ENGLISH rock bands have traditionally been more adventurous than their American counterparts. The powerful national music press (New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Sounds and several others) seems not only amenable, but supportive of music that falls outside obvious and commercial mainstreams. As a result, bands don't feel that they're working inside a creative cocoon; the plethora of tiny independent labels in England get as good a shot at air play and sales as monolithic behemoths like CBS and WEA. It's doubtful that any major American label would have supported the boom in synthesizer-based rock but since that seems to be a lasting force in England, the best of that style of music is now becoming available here.
Take Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark, who perform at the Bayou tomorrow night. Their third album, "Architecture and Morality" (released here on Epic ARE37721) could easily fall into the electro-tedious syntho-pop doldrums of such bands as Spandau Ballet and Ultravox. However, there is a seriousness of purpose at work here: Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey are explorers standing at the gates of a new Industrial Age where computer chips and microdots have replaced ponderous machinery. Once again, it's the human element that stands imperiled; OMD explores the impact of an impending electronic future without preaching, or even hinting at a social conscience. Creating from the heart of the technological beast, they are not robots, but ascetic poets recording the fears and anxieties of a particular age. Although they are austere, OMD rejects the notion of synth-based music as being entirely cold and dispassionate.
The album's title is a metaphorically accurate description of the band. The music, relying almost exclusively on synthesizers, is rhythmically rigid, an electronic framework most evident on a title cut that seems to be built right under one's ears. What could be sober or ponderous is rescued by OMD's bright mix of strong, sometimes dancy melodies and intelligent, spiritually inclined lyrics. There's also a startling variety of moods--the haunted tension and scathing dischords of "The New Stone Age," the melancholy gentility of "She's Leaving," the heroic exploration of Catholic discipline in "Joan of Arc."
The best song is the eight-minute long "Sealand," a symphonic wash of meditative sound that fluctuates, almost imperceptibly, between hope and despair. OMD creates oddly attractive impressionist soundscapes that reflect their obsessions; the wonder is that they've managed to come up with a string of British hits. Over there, audiences seem able to embrace serious intent in popular music.
Several other synth-dominated bands have also released albums of more than passing interest. Depeche Mode come across as French dandies before the Revolution. "Speak and Spell" (Sire SRK3642) reflects a cool intelligence shielded by snappy pop melodies, a seemingly disposable style branded "flip-pop" or "bubble-fun." The techno-beat is constant, the propulsive rhythms imminently danceable, the lyrics a bit banal, but Depeche Mode has managed to marshall these disparate elements into an addictive whole. A number of songs, including "New Life" and "Just Can't Get Enough," have been disco hits as imports.
The Human League and Soft Cell explore modern romance from distinctly opposite viewpoints. Like a daytime soap-opera, the Human League's "Dare" (A&MSP-6-4892) treads the thin line between passion and obsession. Like OMD, there is an anguish of morality, this time encased in a very traditional frame of fidelity that's systematically offended. One senses a tremendous hurt in the lyrics of Phil Oakey and Philip Adrien Wright: "there's no future without tears;" " . . . in darkness/where my dreams are all too clear;" "don't turn off the light or I'll go over the edge." The ironic consequences of great beauty--jealousy, despair, confused emotions--are consistent undercurrents in the music.
Things come to a head on "Don't You Want Me," a perverse variation on ABBA in which Oakey berates a longtime girlfriend for dropping him. She shoots back with a thoroughly modern explanation. "I always knew I'd find a better place/either with you or without you/the five good years we've had have been such good times/I still love you/but now I think it time I live my life on my own." While the politics of love and fashion are set to a bouncy electronic beat, the Human League convinces with some spectacular hooks and ingratiating choruses. The upbeat songs--"The Things That Dreams Are Made Of," "Love Action," "Do or Die"--are great dance floor cuts, as well.
If the Human League seem descended from Brideshead, Soft Cell traces its inspiration to pre-War Berlin. In fact, vocalist and songwriter Marc Almond comes across as an electric Joel Grey-type, which makes "Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret" (Sire SRK3647) not only an ironic title, but an accurate one. The decadent theatricality of the music is evident in the titles of the songs--"Frustration," "Tainted Love," "Seedy Films," "Sex Dwarf," "Secret Life." Almond is absorbed by the ordinariness of life, excited (or at least entranced) by its losers--the dwarf "luring disco dollies to a life of vice," the "Bedsitter . . . hiding from the sun/waiting for a visitor though no one knows I'm here for sure."
"Youth" is paranoid about getting old, "My Secret Life" anxiously anticipates betrayal, the despondent protagonist of "Entertain Me" wonders "why did we ever start and do you think we'll be paid." "Cabaret" is deliberately sensational, and compelling because of the wealth of detail and Almond's expressive vocals. David Ball (who plays all the instruments) and producer Mike Thorne underpin everything with brilliant touches--jarring synthesizer chords here, a sleazy clarinet or saxophone there, varied and surprisingly unobtrusive syn-drums everywhere. "Cabaret" is an album that gets better with each listening; like all of the records reviewed, it demands involvement not just of the ears, but of the mind as well.