Sunday, October 10, 2010

genetic re-engineering

Messrs. McCluskey and Humphries have resurrected the OMD moniker and their collaborative relationship. "History Of Modern" is the first fruits of their labor since they reconvened five years ago and sees Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark return with the bristling, electronic, three minute(ish) pop symphonies that became their calling card 30 years ago.

Instead of trading on past glories, OMD has lovingly constructed a new chapter about their love affairs with art, architecture, science, technology, machinery, friendships and heartbreak. The CD is split into two sections, sides one and two, which are intended to recreate the vinyl sequencing experience of an album.

Side one of their eleventh longplayer starts off rather unexpectedly with opener, "New Babies: New Toys". A driving, hollow, fuzz bass rips from the speakers followed by a stadium sized synth riff. In fact, it almost sounds more like 1979 with its somewhat aggressive, slightly punkish bravado. Andy cuts right through with a snarling, distorted vocal.

Finally, when the full scope of the lyrics has been revealed, it's pretty clear OMD are less than thrilled with the current state of the pop music landscape. Featured lyric:

There’s no heaven
There’s no hell
Cream will float
But shit will sell
Step aside
Avoid the smell
I surrender
Ring the bell

It has a youthful and deeply sincere quality to it without Andy coming across like someone's curmudgeonly father. In fact, his voice has the effervescence and vitality of someone in their twenties.

He follows that sentiment with the following:

They don’t want you
They don’t need you
They just use you
They just bleed you

Scathing! Andy knows a thing or two about the more manufactured side of pop music. He was the brain behind Atomic Kitten who had a #1 hit in the UK with “Whole Again” during the peak of Girl Power. Zeitgeist in a bottle, my friends!

Side note, OMD never climbed higher than #3 on the charts. They hit it twice - first with "Souvenir" in 1981 and then again, ten years later, with "Sailing On The Seven Seas".

The first single plucked from "History Of Modern" is "If You Want It". It's a pleasant song with a big chorus and trademark, angelic, choral vocal samples which, if memory serves me correctly, were originally derived from a mellotron.

The song is definitely from the blueprint of late period OMD hits like "Walking On The Milky Way", which is ironic considering most of the album has more to do with their electronic beginnings. However, it stands on its own as a fine addition to the band's singles output.

Next up are two different tracks called "History Of Modern". Labeled in two parts, part one hearkens back to the band's earlier, Kraftwerk inspired sound. In fact, Kraftwerk, the foundation that formed part their original manifesto over 30 years ago, remains a sonic touchstone throughout the album.

Part two of the song begins with the chime of church bells followed by warm, rich synth pads and tinkly keyboards. It's a fine example of their mid-period style - an epic and achingly beautiful beat ballad which grows over the course of the song. Definitely a contender for single release. Not sure how the two parts lock together. Hopefully, a few more listening will reveal their connection.

"Sometimes" channels mid-period OMD once again with operatic voices, sparkling keyboards, and a sweet chorus melody sung by in a creaky voice which reminds me of "La Femme Accident" from their excellent "Crush" album.

Kraftwerk are invoked once more as "RFWK" - shorthand for Ralf, Florian, Wolfgang and Karl, the members of Deutchland's coolest keyboard clan - begins with a pulsing, "Neon Lights" inspired intro and builds into another grand and glorious synth anthem. A touching and passionately delivered tribute to a group that has meant so much to Andy and Paul since they were first introduced to their machine music as Liverpudlian teenagers.

"RFWK" segues immediately into the eerie and fragile “New Holy Ground”, possibly one of the most beautiful and haunting songs in their cannon. The rhythm track is based around the sound of hard heeled steps walking down a long corridor. Accompanied by little more than a cello sample and light piano figure, the steps travel around the recording as if to be coming and going from various directions. With one last step, side one comes to a close.

Surprises abound as OMD travel down a more Moroder-esque road with “The Past, The Present, And The Future” which leads side two of "History Of Modern". If this was the mid-80s, this would be one of five possible singles from the elpee. It begins and ends with the rhythm of a steam engine. Yet another of many self-referential moment as it conjures up memories of "Locomotion", a #5 hit in the UK in 1984. It was also the lead single from "Junk Culture", their superior pop return after the career diverting, experimentation of "Dazzle Ships".

Then comes the obvious single moment. “Sister Marie Says” clearly bites off the synth riff from “Enola Gay”, twists it in its mouth and spits it out as the most quintessential OMD track on "History Of Modern". It's a song that started its life in 1981. However it was discarded at the time for sounding too much like OMD. Lyrics were added to it in the early 90s, but it was shelved again for the same reasons it was a decade earlier. Finally, after more than twenty years, the song finds its rightful place on an OMD album. As Andy has pointed out in numerous interviews, if anyone has a right to sound like OMD, it's them.

