Saturday, August 1, 2009

Old music: OMD's Dazzle Ships (1983)

I've been a rather big fan of this album since I initially heard it a little over a year ago. I was just discovering Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark's early work and I recall being somewhat annoyed at this album because it was the only one of the band's first five that I couldn't get out of the dollar bin. I had to pay full price ($5) for a pristine vinyl, worn cover copy. And I was genuinely miffed.

That was before I had heard it.

Had I known what I was actually getting, there is now way that I would've had anything resembling apprehension or annoyance about the whole deal. I should have been smiling uncontrollably.

It's cool to now remark about how Dazzle Ships was poorly received after the band's big breakthrough with their previous album, Architecture and Morality and its classic new wave-era defining love song 'Souvenir', but I would instead like to look in retrospect at what came before the album and declare everyone who proposed to not 'get it' or pretended they didn't see it coming in 1983 to be a complete fucking moron.

The album that Dazzle Ships most closely resembles musically in the OMD catalogue is 1980's Oragnisation. If you go back and play these two records one after the other, they will practically be musically synced. At the time cutting edge keyboards, synthesizers and drum machines bump heads with traditional rock band live instruments like live drums, electric bass and electric guitar. It all combines for a sound that must've been like music from outer space at the time and now sounds like the vintage sound of a classic era in rock music that will never be recreated (no matter how hard some folks may try). This musical territory was unique, even at this point, with only fellow northerners New Order being the closest musical relation.

But that's all well and good, you say. What about those weird 'musique concrete' seemingly free form sound collage tracks that took up nearly half the album, you ask?

To which I say that high concepts like this had always been a staple of OMD's material. From the early tracks like 'Electricity' and 'Enola Gay,' which were based on themes, to Architecture and Morality's loose running-theme based around the life of Joan of Arc; these boys always had something that was on their mind and that would want to put into the context of a wonderful pop song.

Now, as for the concept of Dazzle Ships itself, it seems to be based on post-war Britain, the rise of technology in the Cold War and how that same technology that is supposedly advancing the society in social terms is actually making the world a more desolate and isolated place to be. But that is entirely unclear and blurred when you consider that the album was named after something whose purpose was 'confusion rather than concealment.'


And the music fits. It's appropriately 80's sounding. It's new wave. It's of its time. Synth pop. Fantastically played and perfected by a band that was perhaps getting a little smug and sprawling in their enormous success; but through it all, they were always just as concerned with the art side as they were with the pop side.

And Dazzle Ships is one of the finest examples of that, perhaps ever.

The five sound collages scattered amongst the seven actual songs are actually not as confrontational as some reviews may suggest. For the most part, they are like between song interludes or skits; and, in the case of something like 'This is Helena,' it could be argued that it is an actual song. The genuinely weirdest of the bunch is 'Dazzle Ships (Parts II, III & VII).' It is just a mish mash of random blurts and shouts if noise. But as the introduction to the second half of the album, and that forthcoming material's emotional weight, it is a good preview of the depths to which this album wishes to plunge. Call these interludes obnoxious, in the way or dull indulgence, but whatever you do, don't call them unnecessary.

As for the actual songs on the album, they are all among OMD's best. Starting off with the brilliantly bouncy 'Genetic Engineering' all the way through the mournfully profound closer 'Of All the Things We've Made,' there isn't one song here that isn't top notch. I've always had a soft spot for 'Telegraph,' which bounces along at 'Enola Gay' levels of dancibility and condemns mass communication simultaneously ('We've got telegraphs all over this land. It doesn't mean a damn thing,' sings McClusky atop an irresistibly catchy synth line). Wonderful. Also of note is the song 'Silent Running,' whose seemingly carefree musical mood is betrayed by the unsure lyrics ('We're walking on air, we're taking our time. But god only knows, this isn't reason or rhyme.'). It's unclear whether this song is inspired by the 1970's Douglas Trumbull movie, but it would make sense if it were. Lastly, the album's final moment of brilliance is also its last song; the aforementioned 'Of All the Things We've Made.' The song is fine and stands incredibly well on its own, but at the end of this heavily conceptual dystopianism, it comes alight and breathes a previously unheard resonance into the material. Absolutely stunning.

Of course, no one at the time paid any attention to the two top flight singles, 'Genetic Engineering' and 'Telegraph', they all focused on the between song bits and the album was a notorious flop for years to come. Shame, that.

When it was first released, it was one of the first albums to have different cover art across different formats. Peter Saville designed both, of course. Here's the CD cover; gotta love that electric blue:

And the vinyl cover:

I've never seen a cassette copy, but I would imagine it's just a scaled down version of the LP cover.

Well, I guess a good way to wrap this up is to point out that a kid who got into new wave in his early 20's, twenty years after the fact, still had a tough time getting hipped to anything by this band. Maybe it was because all I knew was that 'If You Leave' was their biggest hit and just (foolishly) assumed that that was the kind of music they played. Or maybe it was because of my opinion that, outside of Britain, they are completely and utterly underrated; perhaps to the point of being relegated to second or third tier status. But that's just not the case.

And all of that applies to this album especially.

And it definitely gets my seal of approval:

Check it out. Even if it's not in the dollar bin.


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