KITE, “Sweden’s best kept pop-secret”, made their long awaited return to the live stage with a trio of sold-out shows at the Stockholm Slaktkyrkan.
Having produced some of the best electronic pop in the last decade, the enigmatic duo of Nicklas Stenemo and Christian Berg were on the crest of wider international success in 2017 with a new EP ‘VII’ in the can. But KITE had to cancel their German tour following concerns over Stenemo’s health later that Autumn.
The period of music afterwards was empty without KITE, so when Stenemo and Berg announced their return a year later with a one-off date at the Slaktkyrkan, excitement was in the air. Ticket demand led to the Slaktkyrkan date becoming a weekend residency as well as the announcement of more gigs in Sweden.
As Brian Eno and his lengthy landmark in electronic ambience ‘Discreet Music’ set the mood for the start, the unmanned stage looked impressive with ten synths of various vintages including a Roland JX8P, Korg Micro Preset, Dave Smith Prophet 08, Roland RS101, Dave Smith Pro-2, Korg Sigma and Studio Electronics SE1 plus tubes of fluorescent orange lighting set in rows of six around the stage and large Paiste cymbals fixed vertically to act as reflectors.
As ‘Discreet Music’ faded out after 15 minutes amongst increasing plumes of smoke, KITE took their positions with Berg in a black poncho capeing him like a Norse Rick Wakeman by his six keyboards.
Meanwhile Stenemo stood tall and stoic with his slightly more modest four keyboards, like a victorious tribal leader returning from the wilderness after another hard won battle, this time against the trials and tribulations of the human condition. With that in mind, the rousing ‘I Just Wanna Feel’ was a perfect way to open proceedings and affirm their comeback.
With its splitting Alan Wilder-esque bassline, I Can’t Stand’ resonated off the orange tube light set now at full brightness, recalling those radiant electric bar heaters of old and giving off almost as much energy as the music.
Taking in a deeper textural mood, ‘Count The Days’ offered some emotive respite; the song has by Stenemo’s own confession, prophetically documented an autobiographical warning to his recent burnout, with words that “I’ve become my own worst enemy in a world on fire I’m safe at home, live in denial but the pressures on and I justify it with the sleepless nights” being particularly poignant.
The gloriously majestic ‘Up For Life’ from 2015 has also taken on greater resonance with Stenemo’s rugged emotive cry admitting “Life to me you see don’t come so easily, but I’m up for tears, up for life, I’m up for heartache”. But despite the melancholy, there was optimism, especially alongside Berg’s expansive synth interplay which turned into VANGELIS after an extended ambient interlude reminiscent of MIRRORS’ ‘Secrets’, both ambitious works clocking in at over 9 minutes.
Fittingly ‘Demons & Shame’, KITE’s darkest and most epic offering yet followed. Confronting the despair that his life threw up while pursuing his dreams, Stenemo’s harrowingly powerful delivery had the audience enthralled. Surrounded by ritualistic drum mantras and Berg’s eerie bass drones, if Ennio Morricone had composed music for Nordic Noir dramas, it would have sounded like this.
For many KITE fans, ‘The Rhythm’ from 2013 is still considered one of their best songs with its trancey backbone and chanty gothic rock edge coming over like JEAN-MICHEL JARRE meeting IAMX at Berghain. Bursting with catchy crossover potential, it probably drew the biggest physical reaction of the evening from the crowd, with Stenemo making the odd leg kick in support.
The whirring pulsing atmospheres of ‘True Colours’ allowed for a breather, albeit one with a nightfall intensity before the dial was set back again to dance mode.
Effectively their first single, the throbbing synthpop of ‘Ways To Dance’ was a reminder of how far the duo have evolved since their beginnings in 2008, before the bouncy whistling poptronica of the 2010 fan favourite ‘Jonny Boy’ played around with some Scandinavian folk traditions.
‘Dance Again’ was a wonderful spiralling hands in the air moment before KITE closed the evening in magnificent dramatic style with ‘Nocturne’; a mysteriously captivating ballad, it progressively rotated itself into a spacey widescreen continuum, thanks to Stenemo’s electronically treated vocals and Berg’s mighty percussive soundscapes.