Next up is a bit of an oddity for Andy and Paul. Coming across like "White Horse" by Laid Back, "Pulse" is a sleazy track in which Andy sings the verses in low, slurred, breathy, erotic tones as clap happy drum programming and rolling synth bass lines drive the track forward. Certainly, a grower, but after a few listens it has wormed its way into my subconscious. I find myself shouting the chorus and shaking my posterior whenever the song pops up on my trusty iPod. An unexpected pleasure. The song, not my dance moves.

The tempo slows down for "Green" and "Bondage Of Fate", two more plaintive beat ballads. The former was originally written for inclusion on one of the later OMD releases but was never committed to release. Written with Andy McCluskey's co-conspiritor, Stuart Kershaw, who co-wrote many of Atomic Kitten's hits, "Green" was resurrected during the songwriting process for the new longplayer. It was given to Paul Humphreys who deconstructed and reconfigured the song into another singleworthy moment on "History Of Modern".

"Bondage Of Fate" starts out a bit like a sister to "Souvenir". It builds over a waltz time signature with the requisite choirboy samples until half way through when it explodes into a glorious crescendo of sound. Immediately afterward, it crashes out and quietly fades to the end with some softly sung female vocals.

Rounding out side two of this digital platter finds the lads returning to Kraftwerk territory with "The Right Side?" The chorus is a sung like a hymn over a backing track that bares a passing resemblance to another OMD single, "Talking Loud And Clear". As with most tracks on the album, it's presented with a knowing wink without ever ripping themselves off. Toward the end of this eight minute opus, just as you think the song has ended, it bleeds back into the speakers and builds back up toward its close.

As a bonus, OMD added their mash up of their own "Messages" with "Save Me" by Aretha Franklin. It's been going down a storm at the discotheques. The icy synths Quite an unusual addendum to their album, but it's rumored that Andy McCluskey is a mash up fan.

Let's face facts. When bands return or reunite after a lengthy hiatus, it's best if expectations are kept low. However, nearly everyone has embraced the return of OMD with open arms and ears. And for good reason. It's another solid effort and fits nicely alongside their entire discography.

"History of Modern" entered the UK album chart last week at #28. Germany, always suckers for the sound of a synth, awarded Andy and Paul by placing the elpee at #5. Life is a sawtooth wave, old chum.


  1. Great summary of a really great album. I wasn't expecting much, but this album has more catchy songs than any of their previous efforts. There are a few strange/clunckers (ala Bloc Bloc Bloc), but I'm pretty sure this collection will be up there on my 2010 Top 10 list.

  2. This has quickly become not only one of my favorite albums of the year, but one of my favorites of theirs, which is definitely saying something. While a song like "Sister Marie Says" is rather easy to love in an OMD sort of way, I think the true winners for me have become the two "History of Modern"(s) and the lovely "Sometimes", with the earthshaking "New Holy Ground" topping the list. To me, it is their most quintessential moment here, and the one that references their most haunting moments from albums like Organisation and Arch&Morality most.

    Strangely enough, I just bought the elpee, and it was pressed on not one, but TWO slabs of vinyl, hence negating the sides one and two concept. It also places "Past, Present & Future" at the END of side 2, when "New Holy Ground" feels more like the natural close, and makes "Sister Marie Says" the side 3 opener. That makes side 4 conclude with the bonus track, "Save Me". At least, this is the way the US albums have shipped. I am not sure about the UK pressings.

    "The Right Side" is epic, and more Kraftwerk-y than anything I've ever heard from OMD since their "Neon Lights" cover. FANTASTIC ALBUM.

  3. I knew you'd enjoy "Pulse." The fact that it features contemporary R&B stylings is much less of a problem to me than its content & delivery. One thing that's astounded me at the OMD forum is that there's a lot of hate for "The Future, The Past And Forever After." Say wha...?" As you say [and I agree] would'a, should'a single time! Kraftwerk/Moroder/New Order/OMD works for me.

  4. @dancehour - It just surpassed "Happiness" by Hurts as my favorite album of the year. And 2010 has been a great year for music!

  5. @countpopula - It's my favorite album of 2010, as well. I'm so thrilled about the vinyl. It sounds amazing. This is what happens when a group knows what their fanbase wants without pandering to them. Love it!

  6. @postpunkmonk - I think I like "Pulse" because it's quite different for them. Don't get me wrong. I was slightly uncomfortable upon first listening to it. Like hearing your parents talk about sex. Ew!

    I like the production. It's a bit sleazy. Love it! The rest of the album is chock full of singles. Oh, how I long for the days of chart domination.

  7. If some young electro-pop group or DAF artist had released this, it would be all over Hype Machine. But since it's a few guys in their 50s, it probably won't get the buzz it deserves.