Release Date: Apr 9, 2013
Record label: BMG
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Dance, Synth Pop
Even veteran players can benefit from a dress rehearsal. That is the lesson one can take from History of Modern, the 2010 comeback album from OMD. That album was the first in 20 years to feature both OMD co-founders, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, with original auxiliary members Martin Cooper and Malcolm Holmes in tow as well. History of Modern was presented as a return to the band’s early ‘80 creative peak.
Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s 2010 album History Of Modern, their first studio album in 14 years, felt very much within the established oeuvre of the beloved ’80s act. For all its glossy synthpop merits, it followed a successful ‘comeback’ tour with a perfunctory bit of further nostalgia. But is nostalgia such a bad thing? Even during their ’80s imperial phase, OMD were already rifling through a schoolboy’s pocketbook notion of history, cherry-picking vignettes of bittersweet rhapsody to put to a chorus of synthetic experimentalism.
English Electric was a British engineering company whose origins predate those of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark by 60 years. Chosen as the title for OMD’s second comeback album, following on from 2010’s History of Modern, it reflects the man and machine exposition that the UK band has successfully worked over past years. There is something regretful in the title as English Electric the company is long gone; bloated by mergers and absorbed by takeovers, an early technology business that ultimately fell short of its aspirations.
From the opening synth stab and blonking chime of the "Please Remain Seated" intro, which sets the table for a modulated feminine voice to inform the listener that the future they anticipated has been cancelled, it's clear that the 12th studio album in the Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark catalogue isn't an idle cash-grab. Rather, their second release in the 2010s with their original line-up of Andy McCluskey, Paul Humphreys, Martin Cooper and Malcolm Holmes, English Electric pushes the OMD aesthetic to a state that, in many ways, has advanced beyond their most recognized work from the early '80s. Despite their attempt to retain the "dysfunctional" creative process of their youth, McCluskey's vocals have sweetened over time, for better or worse, while their collective musicianship has become increasingly refined.
On their second album since their 2005 reunion, synth pop pioneers Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark rekindle the spirit of two new wave classics, the first being their own "slept on" masterpiece from 1983, Dazzle Ships, an album that pushed the boundaries sonically. From the blippy, robotic, and almost musique concrète opener "Please Remain Seated" to the geometric sleeve that credits DZ designer Peter Saville with Executive Art Design, English Electric carries on the pop-meets-avant-garde spirit of that fan favorite album. It gives up a love song like "Night Café" that's so glossed and polished that it could be used in a John Hughes film, and then it offers an edgy swerve like "Decimal," where answering machine messages, countdowns, and other disembodied voices provided some kind of silicon chorus that's equally majestic and precise.
From the late 1970s onward, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were as much reacting to the sonic possibilities made available by technology as they were translating them, first as increasingly popular hit-makers at home and Europe, then with a clutch of memorable American singles. English Electric, the British new wave band's second full length since the reformation of the classic 1980s lineup in 2006, neither escapes from the quartet's past nor fully aims to. Afterall, they had Peter Saville do their cover art, just has he did for their debut 33 years ago.
For all Orchestral Manoevres in the Dark’s success, and their countless albums, it is interesting to note that their music is created from more of an experimental ethic, rather than the more sugary synth ballads for which they are known, from a chart standpoint. The formula on most of their records is really the anti-formula; expose the boundaries, allow the oscillators and sine waves to hover in a new-wave impressionism, then throw in a few incredible hooks to appeal to the masses. For over 30 years (minus about 9 years where founding fathers Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys worked on a host of other projects) OMD perfected the art of making synth music feel warm and inviting, albeit in a melancholy sort of way.
More than 30 years after their masterpiece, 1981's Architecture & Morality, OMD still possess the ability to craft songs that are shiny and upbeat yet shot through with a streak of melancholia. Chances are they won't write another Souvenir but, in Metroland and Helen of Troy, the duo's 12th album is home to two tracks that evoke their early-80s prime while never sounding anything less than contemporary. The spring-heeled Night Cafe is delightful, too, and, though Andy McCluskey over-emotes at times, English Electric acts as a rejoinder to those who think that synth-pop is best left to the young.
“What does the future sound like?” asks OMD on its 12th studio album. More than 30 years ago, OMD predicted a future buzzing with chilly blips and synthesized percussion. The future sounded like Molly Ringwald’s sullen “Pretty in Pink” prom theme, “If You Leave.” With “English Electric,” they’ve thrown their crystal ball in the recycling bin and instead have fun singing about a never-realized future that lacks robot wives and jetpacks.
Ah, 2013. The year where music’s great and good such as MBV and Bowie have come out of the shadows and released new records and where even Suede (who, lest we forget, succeeded in getting every Virgin Megastore renamed ‘Head Music’ for a day in 1997 in deference to their anticipated new record) have been pushed into the background. Into this no doubt daunting climate Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark release their third studio record in twenty years and the first since 2010’s ‘History Of Modern’.