One of the things about KITE and their releases to date is that being confined to EPs only, they don’t outstay their welcome and present the highest quality material possible. And that was the case with their impressive live show, with Stenemo and Berg departing the stage after an hour to the roars of a rapturous audience wanting more but appreciative of what they saw.
KITE are probably the best modern electronic pop act in Europe at the moment, possibly the world. With this confident return to the public arena after a short hiatus, their secret garden should be not so secret anymore…
“LADYTRON are, for me, the best of English pop music. They’re the kind of band that really only appears in England, with this funny mixture of eccentric art-school dicking around and dressing up, with a full awareness of what’s happening everywhere musically, which is kind of knitted together and woven into something quite new…”
That what Brian Eno, the one-time member of ROXY MUSIC, whose first album featured a skilfully splendid and rather bizarre song ‘Ladytron’, said of the electronic quartet who named themselves after it.
Inherently joined by their passion for music, Bulgarian-born Mira Aroyo, Glaswegian Helen Marnie and Liverpudlians Danny Hunt and Reuben Wu create an eclectic mix of four strong personalities with four separate ideas that meet to create one sound.
The foursome performed for Brian Eno in Sydney Opera House, as well as in some obscure places not usually freely accessible to artists, like China or Colombia. Having had five successful albums over the years, this diverse group of musicians have gained massive audiences in Europe, Canada, the US, as well as South America.
As it’s been seven years since the group’s last offering of ‘Gravity The Seducer’, which presented atmospheric textures and sedate longing melodies, it was difficult to “predict the day” of LADYTRON’s comeback, but not creating another album “was never a possibility” according to Danny Hunt, “We knew we were going to do it eventually, but various things made it not come together as early as we imagined. Huge changes in our personal lives, and our locations – two of us moved across hemispheres. In mid-2016, we felt ready to move ahead and began writing and planning”.
In the meantime, Helen Marnie released two solo albums, with the second ‘Strange Words And Weird Wars’ seeing her adopt a very dreamy style, Hunt co-wrote and produced various artists, Wu dedicated himself to photography and Aroyo fuelled her passion for documentaries.
Now comes the long awaited ‘Ladytron’; suggesting quintessential LADYTRON as per the eponymous title, the long player was introduced by ‘The Animals’. Marnie described the track as “the first new song we had, and with it we went immediately into the studio with Jim Abbiss. He’s the producer who has really understood us the most.” Reminiscent of the more intense creations from ‘Velocifero’ and ‘Witching Hour’, the punchy number was remixed by Vince Clarke and offers a ubiquitous mix of continuous sound attack from the ever present synth, guitar and fast flowing vocal.
But ‘Until The Fire’ opens the album with a promise of fast pacing, forward pushing mixtures of electronic shoe gazing punchiness, creating urgency and need to return to the very sound LADYTRON was first known and loved for. ‘The Island’, however, reduces the momentum to a romantic, dreamy and very Marnie gem, which is a clear nod towards the more and more popular synthwave movement, of which “we are savages, we are savages”.
Enter the guitar on ‘Tower Of Glass’, providing a pop electronic anthem of tomorrow. This is what Eurovision should aspire for. ‘Far From Home’ is deliciously synthetic, dreamily hypnotic and comfortably “safe and sound”, even if lost somewhere beneath the stars; it’s the perfect electronic blanket to get wrapped up in, in order to feel secure.
That very security disappears with the harsher ‘Paper Highways’; a much dirtier, messier and hedonistically destructive product, it breaks down with unexpected shifts and dangerously edgy hooks. A modern protest song, perhaps?
Maybe it’s the time to ‘Run’ … and hide … and run… nothing is certain here; an amalgamation of strange sounds, unexpected entries and production à la GRIMES meets ZOLA JESUS at its finest. Maybe that’s no coincidence, because we are entering the ‘Deadzone’. Oh how scrumptious this one is; eastern inspired, forward-driving, mouth-wateringly poppy, synthyliciously gritty and hitting the spot with the right dose of melodic elements intertwined with haunting drivers.
