Technically a quartet, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) are, in essence, the songwriting/recording duo of Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys. A foundational British synthpop band, they had a successful and groundbreaking run from 1980-1989 before Humphreys departed for a lengthy spell. Since reforming in 2006, they have been something of a paradox. Futurists by nature, their music has nonetheless been anchored in the iconic sounds they created in the early 1980s. They use overwhelmingly analog synthesizer sounds, but their arrangements, mixing, and production have a polished, distinctly digital feel. Furthermore, their predilection for chunky four-on-the-floor rhythms sounds firmly rooted in the 1990s, during which OMD was a McCluskey solo vehicle.
Yet, despite these contradictions, their post-reunion material has somehow managed to sound unmistakably and consistently OMD. It couldn’t be anyone else, which is a reassuring comfort and a frustrating limitation. Maybe this is a reaction against their initial, 1980s-spanning trajectory, which saw the edges gradually smoothed from their music and their sound become commercialized until it was often at odds with their early material. It is as if, in their desire to avoid being accused of bandwagon jumping or trend surfing, McCluskey and Humphreys have made it a point to preserve OMD as a genre unto itself.
Bauhaus Staircase, McCluskey and Humphreys’ fourth post-reunion album and first in six years falls solidly within that genre. As far as 21st-century Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark goes, it contains some all-time highs and some all-time lows. Overall, that leaves it as the second-best of the bunch, behind the excellent English Electric (2013). They have honed their craft at creating towering, majestic synthscapes crisscrossed with bold analog melodies and shimmering sci-fi flourishes to the point where it seems like second nature. Indeed, OMD has never sounded better this side of their early 1980s heyday.
The laser-focused title track opens the record with an incessant electronic pulse, revving up like a finely-tuned synthpop machine. McCluskey and Humphreys can be counted on to tackle intriguing and heady bits of history and culture from time to time, topics one wouldn’t expect to find in pop songs. “Bauhaus Staircase” refers to a 1932 work by the German artist Oskar Schlemmer, who painted it as an act of defiance in the face of Nazi pressure to close the Bauhaus art school, hence McCluskey’s avowal to “kick down fascist art”. It’s to his credit that McCluskey can pull this off with charisma rather than pretentiousness or condescension.
The same can’t be said, though, of the pair of topical sound collages that nearly torpedo the entire album. “Anthropocene” and the ironically-titled “Evolution of Species” decry overpopulation and human-induced climate change with all the subtlety of a modular synthesizer falling on one’s head, relying on outdated vocoder effects and techno beats to do so. Memo to McCluskey: If you need to have a narrator explain your terms to get your message across, your message doesn’t have the impact you want it to.
Thankfully, Bauhaus Staircase is saved by the overall prevalence of smart, catchy melodies and impeccable electronic textures. “G.E.M.” and the album’s one clear nod to the outside pop world, the Goldfrapp-referencing “Slow Train”, are as enjoyably sassy and boisterous as anything McCluskey and Humphreys have done in decades. “Klepotcracy” is their latest attempt to recreate the whirling giddiness of signature hit “Enola Gay”, and it’s a pretty good one, though the reference to slain Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi seems gratuitous.
The undeniable pinnacle of Bauhaus Staircase, though, is “Veruschka”. A stunning ballad, it combines downcast film noir-inspired verses with a soaring, empowering chorus that is devastatingly straightforward about life’s inherent dualities: “If you’re too afraid to die / How will you ever learn to fly away?” Beautifully orchestrated, it is top-tier Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark for any era.
“Veruschka”, like the rest of the album, finds McCluskey in fine voice. Seemingly ageless, it remains untouched by time. The frontman is as emotive, enthusiastic, yet tasteful as ever, even breaking into falsetto on the hopeful closer “Healing”.
Bauhaus Staircase may be the final chance to hear that voice on a new Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark album. Now approaching their mid-60s, McCluskey and Humphreys have hinted this may be their last. If so, it is a fine, fitting bookend to one of the more successful second acts in modern pop history.