English Electric is the best pop album released thus far in 2013, and just might be the best album Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark have ever recorded. Drawing upon their massive love for Kraftwerk and their uncanny knack for creating some of the most infectious melodies in the history of electronic music, this influential band from Liverpool have delivered a truly magnificent work of modern synth-pop art which exceeds even the most die-hard fan’s expectations.
English Electric marks the band’s twelfth studio album, and their second since reuniting six years ago, to feature the classic OMD line up of Paul Humphreys, Andy McCluskey, Martin Cooper and Malcolm Holmes.
Skeptics and cynics will be quick to say that a band of OMD’s tenure (the band are about to celebrate the 35th Anniversary of their first single) should likely call it quits and give it a rest before they end up becoming a sorrowful tribute band to their own material. After all, conventional wisdom, or perhaps more accurately, the music industry’s institutional gatekeepers will tell you that the music business is a young man’s business, and a band like OMD has clearly overstayed their welcome. There are, no doubt many, particularly those in the cynical press, who believe such nonsense. Sadly, quite often there’s a bit of truth to that sentiment. But every now and then an artist comes along who totally invalidates the belief that all artists have a sell-by date that cannot be overridden.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark is one of those artists.
Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, which many of their peers seem hell-bent on doing every time they release new material, for English Electric, OMD opted to get back in touch with their roots and make an album that focused on their strengths; experimentation and good old-fashioned synth-pop. In listening to English Electric one gets the sense that OMD are comfortable with who they are.They know what they do best, and they stick to it. Ironically enough, I’d say that in trying NOT to be cool and hip, they’ve ended up doing just that……. perhaps intentionally or by accident.
They seem to have made a record that they wanted to make, and as luck would have it, that record is also the album that we have always hoped they would make.
Simply put……. OMD are best at being OMD, and the real brilliance of this album lies in how simple and back-to-basics it really is.
The album kicks off with ‘Please Remain Seated‘, a brief spoken-word montage of chinese and english, advising the listener that, ‘the future you anticipated has been canceled’. It catches the casual listener somewhat off-guard, but segues perfectly into the album’s lead-off single, ‘Metroland‘.
‘Metroland’ is an absolutely glorious Kraftwerk-esque synth-pop gem that hearkens back to OMD’s earliest singles. It’s bouncy, upbeat, and if one were to substitute a vocoder for McCluskey’s vocals, it could easily be a track lifted off Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express album. It’s one of the strongest singles the band have ever released. However, the real treat is what immediately follows ‘Metroland’. The album’s real highlight is the song, ‘Night Cafe‘. Somewhat downtempo and a tad on the melancholy side, it’s quite possibly the most perfect synth-pop single the band have ever written, and if there’s any justice at all, this will become a future single.
In much the same way as their 1983 album Dazzle Ships did, this album features quirky musical and spoken-word interludes between some of the songs. These brief detours may seem somewhat distracting and disruptive to the uninitiated or inexperienced OMD fan, but these little snippets actually help to further establish the theme and mood of the album as a whole, and perfectly tie in with the rest of the album. They’re also rather enjoyable to listen to. Along with the afore-mentioned opening track, the other interlude pieces are ‘Decimal‘ and ‘Atomic Ranch‘.
Astute fans of synth-pop and Kraftwerk will instantly recognize the song ‘Kissing The Machine‘. This is a track which Andy McCluskey co-wrote in 1993 with Karl Bartos (ex-Kraftwerk) for inclusion on Bartos’ Elektric Music album, Esperanto. The version included here on English Electric is only slightly different from the original, but it has the added bonus of featuring the lovely Claudia Brücken (Propaganda/Act/Onetwo) on backing vocals. It fits in perfectly with the rest of the album. It’s inclusion is a real treat.
Another big highlight of the album is the fifth track, ‘Helen of Troy‘. Similar in feel and subject matter to the band’s classic ‘Joan of Arc’ and ‘Maid of Orleans’ songs, ‘Helen of Troy’ pulses with rhythmic and synthetic beauty, which is rather apropos for a song about the woman whose face launched a thousand ships. It’s destined to become a fan favourite. McCluskey’s voice soars brilliantly on this one. Clearly the 14-year hiatus he was on between his last solo OMD album (Universal) and 2010’s History of Modern helped preserve the depth, integrity and strength of his voice. Indeed, he sounds just as good in 2013 as he did in 1983.
I’m telling you, the man’s voice has. not. aged!
Also worth noting is the track, ‘Stay With Me‘. It’s a lovely ballad that features Paul Humphreys on lead vocals, something that has been ostensibly absent from an OMD album since 1986’s Pacific Age album. His angelic and silky smooth voice, which is perfectly-suited for ballads such as ‘Stay With Me’, provides a welcome treat and a nice change-up from the tracks wherein McCluskey’s voice takes the lead. It’s one of the more lovely OMD ballads since ‘Forever (Live and Die)’, coincidentally, the last OMD ballad to feature Paul on lead vocals.
Overall, the album is gloriously retro, and unapologetically so. They’re clearly a band who’s comfortable in their own shoes. English Electric is an absolute pleasure to listen to from start to finish. It fits in perfectly with the classic OMD catalog. Sound-wise, it resides somewhere between their Architecture & Morality, and Dazzle Ships albums. It strikes that delicate balance between being an incredible reminder of who they once were, with a wonderful revelation that they’re still equally adept at being very modern, cutting-edge and most of all, relevant. For me, it’s the first and only five-star album of 2013.
Welcome back, OMD. It’s nice to have you back.
One for the ages, folks. BUY IT NOW!
Eminent Domain’s picks: Night Cafe, Helen of Troy, Stay With Me, Metroland
English Electric is available worldwide in both digital and traditional formats, including CD and limited-edition vinyl. Check out the links below for places to get it, and to hear snippets of each track.