‘Figurine’ coalesces the signature LADYTRON vocals and a new approach to synth; it’s futuristic yet vintage, soothing yet grippingly uncertain, a modern lullaby. In many ways LADYTRON ‘You’ve Changed’, in many you haven’t. You are certainly showing new, exciting directions; quite sexy in this case, like a veiled BLACK NAIL CABARET turned girly. ‘Horoscope’ spooks, while ‘The Mountain’ slows things down, with a more demure pace and downbeat tempo.
‘Ladytron’ is wrapped up with eloquently designed ‘Tomorrow Is Another Day’, which sustains the more consolidated reticent rhythm, PET SHOP BOYS ballad worthy, with another nod towards modernised synthwave. The sweet is mixed with sour, the fast mingles with slow and the gentle meets rough, what’s not to love?
Seven years it may have been, but LADYTRON certainly come back with a punch. Amongst tracks which could be described as quintessential work from the foursome, and at times sounding like lost tracks from ‘Velocifero’, there are hidden gems which sound modern and are quite superb.
LADYTRON-like? Oh yes…
All in all, a fantastic comeback, and a worthy entry into 2019.
‘Ladytron’ is released by !K7 in Vinyl LP, CD and digital formats on 15th February 2019
It may be perhaps surprising to learn that one-time JAPAN sound designer and synth technician Richard Barbieri has only released three solo albums.
However, Barbieri was always preferred the collaborative process, be it with Messrs Sylvian, Karn and Jansen, Steve Hogarth of MARILLION or as a member of PORCUPINE TREE.
But since JAPAN disbanded in 1982, he has composed and recorded a large amount of material that until recently has remained unreleased.
So the five volume ‘Variants’ series has gathered together new compositions, improvisations, live performances and re-workings of older material; “It presents a chance to put together disparate pieces of music from past and current works that wouldn’t fit easily with new album plans or concepts but which I feel deserved a release.” said Barbieri in October 2017 when the first volume was issued.
With ‘Variants.5’ having come out in the Autumn and now a double vinyl edition combining ‘Variants.1’ and ‘Variants.2’ about to be released on KScope, it continues a renaissance that has taken place in the career of Richard Barbieri since his 2017 album ‘Planets + Persona’, one that has seen him invited to join TANGERINE DREAM on stage in London, as well as playing solo concerts abroad and touring as part of LUSTANS LAKEJER in Sweden.
Bright and layered, ‘Showered In White Light’ starts ‘Variants.5’ and is almost flutey in texture.
With manipulated voice samples of regular collaborator Lisen Rylander Löve throughout the track, the building percussive tension mutates into something quite dramatic.
Performed recently with Steven Wilson at one of the PORCUPINE TREE leader’s solo Royal Albert Hall concerts, ‘New Soul 2018’ is a sparse electronic piano piece that originated as a PORCUPINE TREE improvisation initiation bookended by a thunderstorm recorded during the RAIN TREE CROW album sessions in the South of France.
Embroiled in shimmers and harmonics, ‘Run Lola’ was inspired by THE BAYS, a group that have never released a record or rehearsed, who Barbieri improvised with to showings of the film ‘Run Lola Run’. Its delicate sweeps are laced with trumpet from Luca Calabrese and reversed violin by Gill Morley, but as the hypnotic bass sequence permeates over ten minutes like classic TANGERINE DREAM, it makes for a trance inducing moment, especially as the abstract voices of Lisen Rylander Löve drop in.
‘Unholy Live 2017’ captures the original recording’s initial airy ambience although this is offset by more unsettling voices through Lisen Rylander Löve’s Soviet submarine microphone before a deep synth bass rumble, Löve’s soprano sax and Barbieri’s pulsating sequence kick in. The concluding ‘Shut Down’ is a drone piece and possibly a sign of things to come from Barbieri. Constructed during recuperation following an operation using a compact mini analogue modular set up by his bedside, it is sinister in tone and bereft of any true melody.
But the series started with ‘Variants.1’ beginning with ‘Hybrid’, a noirish track derived from the ‘Planets + Persona’ sessions and a live variation on spacey avant jazz of ‘New Found Land’ where Barbieri amusingly credits himself with “bad timing”. Melancholically piano shaped, ‘Only Passing Through’ was poignantly titled, a reflection of life in the wider context of generations. Still very much into his vintage Roland System 700 Laboratory Series, ‘Spacing Of Strands’ was based on a step sequence improvisation where the analogue module was triggered by an Arturia Beat Step Pro Sequencer.
