Review Summary: An album choc-full of experimental, organic electronica. Raw, and all the better for it
The band Hitlerz Underpantz lost out when Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys left. Obviously predisposed to awkward band names, they eventually formed Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, and set about establishing themselves as the first out the stalls in bringing late 70s electronica to the masses in a more accessible, poppier way than the likes of veterans Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. Later acts such as Depeche Mode had seemingly just been pipped to the post in the race to be the first to exploit the newly-cheap synthesisers that anyone could buy and makes simple tunes with - only The Human League were offering anything similar. Disco was dead, Punk was starting to get rather tired; suddenly, here were these strange noises, all blank wuuuurps
, warm waaaaaahs
and robotic bleeps. It was (gasp) the future
Almost three decades on, a lot has changed. With modern digital equipment, a fresh influx of synth-pop duos/groups (Goldfrapp, Ladytron) and the prevalence of electronic effects in general, how can this possibly stand up today, a compilation album of extraordinarily dated and experimental analogue synth tunes, recorded live in the studio for a radio show? I confess I’ve answered my own question there. It’s so hard to find music like this anymore. It’s even harder to unearth songs recorded live nearly thirty years ago that sound so tight, so interesting, so experimental. Quirky would be a good word for it all, if it wasn’t for that fact that OMD’s ability to bleep out a good pop tune adds a touch of the mainstream to all the trippy wurps.
”It's eight fifteen and that's the time that it's always been
We got your message on the radio
Conditions normal and you're coming home
Enola Gay, is mother proud of little boy today
Ah-ha this kiss you give, it's never going to fade away”
OMD’s most famous song, ’Enola Gay’
(the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima) is stripped down to the basics in this version, and sounds all the better for it. ’Messages’
is probably the ‘warmest’ song on here, the keyboard lines sounding like they were made on one of those ancient Bontempi organs, while McCluskey drones on backed up by yet more of those beeps. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that this is all samey, though. Although restricted by technology (and especially by the fact that it was a live performance), the way the songs are constructed varies enough to keep the listener interested. You get poppier, faster songs like ’Red Frame White Light’
and ’Bunker Soldiers’
that come with the kinds of tempos you can clap to and the kinds of choruses you shout out rather than sing. But you also get slower, reflective numbers like ’Pretending To See The Future’
and the beautiful, crystalline ’Of All The Things We’ve Made’
that sounds like a robot getting all emotional after a break-up.
Finally, the experimental side of OMD is in its purest form on this album. ’ABC Auto-Industry’
contains clicks, whirrs and ambient voices murmuring ”A,B,C…A,B,C…1,2,3...1,2,3...”
accompanied by what would appear to be a choir of chipmunks. ’Dancing’
is the weirdest, though. I have to say, it’s one of the strangest songs you’ll ever hear in your life.
The sample of classical music at the beginning fades into what sounds like a Moog set to random bouncy note mode, except, disturbingly, there’s just enough consistency in the notes to convince you that someone actually constructed this track to sound this way. You will
laugh/furrow your brow the first time you hear it. Radio squeals and clean-sounding tinkly effects finish this bizarre track off.
Ultra-rare b-side ’Annex’
features here and is one of the best, all hollow watery ‘dinks’ set to a fantastic rhythm and melody. This and the bonus track (First single ’Electricity’
) alone are worth the album price for any fan of OMD. Obviously, something as unusual as this won’t convert newcomers to electronica overnight. But OMD were a group that were, at a certain point in time, at the cutting edge and willing to be accessible and experimental at the same time. This album suffers from its incredibly dated analogue approach and one-fingered synth-riffs that some will dislike intensely. It’s also not entirely
devoid of mediocre tracks. But it stands as a curio in its own right, and has a certain retro appeal that will charm modern electronica fans with its simplicity.