Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Studies in the Physicality of Recorded Sound

1 – Rick Wakeman’s “Statue of Justice”

Rick Wakeman’s “Statue of Justice” operates as a series of continually modulating physical presences and changes, like sonic pressure waves, in the listening space. It is constructed so that our listening pleasure derives from the various physical qualities and contrasts of the sounds in the space. It feels good because of the way it twists the sounds within the space.

The track starts with a clean, glistening piano sound, a fully pleasurable catchy sound. The piano at first sounds fully normalised in the space – placed left and fairly close to front as the solo instrument, given the spotlight so to speak. It has a sharp glistening resonance that conveys some size to the space, but not so as to distance it from our experience – it makes the space feel like a mid-size concert hall, where we might expect to attend the performance of such playing. We are placed in a specifically performative relationship to it – high notes are quite left in the speaker, lower notes right but not all the way, so that in the imaginary space, the pianist is on the left hand side of the stage facing us, and we are watching him with the piano in between. The sound of the piano, its space, and our relationship to it, are also all privileged: the first two have a clean, liquid beauty to them, so that they are made to sound of a higher quality than sounds of our normal experience, and as a result we feel that we are in the presence of something special. This is congruent with the presentation of the space as being akin to a classical recital.

However, the piano seems to “trip” in the space. It is not that the piano moves, for its position within the space does not change, nor does the quality of its sound. The “trip” is a function of a couple of manoeuvres: firstly, when the first lower notes are knocked into the space, the piano seems to momentarily pull back or lose “balance” in the space, to soften for a moment. By losing balance, I mean that one half of the piano (the higher notes) is given a kind of credence and privilege in the space, whereas the other half seems to be pulled back from this, not being accorded the same privilege. This is also of course partly a function of the notes played and the way they are played, but it instantly and finely complicates the space, reducing its consistency. Secondly, the piano gradually becomes louder in the space, but in a couple of steps, rather than incrementally, so that with each swing of higher notes, the piano becomes louder. Meanwhile, the lower notes seem to remain softer both musically and sonically, so that there is a swing in the sound, rhythmically within the run of higher notes, between the louder higher notes and softer lower notes, and between the separate runs of higher notes.

The effect is not to disfigure the space or to intellectually dismantle the performative construct; it is to highlight its texture and complexity, to ready us for the “pressure waves”, so to speak, of the changes which can be effected in it. Another element contributing to this effect is the sound of the piano itself – though beautiful in its sheen, there is a faint brittleness to it, a quality of tremor in it, and a hardness to its attack (which may also be the way it is played or has been prepared, or the kind of piano that it is – as the piano progresses, the sound of the notes loses this hardness), that highlights its physicality and plasticity. We are given the lightest touch of the producer’s hand here. It is a wonderful gesture of simultaneous joy in the beauty of the sound, and in the variety and manipulability of that sound, and in the ability of the producer to effect that variation.

Instruments continue to swing into the space, enhancing the playfulness of the sound, as organ wells up behind the piano and the cymbals get brightly tapped in the right speaker, and with the lower notes of the piano finally being given a full workout in the space at 0:13. There is a controlled chaos to the sound, as if all elements of the ensemble and of the space are being mustered from disparate locations. But there is also a sense that the disparate elements are being run up against each other: the spread sibilant sound of the cymbals seems to brush against the piano, the organ seems to squeak out between the two different hands of the piano at 0:08, and even the lower notes of the piano seem to roll up and over the higher notes. This plastic feel to the manifestation of the sound in the space is enhanced by the fact that the arrival of the lower notes seem to ground the space, but in a somewhat disconcerting way: they seem to cement the space as a neutral classical one, somewhat removed from us, refined and aloof, whereas otherwise the space has seemed bright, sparkling and alive. There is a key contrast here that supports this effect of neutrality to the sound: the other instruments and the higher piano notes so far have had an almost scratchy feel on the ear, they seem to almost scrape on our hearing, giving a physical edge to their sound, whereas the lower piano notes move away from this, into a more traditional imaginary space, and off our ear. This gives the effect of rocking the space backwards, not just (metaphorically) spatially, but in an imaginatively projected sense, in that the space as an imaginative construct is moving away from us, thereby increasing the depth and size of the space in metaphorically physical terms, as well as in a referential sense – that is, the sound exists in more than just a metaphorically physical dimension, but in a dimension whose continuum goes from the physical here and now to a receded imaginary presence to which it refers.