Interestingly on ‘Variants.1’, Barbieri revisited his JAPAN days with a 2009 solo interpretation of ‘The Experience Of Swimming’, his composition which was on the B-side of ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ single from 1980, now boosted with some new counter melodic enhancement. The piece reappeared as a longer live rework on ‘Variants.4’ recorded at the St Margaret’s of Anitioch Church in Liverpool featuring a different intro, sax , trumpet, percussive loops and a coda improvisation based on ‘Nightporter’.
Indeed on ‘Variants.3’, other JAPAN related material was unveiled. The marvellous ‘Ballerina’ while new, harked back to 1982 when Barbieri was approached to commission music for the Ballet Rambert following the end of JAPAN. The resultant music was suitably ghostly with ethnic overtones and subtle electro-percussive textures offered a ringing ambience as gentle cascading sequences circled.
And on a earthy cassette recorded timepiece recalling Brian Eno’s ‘2/2’ when the ‘1979 Rehearsal Room’ was quiet, Barbieri happily programmed and played away… also on ‘Variants.3’ and uptempo by Barbieri’s standards, ‘Vibra’ featuring the fretless bass of Percy Jones and violin by Gill Morley recalled Ryuichi Sakamoto, while with a drum machine assisted backbone and jazzier overtones, ‘Dahlia’ saw the development of another PORCUPINE TREE track written with Steven Wilson.
Containing mostly live recordings including a one-off live improvisation piece ‘Antioch’ and an extended version of ‘Hypnotek’ with an introduction echoing Jon Hassell, the highlight of ‘Variants.2’ was the lengthy ‘Frozen Hearts Of Hollywood’, a composition with orchestration potential inspired by the soundtrack of the film ‘Chinatown’ which starred Faye Dunaway.
The progressive nocturnal electronica of ‘Broken Codes’ opened ‘Variants.4’, inspired by Barbieri’s memories of listening to a transistor radio in bed as a teenager deep into the night, while largely piano based, the soothing ‘Snow Bed’ allowed room for trumpet and synths too. The appropriately titled ‘Slink’ featuring dissonant piano by Fredrik Hermansson was according to Barbieri “an oddball piece of music” came before ‘Orphan 5’, a pretty tune with a four chord progression sketched during the JAPAN days featuring the haunting monologue of Sophie Worthen.
One track that would have been an interesting inclusion is Barbieri’s live rendition of PORCUPINE TREE’s ‘Idiot Prayer’ which often finishes his shows
But over five volumes, ‘Variants’ is a fascinating journey into the thoughtful creativity of Richard Barbieri. There is a lot of music to get through, but free of artistic restrictions and concepts as to what constitutes an album, the beauty of the ‘Variants’ series is as the concept title suggests, the variation, the range of colours, textures and atmospheres emanating from one artist. And that’s how things should be.
Beginning with ‘Distant Storm’, this is an unusual but brilliant BLANCMANGE tune with its incessant dance beat, reverberant Moog bassline and dreamy processed vocoder aesthetic; with a rousing, almost spiritual quality, there are even elements of JAMES’ ‘Come Home’ creeping in for good measure.
Following on, ‘In Your Room’ is a great slice of vintage cold wave synth, with a vocoder aesthetic and an assortment of manipulated sounds.
The heavily percussive ‘I Smashed Your Phone’ uses noise and electronics to deal with the sensitive issue of domestic abuse, while the amusing ‘Gravel Drive Syndrome’ provides commentary on social climbing and keeping up with the Jones’ aided by an Eno-esque VCS3 joystick solo.
‘Talking To Machines’ deals with Arthur’s continuing love / hate relationship with smart phones and what is now becoming anti-social media, but also as he put it: “this Kafka-esque nightmare just to get to the person you want to talk to.”
Like a sombre Northern English KRAFTWERK, the marvellous metronomic ‘Not A Priority’ also adds the resonance of JEAN-MICHEL JARRE with some chilling string machine; “Be yourself, you can’t be anybody else” Arthur exclaims as Hannah Peel harmonises and counterpoints this marvellous concoction with her soprano stylings.
