until their restoration, with a more organic sound, incorporating real guitars and drums into the mix. Synth programming was also considerably toned down for this release, with less reliance on samplers and sequencers, resulting in superior cuts like the autobiographical 'Walking on the Milky Way', the mournful 'The Black Sea' and the dynamic, cinematic title track.


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