British synth pop pioneers Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are sounding as good as ever. On their latest album, The Punishment of Luxury, the signature OMD sound is fully intact, without sounding dated. Originating in Liverpool in the late 70s, founders Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphries were heavily influenced by Kraftwerk, marrying those electronic sensibilities with the melancholy of Joy Division, smoothing out the melodies, and adding more soulful vocals. Their early output was dark and experimental, gradually giving way to a more commercial, radio-friendly sound by the early 80s.
Their new record straddles both approaches, delivering sociopolitical commentary within a soundtrack that devotes attention to each, managing to reach back to their roots yet fit in quite comfortably with the more contemporary "retro" sound many newer bands have been mining. Several tracks sound closely aligned with mid-period Kraftwerk, a constant touchstone, but rarely is this transparently referenced.
One of the signatures that consistently made OMD's sound so distinctive was the melancholic tension of danceable, synth-laden atmospherics with plaintive, soulful vocals, lending a human touch to the largely electronic feel of the music. This has resonated with a wide range of fans over the decades, and OMD have been cited as a major influence by a range of artists from Depeche Mode to No Doubt, St Etienne, Death Cab for Cutie and The xx, among others.
Recommended tracks on The Punishment of Luxury include the title track and “Isotype,” the most overt nod to Kraftwerk that still somehow sounds fully like OMD. The more experimental tracks show them having fun with ideas and seemingly not as concerned with maintaining a smooth commercial sheen throughout. Long-term fans, in addition to synth-pop, EDM, and classic 80s enthusiasts should be pleasantly surprised.