Inspired by the smarmy Victorian–minded politician and ‘Walter The Softy’ impersonator Jacob Rees-Mogg, the swirly robopop of ‘TV Debate’ captures Arthur’s anger at the state of the nation in a musical cross between PLASTIC ONO BAND and THE FLYING LIZARDS; “I’m creating imagery and now I’ve got politicians doing a conga, it’s a mess!” he reflected to The Electricity Club about the song, “We’re a nation who watch cookery programmes but can barely cook!”
Featuring David Rhodes on guitar, the heavier tones of ‘Leaves’, with its looming reverberant textures and discordant reverses, continues the gloomier mood before the Linn and guitar driven resignation of ‘White Circle, Black Space’. And with the aid of some haunting Vox Machina computer voices, the closing bittersweet title track explores the longing to be somewhere else while swathed in Roland vocoder towards the song’s conclusion.
“I’m catching up in what I think is unfinished business” Neil Arthur remarked on his artistic drive, “I’m just in a position where I’m experimenting all the time. I do what I want and it’s a bonus that some people like it.”
Possibly his best body of work as BLANCMANGE in its 21st Century incarnation, Neil Arthur has undoubtedly found comfort from working with Benge on what is effectively their third album together.
That comfort has also provided an appealing palette of electronic sounds that acts as a fine platform for his not-so-merry lyrical witticism.
It all began with a KRAFTWERK-influenced ditty warning about environmental catastrophe, one that has become poignant again in the 21st Century…
“I became friends with Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos in the 90s, and was invited to Wolfgang’s flat for dinner” said Andy McCluskey at the Electri_City_Conference in 2015, “on the wall was a gold record for ‘Radio-Activity’ which was a hit single in France. I was telling them that ‘Radio-Activity’ was the song that most influenced OMD and told them ‘Electricity’ was just an English punk version of ‘Radio-Activity’. They replied ‘Yes, we know!’… it was that obvious!”
In an accolade already accorded to ENO, JAPAN, SIMPLE MINDS, ABBA and THE POLICE, OMD’s first four landmark long players ‘Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’, ‘Organisation’, ‘Architecture & Morality’ and ‘Dazzle Ships’ are being reissued as Half Speed Abbey Road vinyl remasters. Packaged in reproductions of their original Peter Saville designed sleeves complete with die-cuts where appropriate, these releases from Universal Music reaffirm OMD’s often forgotten role as premier electronic pop pioneers.
Originally released in February 1980 on the Factory Records inspired Virgin subsidiary Dindisc Records, ‘Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’ was a promising debut album from Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, two lads from The Wirral who had finally been able realise their passion for electronic music following the purchase of a Korg M500 Micro-Preset synthesizer paid for in instalments via a mail order catalogue.
Featuring their third released version of ‘Electricity’, the album also included their chanty commentary on the mechanics of war entitled ‘Bunker Soldiers’. Away from these energetic post-punk synth numbers, on the other side of the coin were ‘Almost’ and ‘The Messerschmitt Twins’, two emotive synth ballads that were equal to KRAFTWERK’s ‘Neon Lights’. However, their naivety was exposed by the inclusion of the quirky instrumental ‘Dancing’ which OMD even dared to play live during their BBC TV debut on ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’!
Even early on in their career, OMD’s concerns about the music industry machine were looming in ‘Julia’s Song’ and ‘Pretending To See The Future’; the latter was outstripped a few months later by a John Peel session version which formed the basis of the full live band rendition when McCluskey and Humphreys retired Winston, their TEAC A3340S tape recorder which had accompanied them on their breakthrough tour opening for GARY NUMAN in Autumn 1979.
OMD’s debut now comes over like a time capsule; ‘Red Frame / White Light’, a lightweight synthpop tune celebrating the 632 3003 phone box that acted as the band’s office captured an era before mobiles and the internet, while in honour of good old fashioned love letter writing, ‘Messages’ was at this point just a song with potential as a single.
Indeed, it was only when ‘Messages’ was re-recorded, produced by Mike Howlett with Malcolm Holmes adding drums, that led to a No13 hit in June 1980 and ultimately the ‘Organisation’ album which came out in October 1980. More gothic in nature, the album began misleadingly with the melodic Motorik lattice that was ‘Enola Gay’.
