Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark/John Foxx and The Maths

Roundhouse, London - 3 May 2013

"OMD may be schizophrenic but they are still a terrific live act"

[OMD ticket]Having found their 2007 comeback performance of Architecture and Morality one of the finest gigs I have ever attended, but considered OMD's 2010 return album History of Modern as nothing more than OK I was in two minds as to whether to bother attending this gig or not. Few bands span a creative range like OMD. At their best they are one of the finest electronic acts the world (let along the UK) has ever heard. At their worst they are cringe-worthy perpetrators of cynically syrupy cheese pop. Any gig by the band these days is likely to draw on both these extremes so the deciding factor to attend this evening was resting entirely upon what their new album “English Electric” delivered. That was until John Foxx was announced as the support act for the tour. Happy to see the silver foxx any day of the week, any week of the year, every year, this became the gig equivalent of the supermarket 'two for the price of one' offer and like many such offers it was too hard to resist. It was only when listening to English Electric online in the weeks running up to tonight that I actually got excited about the prospect of seeing OMD again. 

For tonight (this tour perhaps?) John Foxx and The Maths were down to a three-piece - Foxx, Benge and Hannah Peel – with Serafina Steer absent. This was a shame as the additional presence and instrumentation the two women have brought to the live shows in the past has been a key asset. At around thirty-five minutes the set was shorter than many would have liked but some of the John Foxx solo classic were worked in for good measure. Thus we got UnderpassBurning Car and He's A Liquid alongside a good cross-section of ...and The Maths. It's always interesting to see how one's perception of certain songs changes over time and exposure. When I first heard The Running Man at Xoyo in 2011 I was non-plussed. Tonight I got it. It helped that Foxx was on good form both in terms of vocals and performance, repeatedly thumping his own chest when singing the titular chorus. The shorter than headline setlist meant the focus was on higher BPMs (and tracks from the new album Evidence) meaning there was no Interplay tonight – which would have been nice. Still, it was yet another evening of glorious electronic sounds (and a little touch of pop psychedelia here and there) delivered with ruthless efficiency by one of the masters. Whatever the incarnation, I simply cannot tire of watching John Foxx live. 

Setlist: Evidence, He's A Liquid, Evergreen, No-One Driving, Summerland, The Running Man, Burning Car, Catwalk, Underpass

OMD on the other hand, as already previewed, I can take or leave dependent entirely upon the content of their set. Liking a lot of the new album, especially the nods to the infamous Dazzle Ships from 1983, I was tempted out this time around. Had I seen the full setlist in advance (and had John Foxx not been supporting) I may not have bothered, as the second half of the evening was broad enough to take in the likes of Locomotion, If You Leave and Sailing On The Seven Seas - none of which I've much time for. Having said that, two things always work in OMD's favour live: 

1.) They are a terrific live act
2.) Their live sound (and mix) has real impact 

This meant that not only was the rendition of Talking Loud and Clear, which McCluskey actually sat down to perform, the best I've ever heard (slightly tweaked and a touch beefier) but the remainder of the set which focused on the current album (six tracks in total) and two choice cuts from History of Modern were afforded their usual quality treatment. This was no better exemplified that after the use of Please Remain Seated as their intro music, the four classic line-up members each took up their positions and thumped out the full seven-plus minute version of the Kraftwerkian Metroland. Malcolm Holmes' drums were thunderous. I was instantly taken back to their astonishing 2007 performance of Architecture and Morality. As anyone who was fortunate to have seen that tour will tell you, the subsequent live DVD, though documenting the landmark, fails entirely to capture the impacting nature of their performance with the percussion suffering the most. This live impact is part of what I pay for when I go to see OMD. 

All the new material came across really well, and some songs I'd considered so far as being 'middling', like Dresden, I finally got thanks to the live context. We got the superbly geeky Atomic Ranch alongside stuff I can frankly well do without. There has always been two potentially conflicting sides to OMD's output. On one side you have their self-confessed unconventional, even experimental pure electronic soundscapes that also encompass pop music. Then there are the overtly pop songs who use of electronic instrumentation is inconsequential to the composition itself. McCluskey in particular has always been a writer of top pop tunes and needs make no apology for that (even if he did unleash Atomic Kitten on the world). I've just always wanted him to keep that stuff for another project and not sully the pure electronic essence of OMD with that output. Curiously, nowhere was this sometimes schizophrenic nature of the band more evident that tonight. 

When introducing the songs you could hear McCluskey trying to balance out the two camps of fans. He only half-jokingly referred to them as being geeks – as if the pop-only fans needed him to apologise for the more experimental work. When the opening noises at the start of Our System came in McCluskey felt compelled to explain: “The spaceship Voyager One is leaving our solar system. This is the sound it made going past Jupiter's magnetosphere. This is what we write songs about!” And later when the focus shifted from their more conceptual compositions, McCluskey again faintly joked “That's the end of the intellectual part. Mindless dancing begins again. Yeah, you look like that sort of crowd”. It was as if he was having to apologise for writing intellectual music! I just wish that he'd have the guts to go with his convictions and keep OMD as a conceptual electronic act, casting off the overt pop under his own name. 8/10

Setlist: Please Remain Seated, Metroland, Messages, Tesla Girls, Dresden, History Of Modern (Part 1), (Forever) Live And Die, If You Leave, Night Café, Souvenir, Joan Of Arc, Maid Of Orleans, Our System, Talking Loud And Clear, Atomic Ranch, Kissing The Machine, So In Love, Sister Marie Says, Locomotion, Sailing On The Seven Seas, Enola Gay - Encore: Walking On The Milky Way, Electricity

Rob Dyer