The Agit Reader

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

November 8th, 2019  |  by Stephen Slaybaugh

OMD, SouvenirWhile to mainstream audiences Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (a.k.a. OMD) may forever be remembered simply for “If You Leave,” their big U.S. hit from John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink flick, the Liverpool-borne band has been anything but a flash in the pan. Inspired by both punk’s rule-breaking ethos and the synthetic sound of Kraftwerk, bassist Andy McCluskey and keyboardist Paul Humphreys formed OMD in 1978 and became one of a vanguard of pioneering groups preferring synthesizers over guitars. Though it would take “If You Leave” for them to break through in America, in their homeland the band had a string of hits that were equally catchy and innovative. McCluskey and Humphreys parted ways in 1991, with McCluskey continuing on under the OMD banner for three more albums, but the original line-up reunited in 2006 and has released three superb albums in the intervening years.

With 2019 marking the 40th anniversary of the band’s first single, “Electricity” (on the seminal Factory Records no less), the band has released Souvenir, a collection of all 40 of its singles—including a new one, “Don’t Go”—available as a download, a three-LP vinyl boxset, or a five-CD, two-DVD collection. While the first two formats contain just the 40 singles, the last option adds in a CD’s worth of unreleased tracks dating back to 1980, two live recordings (one from 2011 and one from 1983), and two DVDs, one of BBC television appearances and the other containing three live performances from the ‘80s.

While there have been compilations of OMD’s singles before, none have been this complete. Not only does this one include several of the singles released since the band’s reformation, but also those from the ‘90s with and without Humphreys. As such there is no better composite snapshot of the band and its evolution from synth pioneers to New Wave pop stars and back again.

Set in chronological order, Souvenir leads off with “Electricity.” Blending a propulsive bassline and a twinkling synth refrain, it is a slice of analog pop bliss and one of the greatest tracks ever cut to wax. Other early singles like “Messages” and “Enola Gay” are a similar blend of criss-crossing synths and pulsating rhythms that sound at once of another time and from some point in the not-so-distant future. Meanwhile, the title track, “Souvenir,” is completely mesmerizing. With a melting keyboard melody and Humphrey’s wistful vocals, it is a bittersweet lament that defies the idea of electronic music being soulless.

The singles, “Genetic Engineering” and “Telegraph” from Dazzle Ships, OMD’s fourth album, signaled a shift from the more minimalist aesthetics of the band’s previous work. But the subsequent record, Junk Culture, and its first single “Locomotion” showed the band to be wading deeper into pop waters, with the results being mixed, even when singing about “Tesla Girls.” The exception here is “So In Love,” another successful swirl of vocalized yearning and twinkling synths.

Then there is “If You Leave,” which managed the neat trick of bringing OMD their greatest commercial success without sacrificing artistic value. While both qualities would wain in the coming years, even the band’s singles from the ‘90s aren’t completely without merit. Even those without Humphreys—“Walking on the Milky Way,” in particular—are worth a listen. That said, OMD’s return earlier this century was also something of a return to form, and the three singles from History of Modern standout. Regrettably, though, none of the singles from the band’s two other reunion albums, which are even better, made it onto the collection for some reason. That the band is still at the top of its game is proven by “Don’t Go,” the new track which recalls its early beginnings while still sounding completely modern. It’s a fitting culmination to this encapsulation of a band who has, to our benefit, always made pop music as they dreamed it would sound in the future.

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