#9 – ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK – ENGLISH ELECTRIC [spotify]

(feat. track – “The Future Will Be Silent” [spotify])

There was quite a bit of press earlier this year regarding English Electric, hailing Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s twelfth album (and second since regrouping following a fifteen year hiatus) as the proverbial “return to form.” I’m not so sure I see it that way.

Yes, English Electric’s use of musique concrete and synthesized text-to-speech recalls the sound experiments of the now-beloved (if then-disastrously-received) Dazzle Ships. Sure, the relatively spare compositions that populate the album – more Ralf Hutter than John Hughes – bring to mind early albums like Organisation and their self-titled debut. But though English Electric is built of the same constituent parts as those early works, the construction is much more akin to that albums from the OMD’s more commercially successful mid-80s era.

OMD’s early albums cross-pollinated rudimentary pop with abrasive textures, dispersing bright synth lines across fractured soundscapes; they played with distortion and dissonance. The band was building the future from junky, janky synths, cobbling together the leading edge of the computer age and the remaining bits of the industrial age into a sound that straddled the line between epochs. Their music felt like the future, but it was a recognizable future, with clear ties to the then-present.

Today, OMD are working with the gleaming machines that populate our everyday life. The difference shows. English Electric is a product purely of the post-industrial era; there’s none of the grime of manufacturing to be found staining its gleaming laser-tooled chassis. The pop songs here ring pure and true; songwriters Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphries are older men now, and they’ve traded their grit for timeworn sincerity; even experimental tracks like “The Future Will Be Silent” and “Atomic Ranch” clank and hum musically, warmly.*

That could read like it’s a bad thing; I assure you it’s not. A true revisiting of those early albums might make for an exciting experiment, but the results would inevitably sound retro-futuristic.That’s a neat aesthetic, but it’s one that runs counter to OMD’s driving force. Those early albums may have aged into a retro-futurist tinge – a beautiful one, even – but OMD has always been about looking forward to the future, not back to the false future they had predicted as best they could. It’s that spirit, of driving forward, of wholly embracing what’s coming (even the worst of it) with open arms, that has kept OMD both vital and ever evolving.

“English Electric” isn’t just a clever name for an album by one of the progenitors of synth Brittania; it’s also the name of a defunct manufacturing company. English Electric built early airplanes; they constructed some of the first British computers. They quite literally built the future: cutting-edge machines yes, but also machines that transformed the world around them, transformed the way we live and interact with the world, and each other. Machines that changed the basic realities of our day-to-day existence. English Electric the album reiterates that mission statement which the industrial concern and OMD shared.

English Electric isn’t, then, a return to form. English Electric is a return to function. And that’s the real marvel of its achievement.

*If I had to peg English Electric’s sound to somewhere in the band’s timeline, I think 1984’s Junk Culture is the closest referent, but it’s still not a great comp.