The British synthpop group Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark — OMD, for short — has been conducting up-close examinations of the future for four decades, using synthesizers, high art, and dry wit to look at the relationship between man and machine. This raises one question right away: How does an act with such a towering catalog winnow down its career for the purposes of a live show?
“When your band’s 40 years old and you’ve made 13 albums,” says Andy McCluskey via phone from Merseyside, England, “it’s a bit of a balancing act to work out what to play — you can’t play all 200 things you’ve ever written. We seem to now be perceived as a band who has a history, but who also has a contemporary relevance, which is great — we don’t make albums just so that we’ve got a new logo for the tour T-shirt. We make albums because we actually have something we want to say and if we don’t, we shut up.”
Last year McCluskey and bandmate Paul Humphreys released the 13th OMD album (and third since they reformed in 2006), “The Punishment of Luxury.” It’s a gorgeously appointed, world-weary look at the future present and its ills; the title is a play on the 1891 Giovanni Segantini painting “The Punishment of Lust,” swapping in a nod to the 21st-century devils of “clever marketing people who have tapped into all the research about human frailties and insecurities and mentalities and our unconscious, so that now we believe that our car might be saying something to our neighbors that we don’t want them to think because it’s old,” says McCluskey.
“Luxury” has lush synths and thudding beats, but it also contains stinging rebukes at modernity and songs that are notable for the amount of space they contain. “Isotype” blooms and swells as its lyrics dissect the narrowing of language in the emoji age (“All the words you used to write/ Treasured spirits taking flight/ Sovereign and now shining bright/ All replaced by Isotypes,” McCluskey sings over percolating synths); “Precision & Decay” uses stark synth whooshes, computer-generated voices, and vintage audio clips to portray how, as McCluskey puts it, “last year’s future is this year’s decay.”
While working on “Luxury,” OMD became particularly fascinated by a subset of electronic music known as glitch. McCluskey describes it as such: “Making music out of sounds that would normally be rejected, the distortions, the crackles, pops, and bangs. It’s one of the few kind of ‘-ism’ styles that’s actually tried to go forward in the last few years. It’s hard to achieve — it’s like saying, ‘You know, I’m going to try to paint a picture here that’s art using dog feces and sand and some broken cutlery. All the things you’re not supposed to use, we’re going to use and, you know what? You’re going to want to listen to it, whatever it is.’ ”
The “Luxury” track “As We Open, So We Close” nods to this style of music, McCluskey’s honeyed vocal hovering over stuttering electronics that recall grinding gears. “A lot of people, when it starts, they kind of go, ‘Huh? I can hear Andy singing, but what the hell is going on behind him?’ ” McCluskey says with a laugh.
The group’s exploration of recorded space was also fueled by looking back. “We played a concert in the Royal Albert Hall in London where we specifically just played two whole albums,” McCluskey recalls. “It was an odd gig because we played our biggest-selling album [1981’s “Architecture & Morality”], which had three top-five [in the UK] singles on it, and we played the album that, at the time it was released in 1983, almost killed our career stone dead.”
That album was “Dazzle Ships,” a bleary-eyed look at the future that was so ahead of its time, it took decades for it to become realized as a landmark achievement in synthpop. Its lead single, “Genetic Engineering,” was a withering take on modernism in the guise of a clamorous anthem, with the clipped voice of the educational aid Speak & Spell playing off insistent teletypes and chopped-up vocal samples; the closing track, “Of All the Things We’ve Made,” is sparse yet urgent, mechanical yet evocative.
“We had to go back to the multi-track tapes to actually get hold of the things that we needed, because many of its songs are sound-specific,” says McCluskey. “In looking at the tracks we went, ‘There’s nothing on here. How did we manage to write these songs where it’s so minimal?’ It’s kind of like, less is more. We consciously tried to minimize what we were doing.”
While OMD is best known in the States for the “Pretty In Pink”-enshrined New Romantic plea “If You Leave,” the future visions outlined in the bulk of the band’s catalog still resonate in the present. “The thing that strikes me now when I return to OMD is how remarkably human they sound,” says Michael Grace Jr., leader of the New York new wave band My Favorite. “They are a soul band for an automated age. OMD proposed an honest rendering of the tension, fascination, and occasional terror they felt about how ghosts and machines would get along. It was more Philip K. Dick than Steve Jobs.”
The future that OMD envisioned on its earliest records has become the present, and the band is still a needling, questioning presence. “We grew up in the postwar utopian decades, where we thought that science and technology was going to make a wonderful world,” McCluskey says. “Then we started writing songs in the dystopian decayed ’70s of Britain, with strikes and decay and horribleness. We’ve been playing these songs for so long, we’re just accustomed to what they sound like now. “
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
At House of Blues, March 9 at 7 p.m. Tickets $25 and up, 888-693-2583, www.houseofblues.com/boston
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