Review: OMD – The History of Modern

There’s not a title track to the new OMD album, “The History of Modern.” There are two. “The History Of Modern” is featured in a consecutive pair of songs with the same title appended by “Part 1” or “Part 2.” The first of these opens with a classic OMD choral sample while polysynths orchestrate an insidiously catchy riff. Then vocalist Andy McCluskey begins reciting a litany of all the various things that will not exist after the next big bang formulates a new universe. He says he was inspired to write this song by the new Large Hadron Collider. In other words, welcome back, boys!


100% records | UK | CD | 2010 | BNL001CD


When OMD mark I [Andy McCluskey, Paul Humphreys, Martin Cooper and Malcolm Holmes] surprised many by regrouping in 2005 for an appearance on a German TV show, they maintained that their plan was to remaster some of their albums, perform a tour where they played their classic “Architecture + Morality” album and ultimately, record a new album. It’s taken a while. Along the way there were interruptions to the plan. McCluskey’s wife had contracted cancer and until she had treatment, that put everything on hold a while. Then the Liverpool FACT museum commissioned the group [who better, with songs like “Electricity” and “Stanlow” in their back catalogue?] to create an installation showcasing the various technologies behind energy generation. The resultant “Energy Suite” was designed by their longtime graphic designer Peter Saville and featured films created by OMD mark II visual collaborator Hambi Haralambous [ex-Hambi + The Dance] twinned with their very abstract music. Then they did a Liverpool Philharmonic show featuring the music from the FACT installation played live that was released on DVD [the only way to hear the music, other than viewing the installation]. Considering all of that, the slippage of the album release target from 2007 to three years later is understandable.

There’s no heaven, there’s no hell. Cream will float but shit will sell. Step aside, avoid the smell. I surrender, ring the bell.  – “New Babies, New Toys”

The album opens with the instantly catchy “New Babies, New Toys,” a darkly sardonic putdown of the fast food music culture of the day and TV spawned “singing sensations” in particular. The lyrics bring to mind Jarvis Cocker’s anthemic “Still Running The World,” albeit applied to a much smaller problem. McCluskey’s fuzztone bass is very up front in the mix and the whole of the production is redolent of that on the most recent Ladytron album, “Velocifero.” That means lots of square wave filtration that heightens the energy and vocal effects applied as well. The melody is classic OMD, perhaps simpler than ever, given the subject matter of the song, but the presentation is very 2010.

That’s not the case for track two, “If You Want It.” It sounds like a re-write of the 1996 single “Walking On The Milky Way.” It’s a big, friendly piece of pop with the most traditional sound to be found on the album; sporting real drums and guitars high in the mix. The chorus is hooky enough but I question the minds that picked this as the first British single from the album. Calling to mind a pleasant but unsuccessful [and hardly groundbreaking] single that was the next to last release by OMD prior to their 14 year hiatus does not strike me as a smart move at all. Particularly when the new album has at least five potential singles of significantly higher quality.

Either of the next two tracks would have made far more sterling leadoff singles had they but the chance. “History Of Modern – Part 1” has the sweetly lilting melodies they filled their first four albums with coupled with the most fatalistic lyric content possible. Some people worry about global warming. OMD are more concerned with the ultimate end of the entropic cycle of the universe, when even our galaxy is a non-memory. The breakdown coda of the track introduces synth melodies suggestive of “Computerworld” period Kraftwerk over the industrial humming of what’s left of the track by that point. Until it finally stops completely.




It’s worth mentioning here that the shadow of Kraftwerk hangs heavy over this album. Not since the group’s “let’s-remake-Radio-Activity” gambit of “Dazzle Ships” that threatened to derail their career in 1983 have the Düsseldorf combo had such a powerful influence on the making of an OMD album. This even takes into account OMD mark II’s [excellent] 1991 cover version of Kraftwerk’s “Neon Lights” on the mediocre “Sugar Tax” album.

The subsequent “History Of Modern – Part 2” aims squarely for that glorious OMD midperiod of epic yet heartbreaking melodies and hits the target 100%. The melancholy D-C-B intro chord sequence fades in accompanied by the faintest hint of birdsong and bells tolling as the main melody rises on polysynths mirroring the chord sequence as B-C-D.  As McCluskey sings the verses, the melody recedes to a bare bass pulse until the chorus when it all builds to a crescendo. Breathtaking stuff!

The same can’t be said of “Sometimes,” which follows as track 5. First of all it’s built around the backing vocals of Jennifer John and Lucy Styles singing “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” And the music bed has subtle scratching filigree – OMD and hip hop are galaxies apart. The whole enterprise is reflective of the early 90s McCluskey and faceless collaborators OMD mark II period like “Sugar Tax.” It’s another track that is way too evocative of the erratic 90s path of OMD. I would not have included it in the running for the album. I would have even nixed it as a B-side. While “If You Want It” is weak OMD, this is a track that fails for me.

Fortunately, it is followed by a brace of strong material. “RFWK” is no less than a hymn of benediction to Kraftwerk! The letters stand for Ralf, Florian, Wolfgang and Karl. The music reflects die mensch maschinen but the lead synth is the same voice used on the Elektric Music track “Kissing The Machine” that McCluskey co-wrote and performed with ex-Kraftwerk percussionist Karl Bartos on his first album after leaving the famed group. In it, McCluskey reflects on all the group has meant to him as he has aged and looked to them as an inspiration. As he delivers the final couplet, his voice trails off into a touchingly fragile falsetto he’s never quite used before.

