machines are living too

Introduction: Several years ago, a friend of mine had an idea for a book in which he’d set up well-known or critically well-regarded albums against more obscure albums that were lesser known (at the time, anyway). He’d solicited several submissions, but the project never really took off. In going through some old files, I found the two reviews I’d written for him – which, I’m assuming, are no longer of any use to him. The first one addresses Orchestral Manœuvres in the Dark’s Dazzle Ships. I’ve left the review largely as it was, even though I’m less dismissive now of the band’s shinier moments.

Early eighties synth-based pop has a misleading, if not downright bad, reputation. The collective memory has come to designate it as a repository of fluffy pop songs and fluffier bizarre hairstyles. But not all acts discovering the relatively inexpensive new synthesizers of the era were interested solely in fluffy pop songs – even if, like OMD, they did record a few. Sometimes, though, the most interesting music can result when singles bands get ambitious – as Dazzle Ships proves.

More and more prominently over the course of its first four albums, of which Dazzle Ships is the fourth, OMD grew increasingly ambitious and experimental, seemingly feeling a bit limited by the bouncy, ready-made pep of early singles like “Electricity” and “Enola Gay.” (Of course, that the lyrics of the latter are about the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb might have provided some hints…) By the time of Dazzle Ships, OMD was matchless in mixing synthetic pop songs with sonic ideas both classical and avant-garde into a cold, marble beauty. Several tracks here use tape-manipulated sounds (in a technique borrowed from musique concrète), generally in conjunction with OMD’s already distinctive mix of synthesizers and acoustic instrumentation (drums and bass guitar), while here, for the first time on one of their albums, a handful of tracks are nothing but sheer sound sculpture.

What sets OMD apart from many electronic bands of this era, and indeed of later eras, is the skill with which the perceived inherent coldness of synths and tapes is played against the warmth associated with the tools of conventional music-making, such as the voice and the other acoustic instruments OMD blend into their songs. While some bands exploit the inorganic nature of synthesized sounds and record them dry and direct into the board, OMD typically bathes its electronics in a haze of reverberation, giving its songs a strong sense of acoustic space. In the liner notes to the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, songwriter and OMD fan Stephin Merritt comments that on one track, he was trying to sing, like OMD, in the very uppermost register of his voice. The strain this puts on the vocals gives them a yearning quality that, again, plays off against the sometimes sealed and hermetic quality of the band’s near-classical sense of harmonic motion, as on the last verse of “International.”

That track also displays another example of OMD’s musical fearlessness: a flute-like synthesizer part is noticeably, obviously out of tune with the rest of the track. This is clearly intentional: the opening of “The Romance of the Telescope” is, if anything, even more out of tune, and the guitars in the unrelenting backdrop to “Of All the Things We’ve Made” are treated to broaden their pitch as well. Used sparingly, notes that are out of pitch can provide a texture quite distinct from that produced by any kind of correctly tuned instrument, and the sometimes jarring musical landscape OMD evokes here would be unobtainable within standard intonation.

At their peak, as they were here, OMD successfully blends the seemingly incompatible worlds of pop tunefulness and experimental sound sculpture, while avoiding both condescension and obsequious fawning to the proponents of either musical approach. Sadly, most of the band’s quirks and idiosyncrasies were ironed out over the next few albums, so that by the time of their hit single “If You Leave,” featured in John Hughes’ film Pretty in Pink, they seemed nearly indistinguishable from the sort of fluff from which albums like Dazzle Ships and its equally skilled predecessor Architecture & Morality save the reputation of eighties synth-pop.

Orchestral Manœuvres in the Dark “International” (Dazzle Ships, 1983)
Orchestral Manœuvres in the Dark “The Romance of the Telescope” (Dazzle Ships, 1983)
Orchestral Manœuvres in the Dark “Of All the Things We’ve Made” (Dazzle Ships, 1983)

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