Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (OMD)

Royal Albert Hall, London - 15 March 2022

"You've had the crackers. Now here's the cheese!"

For me, attending an OMD gig is roughly equal amounts of pleasure and cringing embarrassment.

At their finest OMD are a brilliant live act. In part because they have some of the finest back catalogue of electronic music ever to come out of the UK. In part because they (usually) manage to create compelling live renditions of their recorded output. Often faithful to the original sounds, by way of sampling from the original recordings, or adding a contemporary spin on material that actually adds a worthwhile dimension, rather than ruin the essence of the original recordings.

If OMD are simply touring with a general selection of their extensive repertoire then I don’t bother going to see them these days. Promoting a good new album, or doing something a little different and more interesting (which, thankfully, they do on a pretty regular basis), then they’ll have my attention.

And so it was with this second of two nights at the impressive and steeped in history venue of the Royal Albert Hall in London. Labelled "Atmospheric Set & Greatest Hits", this second date was added due to demand. The only two nights with this repertoire. So a rare opportunity indeed.

The pre-show marketing put it thus: "Set to be a totally unique night for all OMD fans, the evening will see them perform two stunning sets. Opening with the more atmospheric soundscapes of Stanlow, Statues, and Ghost Star and a handful of rarities that commemorate their beginning 40 years ago. Also many rarely played tracks taken from their debut album Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark."

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The two gigs should have taken place in September 2020 (their actual 40th anniversary) but were postponed due to the Covid19 pandemic.

The (entirely on backing track) Atomic Ranch from their in-parts superb 2013 album English Electric, opened proceedings. Thunderously playing out to its accompanying promo video, spread across three screens at the back of the stage. At less than two-minutes it was used as the intro before the band walked on to take up their four positions.

The 'atmospheric' half of the evening genuinely got underway with that much-loved sonic poem to Stanlow - an oil refinery where frontman Andy McCluskey's father and sister once worked. Lyrically and musically as moving as it ever was, and McCluskey’s vocal delivery on it was simply flawless. The impacting thud of that huge bass drum instantly took me back to 2007 and seeing OMD perform on their four-date comeback tour of their seminal Architecture and Morality album.

"Welcome to the roller coaster. We’re playing some weird shit tonight." said McCluskey before launching into Pretending To See The Future, the closing track to their 1980 debut album Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. This was apparently the first time they’d played this live since 1984. A rare treat indeed.

Up next one of my favourite OMD singles Messages. And already the predominantly middle-aged audience were up, the celebratory party rapidly in full swing. Red Frame/White Light followed by the haunting Julia’s Song. So far, the ‘atmospheric’ half of the evening was living up to one's hopes.

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Slightly oddly, we then got Isotype from their most recent album The Punishment Of Luxury (2017). Not that I dislike it, not at all (it was impressive) but it's more an example of their contemporary electronic pop with a memorable hook, that what I'd call atmospheric.

However, the diversion was only temporary, and a breathtaking trilogy comprising Time Zones, Statues and Almost gave us ten of the finest minutes of the entire event. For these all four members came to the front of the stage, equally spaced apart, Kraftwerk style. Paul Humphries and Martin Cooper at either end with a small keyboard. In the middle, McCluskey on vocals and bass, and drummer Stuart Kershaw with a six pad drum set. All four dressed top to bottom in black. Each lit by a single white spot light. Hearing and seeing them perform Almost (the b-side to their seminal Electricity single) is precisely why I will continue to see OMD live.

We took another brief detour into (not very 'atmospheric') electronic pop with The Punishment Of Luxury, but rounded out the first hour set with Bunker Soldiers (first time live since 2010) and Electricity, which McCluskey’s estimates they’ve played more than 2,000 times live. A fine end to another exceptionally fine 50 minutes of OMD live.

Missed opportunity of the evening was surely when they came to the lyrics in Bunker Soldiers: "Waves of people in strange directions. It's no use talking, there's no decisions. They gave up houses to be refugees." and the hall wasn’t bathed in blue and yellow in tribute to those who were suffering and dying in Putin’s war currently raging in Ukraine.

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A half hour break enabled the oldies to take a comfort break, stretch their legs, nip outside for a smoke and top up on drinks. My friend and I remained seated in our balcony seats that were slap bang in the centre of the hall looking directly at the stage. It was far off but that did not matter. The view from here was perfect. Not least because being so far back and so high up meant we got the full intended effect of the spectacular light show, which extended right up into the arches on the uppermost gallery level.

The second half (billed as the 'greatest hits') was inevitably more workmanlike for me. When returning to the stage, I could barely believe it when McCluskey openly admitted "You’ve had the crackers, now here’s the cheese!" As disappointingly true as that was, you’ve got to give credit to the man who wrote most of the stuff that followed for admitting the truth. Doesn’t make sitting through some of it any more enjoyable though.

Still, it all began just dandy. With the video for Please Remain Seated playing depicting people sitting in their seats at a Chinese airport while the now seemingly prophetic lyrics boomed out: "May I have your attention, please? The future that you anticipated has been cancelled. Please remain seated and wait for further instructions."

The excellent Ghost Star, though dating from 2017’s The Punishment of Luxury album, is as fine an 'atmospheric' song as they’ve ever written. Souvenir, Joan of Arc, Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans), and Enola Gay are all legitimate hits and absolutely some of OMD’s greatest.

I do miss (orignal drummer) Malcolm Holmes' drumming. He was at once thumping and sprightly. Kershaw by comparison feels sluggish and thudding at times. Although on (Forever) Live and Die I did wonder if the slightly slower tempo was to enable Paul Humphries to hit all the vocal notes.

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Joking how proud he was to have managed to play the three notes on the song, Andy McCluskey said afterwards: "That's three more than Andy Fletcher has played in the last 40 years… Shit, did that come out of my mouth?" But that’s just classic McCluskey live banter. A few songs later and he turned his uncontrollable wit on himself: "I'm still trying to shift the Christmas pounds before Easter starts.", before touching hands to the mature women dancing in the aisles at the front.

I could happily die without ever hearing much of the remainder again, with two notable exceptions. The magnificent Our System, a nod to NASA’s Voyager probe from 2013’s English Electric, and its vintage precursor The Romance of The Telescope, the sublime b-side to the Joan of Arc single in 1981, introduced by McCluskey as "Our favourite going home song".

I’m clearly in the minority in my opinions of OMD, since 99% of the audience here were jumping up and down, waving their arms and generally going bonkers throughout it all. And yet, how utterly sublime Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark can be if they so choose. And how utterly cringe-worthy if the mood so takes them. But wherever you sit on the OMD affection spectrum, there’s no denying the unfettered joy that is unleashed when they perform live, and that they can justifiably claim to have given us some of the finest electronic pop music ever created. 10/10 in parts. 5/10 in parts. 8/10 overall

Setlist: (Atmospheric) Atomic Ranch, Stanlow, Pretending to See the Future, (first time since 1984), Messages, Red Frame/White Light, Julia's Song, Isotype, Time Zones, Statues, Almost, The Punishment of Luxury, Bunker Soldiers (first time live since 2010), Electricity

(Greatest Hits) Please Remain Seated, Ghost Star, History of Modern (Part 1), (Forever) Live and Die, If You Leave, Souvenir, Joan of Arc, Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans), Our System (first time live since 2013), So in Love, Sailing on the Seven Seas, Enola Gay

(Encore) Walking on the Milky Way, The Romance of the Telescope

Review + Photos: Rob Dyer