This abstract characteristic of the space is not a main feature of this song, and it is not a feature I want to focus on here; but it is important to note that it is one more element in the plasticity of the song’s sound, as it is used gesturally in the song as a way of presenting the malleability of the sound, its way of bending in and out of our hearing, at one moment forward and present on us, and at another curving away and relieving the ear. This is how it works here, as the producer lifts the sound off the ear, thereby leaving the sense of the impact of the other and preceding sounds, and preparing it for the next onslaught of sounds. It is not that the lower notes afford a let-up to the on-the-ear presence of the other sounds, for they continue. However, the lower notes seem to draw the other sounds somewhat back with them, so that their tinkle seems to slide over the space, rather than snap out of it onto our ear. This is particularly evident with the mellotron, which arrives about 0:17: though it adds to the higher-toned sounds of the space, it is entirely spread, lacking any quality of plosion, and so does not leap out of the sound, and helps to cushion the impact of the other higher toned sounds. The sound does not deaden, but instead changes its effect: the space now has a smoother quality, and the higher pitched more physical sounds seem to tinkle out from this.

However, there is also a period of disfigurement here, starting about 0:26, as other sounds seem to drop away leaving the mellotron more clear, though it does not take up a particularly strong presence in the mix. There is a resultant dislocation, as it is not entirely clear where we have moved to spatially. The mellotron has a characteristically warm, obviously mellow sound, spread in the space, a more inherently emotional imaginary sound, which doesn’t quite sit with the firmly located piano. With the arrival of the mellotron, sounds seem to start pulling away from each other, leaving an emptiness in the middle of the space. This position is more or less taken up by the piano, but its recession into a more neutral location, and the way the lower notes roll it down and away from the listener, mean that it does not fill this part of the space. We are left with a consequent expectation that this part of the space should be filled, but this does not happen immediately. The organ and the cymbals continue to tinkle left and right (respectively), and then the harpsichord synth enters back, central and high, marking a kind of rearward boundary to the space, but leaving nothing in front of it. There is a kind of physicality-by-absence to the space as a result, because it engenders almost a bodily yearning for something to respond to.

However, the harpsichord synth does fold the space forward in one way: like the cymbals and the organ, it has a high physical scratchiness to it, which kind of teases the space onto our ears. It also has a physicality and a sharpness which sits over the top of the piano, and contrasts with it, and has a “travel” to it, in that it rolls above the space, over a broad range from right to left: it is not that the synth just has a breadth, but that it moves between the speakers. This breadth is picked up in the ensuing organ which replaces the synth, and there is a compressed production move, as the organ seems to travel like the synth across the speakers, but then solidifies, moves into the left speaker and sits there, with another high-pitched glockenspiel-like synth (and perhaps another piano) taking up position in the right speaker. All the while, the piano continues to play central, but seems to fade back in the space, if not in a spatial sense, in a musical sense and in loudness. The effect is to give the space a kind of pulsating presence, but without any defined rhythmic core to it: it is given a mass without a solid centre, fallen away from us as listeners, but with sounds continuing to frame the space within the construct of the production, within the speakers so to speak.

