Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark‘s career had barely started thirty-five years ago, but they already had four albums under their belt. The most recent, Dazzle Ships, again owed much to their heroes Kraftwerk, but this time it was more overt than ever.
In a clear attempt to drop the shackles of commercialism, it opens with Radio Prague, an interval signal lifted directly from the radio station of the same name. I’d be interested to know how they felt about it. We then get the first single from the album, Genetic Engineering, the second and most prominent of the twelve tracks, very clearly mimicking the structure of the Radio-Aktivität album. That’s not the limit of the homage – Genetic Engineering is good, but does sound at times a little like a bad Kraftwerk rip-off. But let’s keep this civil – it’s a competent single, even if not perhaps the most commercial – it was even missed off the 1998 singles collection.
OMD were trying to be experimental, although at the same time they do owe a lot to their heroes Kraftwerk on this album. ABC Auto-Industry is built around samples and found sounds, and is a clear attempt to do something very different, but frankly it’s awful at best.
Telegraph was the second single, not quite making the top forty in April 1983. It’s a good song, probably as commercial as anything on here, but it certainly doesn’t sound as advanced as anything else the group had released recently – it might have even fitted well on the debut album.
After some of the earlier shorter tracks, This is Helena is a vast improvement, and for the first time does seem to do justice to the stark communist radio theme of this album. International is pretty pleasant too, with its throbbing bass sounds, although the vocal performance is off-putting to say the least.
Half way through the album, and this might actually be one of OMD‘s most coherent releases to date – the debut is fun but naïve, the second has Enola Gay on it and little else, and the third is mainly about Joan of Arc, for reasons that are unlikely to ever become clear.
Side two opens with the cryptic Dazzle Ships (Parts II, III and VII), which would have been a good b-side on a single and just about works here. Then The Romance of the Telescope is a nice piece that drones along pleasantly for a bit. This is definitely the low-point of the album – there’s nothing particularly wrong with Silent Running either, but it doesn’t exactly stand out from the crowd.
Radio Waves features some creative use of random synth signals and off-beat drumming, but generally seems to work, particularly when the main song starts up about a minute in. Time Zones is nice, although it’s basically a direct imitation of Kraftwerk‘s Nachrichten. And then we’re on to Of All the Things We’ve Made already, the final track. Previously released in different form a year or so earlier, on the b-side to Maid of Orleans (that one was about Joan of Arc, in case you were wondering), it might even be the best track on here. Admittedly, the drums sound a bit moronic, and the flanged guitar that strums the same key through pretty much the entire track, but it’s got a compelling atmosphere which actually fits here rather well.
So as with all OMD albums, Dazzle Ships has its ups and downs, and it was definitely widely hated at the time, but it’s actually a pretty good album, particularly if you’re as much of a fan of Radio-Aktivität as they are. What it doesn’t have is anything as good as Enola Gay, but you would need to wait another couple of albums for them to regain that form.
The 2008 remaster of Dazzle Ships is probably the essential version if you want to try for yourself.