Review: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – History of Modern

Perhaps we built up expectations a little too much. When word came down that the heyday lineup of O.M.D. were reuniting for their first album together in 24 years our little hearts went a-pitter. Few bands influenced us more. While many who grew up during the golden age of electronic music point to the Human League as their main influence we were all about the O.M.D. (while both paled as compared to the Mode…). Our excitement was unbending and the teasers, so beautifully ladled out, so perfectly calibrated in an exercise of perfect instinctual promotion, made us that much more twitterpated.

No matter what the band delivered it could never have lived up to the anticipation. And History of Modern doesn’t. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work on some level, just that the O.M.D. album we pictured in our heads couldn’t have been made in 2010, and we should have realized that. See, the basic conundrum for the band is they were always – at least at their most relevant – innovators. they experimented with sound, using lo-fi techniques if that was the best instrument needed to create the sound they imagined and through 1985 produced compelling, cutting-edge electronic albums that moved the pieces on the electronic game board ever forward. In 2010, to be true to that mission would have meant pushing forward into new realms, something no one was all that jazzed to hear. We wanted a band that revisited its roots. But looking back rarely pays real dividends.What’s so comforting and smile-inducing are the collection of choir sounds, beep effects, synth washes, and other assorted electro detritus that we have come to know and associate with the band during its heyday. It’s like coming home again. However, within the confines of rather traditional synth pop, it all comes down to songwriting and it’s hit and miss throughout.

When it’s good, it’s very very good. “New Babies : New Toys” packs a real punch with distorted, ballsy vocals, and crunchy synth lines and is the album’s highlight. “History of Modern (Part I)” is a nice throwback to the Architecture and Morality peak; “RFWK” is another successful retro look back over the shoulder with its greasy analogue synth hook; “Green” is just a really pretty, well constructed pop song. Ballads like “Bondage of Fate” and “New Holy Ground” also take us back to an earlier, more innocent time. On other songs, like lead single “If You Want It”, the dry as dust “Sometimes” and the bizarre disco-threw-up-on-Andy McCluskey “Pulse” just feel like misfires, not because they’re bad sings but because they’re dreadfully dull. O.M.D. are not supposed to be dull, at least not this vintage O.M.D. The worst thing that can be said about much of the album is instead of harking back to the golden age of the band, much of it recalls the 90s era McCluskey-as-de-facto-solo-artist period, and that’s no compliment. Plus – you get Paul Humphreys back in the fold for the first time since 1988 and give  him nothing to sing? Really? One has to go back to 1983’s Dazzle Ships to find a Humphreys-less vocal pastiche during that time he was with the band. Even the One-Two album features a Humphreys co-vocal at least. What a wasted opportunity and a huge disappointment for this listener.

But we’re fully aware we’re being hard on the album because expectations were driven so unrealistically sky-high. As a stand alone album there’s much to recommend here. Much does feel like O.M.D. of an earlier, long-gone time, and that’s nothing but nice. It would be nice to think this is not a one-off but a recharging of the O.M.D. engine and that we may get more from the band. We enjoy the album and are grateful for its existence. When put together the principles can still create some beautiful electronic music. It’s like an old familiar friend has come over to stay at the house a while. As long as he keeps it interesting it’ll be nice to have him stay a spell. If asked “do we like this album?” we would say without hesitation “yes, yes we do, very much actually.” Just not with the abandoned jouissance we may have hoped. Such is life. We’ll take what we can get.

Watch: If You Want It

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