With its iconic Roland CR78 Compurhythm pattern and wordplay referring to the horrific bombing of Hiroshima by the Boeing B29 Superfortress flown by Colonel Paul Tibbets named after his mother, ‘Enola Gay’ was a clever observational statement about the first ever operational use of nuclear weapons. Massively popular in France and Italy, it also reached No8 in the UK singles chart.
But alongside ‘Enola Gay’ on this much more mature long player, there was also the hypnotic beauty of the often under rated ‘2nd Thought’ and ‘Statues’, the brooding Ian Curtis tribute which was built around an Elgam Symphony organ’s auto-accompaniment. With the purchase of a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Humphreys began exploring. Often using brassy tones set slightly out of tune for some haunting overtones, it made its presence felt on tracks like ‘The Misunderstanding’ and ‘Stanlow’.
As with the debut, there were a few missteps like the JOY DIVISION aping cover of ‘The More I See You’ which was different if nothing else, while the SPARKS inspired ‘Motion & Heart’ would be improved as a reworked ‘Amazon Version’ for an abandoned follow-up 45 to ‘Enola Gay’.
With two albums released in nine months, their first Top 10 hit and the biggest record sales of 1980 in the Virgin Records group, a triumphant concert at Hammersmith Odeon that December which concluded with an unexpected massed stage invasion, ended a brilliant year for OMD. But McCluskey and Humphreys could not have foreseen that 1981 would see them get even bigger.
Although Mike Howlett worked on the ethereal tape choir centred ‘Souvenir’, which was co-written by live keyboardist Martin Cooper and became OMD’s first Top 3 in September 1981, scheduling issues meant Humphreys and McCluskey self-produced what would become ‘Architecture & Morality’ with engineer Richard Manwaring, released in November 1981.
Featuring two spirited songs about ‘Joan Of Arc’, these were to become another pair of UK Top 5 hits with the ‘Maid of Orleans’ variant also becoming 1982’s biggest selling single in West Germany when Der Bundesrepublik was the biggest Western music market after the USA and Japan.
The big booming ambience of the ‘Architecture & Morality’ album next to big blocks of Mellotron choir gave OMD their masterpiece, tinged more with the spectre of LA DÜSSELDORF rather than KRAFTWERK.
“People always talk to us about KRAFTWERK, and obviously, they were hugely important” said McCluskey, “But there was another element from Düsseldorf that influenced us, and that was the organic side which was firstly NEU! and then LA DÜSSELDORF and Michael Rother’s solo records.”
The ENO-esque percussive six string thrash of ‘The New Stone Age’, the bouncy but moody ‘Georgia’ and the guitar assisted choral beauty of ‘The Beginning & The End’ demonstrated OMD’s musical ambition.
Meanwhile, the ringing theme of PINK FLOYD’s ‘Time’ was borrowed for the instrumental title track and the epic overtures of the almost wordless ‘Sealand’ also confirmed Humphreys’ affinity with progressive rock.
Malcolm Holmes was in his element on ‘Architecture & Morality’, thumping stark percussive colours while syncopating off various rhythm machines.
“The majority of the drum programming would always be done by Andy or Paul” he said, “My part would be to lay down on that… My favourite period of OMD musically was ‘Architecture & Morality’ because of my involvement and how creative I was being at the time, using the kit differently.”
”I think ‘Architecture & Morality’ was a complete album, it was just so whole” said Paul Humphreys to The Electricity Club in 2010, “The sound of it was unique, every song… it wasn’t a ‘bitty’ album. A few of our albums are ‘bitty’ but that was where we finally found a sound that was OMD. I think the first two albums were leading to ‘Architecture & Morality’. We were refining our sound and then we found it.”
Meanwhile in ‘She’s Leaving’, there was a big fourth hit single in-waiting from the album characterised by its sweet melodies, forlorn vocals and crunchy electronic percussion; “We got hold of some Pearl syndrums and we were all messing around in the control room with little white noises and stuff like that” Holmes remembered. But thanks to McCluskey’s belligerence in vetoing its UK single release, that hit never happened, something he would later regret as Top 5 hit singles were to become less automatic a year later as OMD hit something of an existential crisis.
