Synth pop is not the ideal genre to work with if you’re looking for artistic respectability in 2013. Most view the genre as a comically outdated artifact of 1980’s indulgence. Hell, even in the 80’s most critics turned their noses up at the genre. Critical skepticism toward synth pop never stopped Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD for short) from aiming high. OMD’s early records such as 1981’s Architecture and Morality and 1983’s Dazzle Ships are carefully arranged records that blend philosophical and political musings and abstract synth soundscapes with endearing love ballads and bubbly dance beats. These records display enough intelligence, ingenuity and earnestness to counteract heavy doses of cheese and pretention. The result is songs and albums that have far more substance and staying power than you’d expect.
Over time OMD put less effort into its records and became more of a standard synth pop band (albeit a very good one) before descending into mediocrity in the early nineties and finally disbanding in 1996. The 2010 reunion album History of Modern was close to a total disaster. Though a few songs fit the group’s old framework, the album is dominated by terrible attempts to blend modern pop, R&B and electronica with elements of 80s synth pop. Thus, hopes were not high for OMD’s latest release, English Electric, but in a marvelously unexpected twist of fate, English Electric is actually a focused and cohesive record that reemphasizes the blend of artistry and emotion that made OMD so powerful in its prime.
OMD’s “Helen of Troy”
English Electric has a rich, textured sound. Lush layers of synth are enhanced with echo and reverb, creating an atmosphere that drowns the listener in waves of sentimentality. That is the perfect groundwork for Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey’s excellent vocal performances. Both singers’ voices have aged very well. McCluskey still has the same excellent range, intonation and delivery he had in his youth. Humphreys’s voice is more limited in range, but he still manages to deliver big feelings through simple, catchy vocal lines.
English Electric is a heavy on the ballads, which have always been OMD’s greatest strength. The opener, “Metroland,” is an almost eight minute long ballad consisting of a high-pitched quick-twitch keyboard pattern and sprawling string and choir samples. As McCluskey’s gentle vocals soar over the looping synth hooks, one can’t help but get lost in the nostalgic soundscape. “Helen of Troy” is another highlight. Pained yet resilient synth hooks set the stage for an excellent vocal performance by McCluskey, who draws out each note, squeezing out every last drop of emotion.
The album is peppered with instrumental interludes loaded with audios samples. These are rather odd and slightly disruptive to the overall flow of the record. “The Future Will Be Silent” contains a bunch of unconnected musings on the future that are interrupted by the announcement that “the future was not supposed to be like this.” “Atomic Ranch” contains electronic voices describing their desires for the American dream (I want a house and car and a robot wife/ I want two kids and a yard and the perfect life). These are all too predictable attacks on lame duck targets and don’t amount to much in the way of social criticism.
A better break from the ballads is the dance track “Dresden” which contains glitzy synth lines and a wonderfully infectious dance beat. A few more tracks along these lines would have given English Electric more dynamism, but even as it stands, this is a very strong pop album. Sure, it has more than its share of cheese. Lines like “If only I could stop those tears that knock you down again,” and “No flesh and blood can give you more/ the key to love is at the store,” are pretty cringe-worthy when you really stop and think about them; but that’s the beauty of OMD. They are so heartfelt in their delivery that there’s no time to stop and think about how cheesy it all is. “I’m unaware of what you say/ and I really don’t care anyway,” warns Humphreys on “Night Café.” If OMD keep creating songs as catchy and moving as those found on English Electric then let’s hope they keep it that way.
Written by Jael Reboh
OurVinyl | Contributor