Saturday, May 1, 2021

Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark

One of the striking things about 80s new wave was the artistic endeavors that went along with them, from the work of Brian Griffin to Anton Corbijn's Depeche Mode film, Strange. My progression into the 80s leads me now to Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark.

I discovered OMD early on with their self-titled debut simply because I loved the die-cut album cover (coincidentally by Peter Saville). The music was energetic if overly poppy (though you couldn’t help but dance to "Electricity"). But it was their 3rd LP, Architecture and Morality, that brought electronica to the public's attention and remains OMD's most distinctive release. The title was suggested by Martha Ladley of Martha and the Muffins after reading David Watkins' text of the same name.
This is wildly artistic art-pop, and while some may pinpoint as the harbinger Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, or Kraftwerk, the latter was too German to serve as a z├╝ndkerze (spark plug) to electronic pop, Gary Numan too extreme for mainstream, and in 1981, Depeche Mode had not yet found their introspective side.
Here, instead, we find Oscar Wilde on synth and a post-modern take on 20th-Century romanticism (I read that somewhere – oh yeah, I wrote it in 1981 for L.A. Weekly.) The melodies are simple, the lyrics poignant, the plastic instrumentation stunning - as if the album were manufactured in a sterile factory. At times Orchestral Maneuver in the Dark is distant and alienated (think Berlin-era Bowie), at times they are happy and poppy (again "Electricity"), but here they are pure commercial Art Rock.

A&M was the first foray into sounds that had never before been heard by human ears. Depeche Mode would end up more popular and even embrace the genre and philosophy more fully, but this is the LP that opened the floodgates. Orchestral Maneuvers were part of that great period, post-punk, post-disco, when independent radio sought out artists like Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush, and Prefab Sprout. There was a gossamer quality to the genre that unlike other music of its time, holds up marvelously. It was OMD that perfected the marriage between gorgeous melody and ambient experimentation.
A&M incorporated choral tapes here, mellotrons there, electronic percussion in league with military drums and primitive ambient sounds set amongst the synth-wash of anthems like "Sealand," an artsy, ambient romp dripping with melancholic synth lines and enough mood to cover a beach. From the 12" hits like "Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)" to "Souvenir" to the atmospheric "The Beginning and the End," what may be most intriguing is the fact that Architecture and Morality is such a monumental period piece (a "period" that vanished in the blink of an eye).
Perhaps the most progressive track on the album is "Georgia," a poppy eschatological bomb-age hymn, utilizing tape loops of long-wave radio synced perfectly with the music and berserk bursts of electronic noise. It certainly points the way forward to another astonishing album, 1983's far less accessible Dazzle Ships, not to mention DM’s Black Celebration, Simple Minds and Ultravox, and more recently, bands like M83 and MGMT.

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