Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: The Punishment of Luxury

They’re back – with catchy, intellectually-stimulating electronic pop

The bottom-heavy digital beats of today have all but obliterated the analog pop synthesis that sparked in the late-70s. OMD’s first single, “Electricity” (and its politically-conscious B-side “Enola Gay”) had many antecedents, but the mix of cool synthesizers and warm vocals sounded revolutionary in 1979. Even as the pre-programmed sounds of cheap Casio keyboards became hackneyed, OMD’s combination of analog and electronic instruments gave a modern edge to the former without letting the latter sap the music’s humanity. Although their early music combined intellectual subject matter with pop hooks and experimental sounds, they reached the zenith of their popularity in America in 1986 with the straightforward commercial ballad “If You Leave.”

The shift into the mainstream caused a rift between the band’s founders, with Andy McCluskey leaving in 1988, and co-founder Paul Humphreys carrying on with a varied cast until 1996. It would be ten more years until Humphreys and McCluskey rejoined under the OMD banner, returning to the band’s roots with a tour that included 1981’s seminal Architecture and Morality, a celebration of 1983’s avant-garde Dazzle Ships, and new material that began with History of Modern. 2017’s The Punishment of Luxury is the third album since the reformation, and the group’s first in four years. The title, derived from a nineteenth century painting by Giovanni Segantini, evokes the illusory value of luxury and the oppression of manufactured demand.

The reformed OMD has continued to explore the combination of industrial-inflected electronics, found sounds, intellectual subjects and catchy melodies with which they started. They wrap their dire warnings in bewitchingly catchy melodies, airing the tension between advancement and subversion that’s inherent in machine-based modernity. The cheeriness of the album’s title track obscures its analysis of a first-world so bathed in convenience, that the spark of its now lukewarm embrace no longer creates sensation. Numbed isolation found in the banality of commoditized information and the inevitability of decay is played in counterpoint to the human thirst for renewal.

The search for redemption reaches its zenith on “Ghost Star,” which poetically weaves together longing, lost chances, existentialism and hope. The magic of OMD is their ability to dress heady topics and synthesized, at times mechanical, backings in warm vocals and major keys. The mechanical overlord of “La Mitrailleuse” is illuminated by vocal effects and percussive backings that hang between snare drumming, typewriting and automatic gun fire – both horrific and danceable at the same time. The album closes with an invitation to face the challenges of modern life, suggesting that whether or not they’re surmountable, the journey may be worth failure. Those whose interest in OMD dates back to their earliest years will be delighted by this new album, and those who’ve yet to indulge can jump in right here. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

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