Thursday, March 14, 2013

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

The recent reformation of 1980s British synth-pop pioneers Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark came as a pleasant surprise, given the original line-up's virtual dormancy for the past two decades or so. After the four-member band 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'. Responses to the tour were unexpectedly and overwhelmingly positive, with most venues registering sold-out ticket sales and fan forums and music sites notching up rave reviews.

More good news came in the form of a brand new album, released in in 2010 and the first one since 1996's 'Universal'. 'History of Modern', their eleventh proper studio endeavour, was a brilliant recapitulation of OMD's inherent artistic values, and the subsequent reception from all quarters were positively rapturous. McCluskey recently announced even better tidings: the group has been working assiduously on the follow-up to 'History of Modern', titled 'English Electric', due for release in April.

Therefore, at this juncture of the group's lengthy 33-year career in the business, it does seem timely to go over their back catalogue and highlight the more prominent works.

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 zippy, 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, the chiming 'Red Frame White Light' was a whimsical account of the travails of a public telephone box, and the thoughtful 'Mystereality' even featured a saxophone in the midst of all the blips and bloops.

The sophomore effort upped the ante even more, with a general streamlining of the central synth-pop aesthetics of the first album. The indisputable highlight was the confidently over-the-top 'Enola Gay', possibly the only pop song written about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, but a number of other genuine gems are also in evidence, like the quirky electro-jazz swing of 'Motion and Heart', the moodily claustrophobic 'VCL XI', and the atmospheric mechanical beats of the concluding 'Stanlow', which virtually set the template for successive industrial pop acts like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle.

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. it's no overstatement to deem this the incontrovertible magnum opus of OMD's repertoire.

Deciding to move away from the distinctive synth-pop template 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. Underneath all that clamour and machine-generated noise, there were several pop gems that stood out conspicuously, like the socially aware '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 recent  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 stately, autobiographical 'Walking on the Milky Way', the mournful, pensive 'The Black Sea' and the dynamic, cinematic title track.

A wholly inspired comeback from the original line-up, incorporating all the characteristics that made OMD such a rounded and accomplished synth-pop act back in the day. The choral samples are back on the up-tempo, religiously inclined 'Sister Marie Says', the two-part title tracks are luminous examples of the archetypal melodic OMD sensibility, the Kraftwerkian 'RFWK' is a clever tribute to one of their primary musical influences, and the closing 'The Right Side' is an extended meditation that hearkened back to the experimental adventurism of the 'Architecture and Morality' heydays.

Not officially released as of yet, but judging from the tracks that have started leaking online, this looks to be another archetypal OMD effort (in other words, thoroughly brilliant, if you're a loyalist). First single 'Metroland' is a sly rewrite of Kraftwerk's classic 'Europe Endless', with a bedrock of propulsive backbeats and sparkling synths masking a lyric of suburban tedium and angst, 'Night CafĂ©' is a blissful, mid-tempo number marked by effortless, smooth-transitioning synth arpeggios, and the maudlin 'Stay With Me' is an effective synth-pop ballad in the mould of 'Souvenir'. Elsewhere, 'Please Remain Seated', 'Decimal' and 'Atomic Ranch' are eerie sonic experiments that are virtual recaps of the 'Dazzle Ships' aesthetic, and the appropriately titled 'Final Song' is a ghostly nocturne defined by insectoid samples and softly percussive synth chords.


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