One thing successful bands should never do is stray off their vision. But OMD listened to criticisms that their cryptic songs about inanimate objects and deceased historical figures had no relevance in fighting political injustices; of course this view was coming from journalists on a mission, who were rather hypocritically living off expense accounts and sipping cocktails in fancy hotels!
With their label Dindisc also folding, OMD were absorbed into the main Virgin Records group.
A little bit lost, McCluskey and Humphreys returned to the experimental bedroom ethos of their pre-fame VCL XI days and “got angry” with Emulators and a Sony short wave radio; the disillusionment led to the ambitious if flawed ‘Dazzle Ships’ released in March 1983.
A fractured statement on the state of the world with a conceptual approach not dissimilar to KRAFTWERK’s ‘Radio-Activity’, it was characterised by short abstract pieces which over time have mostly proved to have worked. Ironically, one that didn’t work was ‘Time Zones’, a snapshot of the world through telecommunications which outstayed its welcome by at least half a minute.
Although ‘ABC Auto-Industry’ was an amusing novelty piece that needed some accompanying performance art for it to really make sense, the sample heavy ‘Dazzle Ships (Parts II, III & VII)’ captured the tension of an underwater battle while ‘Radio Prague’ symbolised the spectre of The Cold War, a theme that would be explored within a Germanic pop context, crossing NEU! with KRAFTWERK on the magnificent ‘Radio Waves’.
Utilising a similar manic pace, ‘Genetic Engineering’ possessed a fistful of energy and a typewriter in a combination that was first heard on ENO’s ‘China My China’, while ‘Telegraph’ was a far more vicious if metaphoric attack on TV evangelism and religious cults than ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ by DEPECHE MODE ever was…
Salvaged from earlier B-sides, ‘The Romance Of The Telescope’ and ‘Of All The Things We Made’ highlighted the shortfall in material but their inclusion was justified by their serene quality, but they were significantly not the best tracks on ‘Dazzle Ships’.
Echoing the bassline movements of JOY DIVISION’s ‘Atmosphere’ and laced with mournful Emulator strings, the solemn but beautiful ‘Silent Running’ offered a perfect metaphor for misguided neutrality. Most harrowing though was the news report about “a young girl from Nicaragua whose hands had been cut off at the wrists by the former Somoza guards…” that began the waltz-driven ‘International’ with McCluskey’s anger about economic corruption, political hypocrisy and torture in captivity still sadly relevant today.
Although savaged by critics on its initial release and ultimately resetting the course of OMD, this nautical adventure has now been reassessed by many as a lost work of genius. It’s not quite that, but it is certainly a much better album than it was originally perceived to be.
Their Dindisc Records boss Carol Wilson said that McCluskey and Humphreys “didn’t know whether they wanted to be JOY DIVISION or ABBA!”, summing up their awkward but ultimately rewarding musical ethos. However, after the commercial failure of ‘Dazzle Ships’, OMD headed to the Caribbean and then Hollywood which brought them American singular success with ‘If You Leave’ before imploding after a US tour opening for DEPECHE MODE in 1988.
And while McCluskey maintained sporadic success with the OMD brand for a number of years, it would take a reunion with Humphreys and 2013’s ‘English Electric’ to deliver a body of work that was equal to this wonderful quartet of albums.
With regards OMD’s continuing appeal today, Mal Holmes said “The reason why we’re here is because the first three albums were f***ing great”, although he could be forgiven for not being a total fan of ‘Dazzle Ships’ having only played on three of its tracks!
Despite artists as varied as Vince Clarke, Steve Hillage, Moby, Darren Hayes and James Murphy all publically expressing their admiration for OMD over the years and synth riffs from these four classic albums being appropriated by acts as diverse as INXS, LEFTFIELD, LADYTRON and MARINA & THE DIAMONDS, some commentators have complained they could not be taken as seriously as say DEPECHE MODE because they were not dark enough.
The death of over 100,000 people by nuclear attack and the brutal execution of a teenage girl can hardly be considered lightweight; now there are not many artists that can claim to have had worldwide hit singles about those very topics!
OMD’s ultimate legacy was to successfully combine warm catchy synth melodies and infectious technologically framed rhythms with harsh subject matter in a manner that worked on many levels. Beyond any standard pop convention, this was something that was and still is quite unique.