I guess that I must thank you now, this may be the last time. Whatever life will bring you, I pray it will be fine.” – “RFWK”

What’s marked “side one” on the CD concludes with the brilliant “New Holy Ground.” The track was built around a sound effect recording of someone walking on a hard floor that was manipulated and looped into an eerie rhythm while the melody of the track, and even its basic feel was consciously extrapolated from the classic OMD B-side, “The Avenue.” The lead lines resemble cellos playing my favorite melancholy chord sequence of all time; C-G-F-G-C. This chord sequence is always guaranteed to make me swoon, and it’s a quintessential OMD melody and when it is built over chorus samples right out of “Architecture & Morality” a good time is guaranteed for all OMD fans.

“Side two” begins with a cut that reflects the other influential musician who casts a long shadow over this record. Unlike Kraftwerk, this is the first time that I can say that Giorgio Moroder has had an influence on OMD, though I’ve heard John Foxx and Jim Kerr of Simple Minds [to say nothing of Eno] previously singing the praises of the seminal “I Feel Love.” Nevertheless, “The Future, The Past, And Forever After” contains tightly sequenced lead lines that are pure Moroder mated with classic period New Order beatbox and an overall feel of Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express.” The lyrics evoke speeding trains and wheels of steel as metaphors for unceasing change. Truthfully, while OMD have never touched on the Moroder style previously, Paul Humphries, along with Claudia Brücken on their OneTwo project have. “Kein Anschluss (S.I.T.D. Remix)” from the OneTwo “Cloud Nine” single did previously point in this direction most capably.

“Sister Marie Says” is a melody from 1981 that the band thought at the time was too similar to “Enola Gay,” so they shelved it. Thirty years later it’s synthpop gold and they mine it with gusto. It’s followed by the only truly painful cut on the album. “Pulse” sounds for all the world like a track McCluskey wrote for his girly Atomic Kitten post-OMD puppet band he created only back in the late 90s. And it is built on the exact sequencer riff of “I Feel Love” and even that venerable construction can’t save this track. Quite simply put, this track has no place within the OMD canon. It’s what I take to be a contemporary R&B cut with a blunt sexual vibe that is completely unique to OMD. It sounds like something that should be recorded by one of those horrible pop/R&B women whom I have carefully avoided like the plague, so I can’t even say if it’s more redolent of Lady Gaga or Christina Aguilera. McCluskey even talks dirty on the verses with a slurred murmur delivery that’s so damned wrong I can’t state it more plainly. This would have been a bad B-side and it clearly has no place on the album. Or anywhere within 5 miles of the OMD name.

Fortunately, the rest of the album returns to the standard found consistently throughout the rest of this album. “Green” is number McCluskey wrote with OMD mark II in mind that never got an airing. Fortunately, Paul Humphreys liked the song enough to construct a completely different music bed around it that at least takes the track to the standard of pop on “Junk Culture” if not “Organisation.” The outro is an eerie fadeout that strongly recalls that on Roxy Music’s “If There Is Something!”

“The Bondage Of Fate” is built around a sample of  Hannah Peel’s “Organ Song” used as a rhythm track. Turnabout is fair play, because Ms. Peel released a single, “Rebox,” earlier this year that contained a music box rendition of OMD’s debut single “Electricity.” The result is a fragile, delicate melody that’s sung with tenderness by McCluskey.  The trusty mellotrons and chorus samples over a waltz beat means it recalls classic OMD in form, but the content is unique. I can think of nothing that really reminds me of this track.

The final cut on “History Of Modern” is outstanding and once more the listener is in Kraftwerk homage territory with the longest track OMD have ever committed to album. “The Right Side?” is a haunting evocation of the sort of rondo melody that formed the core of my personal favorite Kraftwerk song, “Europe Endless,” from “Trans Europe Express.”

When all is said and done this album, for its several missteps, has remained burned in my brain for the last week. I don’t want to listen to anything else. I don’t think that I can. When I first popped it into my car stereo last Wednesday morning on the way to the gym, I had enough time to hear the first three and a half songs. I spent my workout with the fragment I’d heard thus far of “The History Of Modern – Part 2” coursing through my mind uncontrollably… and I didn’t know how the song ended at that point! I even spent last Saturday morning listening to “The History of Modern – Part 2” on repeat for an hour or two. Yet, almost every song from this album has been stuck in my head for the last six days. Last night I lay awake for hours before the alarm clock went off with 6-7 cuts from this album playing on repeat… in my mind. The caliber of excellent material on this album comes close to rivaling that as found on the first four OMD albums. And let’s not mince words here; I consider the debut OMD album as tentative and don’t think it begins to touch on the accomplishments of “Organisation,” “Architecture + Morality” and “Dazzle Ships.”

It’s unfortunate that the inclusion of “Pulse” and “Sometimes” deliver what would be serious hits to the OMD “rock G.P.A.” on this album, but even taking those farragoes into consideration, the net result is impressive: ten outstanding OMD tracks that reflect their own best influence and that of their forebears, one middling 90s throwback and only two glaring mistakes. The last album that Andy made under the OMD mark II name, “Universal,” had about five excellent tracks on it and over the years I’ve come to view it as the best OMD album since 1985’s “Crush.” Certainly the title track to “Universal” was one of the best pieces of classic OMD songcraft ever. But this album has twice as much strong material! That clearly places it ahead of everything OMD have released since 1983, in my book.

In a perfect world, you could buy all of the tracks here online,  save for “Sometimes” and “Pulse”and burn a 51 minute CD that would be OMD’s fourth best album.

What’s stopping you?

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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