Then about 1:26 there is a subtle change in the piano: it returns to the high sharp notes of the introduction, but these are slightly pushed back and up in the space. The sharpness effects a further folding forward of the space towards the listener, but in not too immediate a fashion, for the piano retains the quality of sitting within a classical performance setting. However, it is a means of bridging the gap that has previously existed, between the recessed classical setting, and the tinkling of the other instruments, and of returning an element into the centre of the space. Note, however, that this return occurs with a consequent removal of other instruments in the mix: the space becomes for all intents and purposes entirely performative, the sharpness of the piano is modulated within an overall performative context, and it is as if, despite all the foregoing, we are just listening to a piano recital. The effect again is to create a physicality by absence, and also to foreground the sense of the space as being malleable and modular. This is then emphasised first by the sudden return of the harpsichord synth and the sustained cymbal wash in the right speaker, kind of lifting the corners of the space forward; and then by the renewed recession of the space with the reverb on the piano and the return of the mellotron and organ, which push the space completely back, behind and around the piano. The harpsichord synth is also made to tremble in the space at about 2:04, lifting the corners of the space back and up, and somewhat into our heads, assisted by the fact that its placement in the space and the mix gives it somewhat of a felt rather than a distinctly heard presence (though this is perceptual rather than acoustic). In wrapping round the piano, however, the sharpness of the organ also continues the physicality of the harpsichord synth and the cymbal wash, by bringing the edges of the space forward and just lightly onto the ear. The effect is that the space is sitting in the head, with the rearward position of the mellotron and the harpsichord synth and the position and space of the piano, but coming forward onto our ears with the right and left position of the organ and the tinkle of the harpsichord. That is, within itself (for the movement is only metaphoric), the space is moving from an internal, imaginary position (“recital hall” of the piano) into a pseudo body space or an alternative/altered state (the mellotron) and then forward slightly into a body space (on the ear, with the right and left organ).

There is then a resolution of all these spaces, initiated by a quick sharp run up the piano at 2:10, and then a bathetic gesture with the downward note of the farting synth at 2:13. The piano pulls the performance space back central and on the ear; the farting synth gives lower depth to the sound (without necessarily grounding it), reinforces the electronic nature of the space, and helps fill it out (the synth actually sits slightly above the listener, and back, despite the downward notes, which do not move in the space: the synth sits in position as it makes this sound). The farting synth has an odd effect, because it also seems to drop the space, as if a catch has been dropped, the piano representing the uplifted hands; but the relationship is a dynamic swinging one, like the opening of the song: the piano rises in fits up the scale, the synth drops the scale, and the piano picks it up again. In effect, the space gets shaped and filled with air: it moves forward towards us, giving it an imaginary cohering presence, it increases in vertical size, and the instruments start to take shape within it, given qualities that seem to interact with each other rather than against or tangential to each other. The interaction is effected by this sense of air around the instruments: it seems that the instruments are now playing within the same air, as the breeziness of the farting synth seems to be in the same space as the reverb on the piano.

Of course, all these 2+ minutes wrap up into a resolution of the space into a unified, present, forward entity, performative in a rock concert sense, at 2:15, with the simultaneous drum beat and the sustained pulse of the wasp synth. This is purely a rock moment, an assertion of the sounds in the space, pushing them into our bodies, the synth filling our heads up to the top of the inside of the cranium, and the drums grounding us through our feet. The entire space is virtually filled: there is a non-defined bassish kind of sound (this could be synth or bass guitar – certainly Chris Squire is credited with bass, but the sound is not distinct enough to determine its precise origin) at mid level central in the space, and there are various mid to high range synths (including the wasp synth) pushing the space sideways. As the wasp synth rises higher (and higher inside our heads, pushing its physicality onto us), the organ sustains its notes rear and high, leading to a kind of reflection in the rear of our skulls; and then the cymbals push this height to left and right corner. The sound here is pushing the extremities, and there is a note of daring here, of attempting to see both how far the sound can go in the space, and how physical and pleasantly excruciating the effect of the sound on us can be. The movement into this new space, however, is not just one of logical sequence: there is a sense here that the new space is folding the earlier one into itself, climbing on the back of it, and striking somewhere anew with a spring of realisation or epiphany. There is a twin kind of relief and renewal in this movement, a kind of sonic reprieve.

It is important to note that, firstly, the movement is double, both taking on an abstract dimension within the putative space (vis a vis the projected performative space), and a physical dimension in our bodies. Secondly, the movement is effected within a projected rock performative context: by impressing the performativeness of the projection onto the listener, its twin abstract and physical effects are also impressed on us. There is a point of junction in these projections: the wasp synth takes on a classic rock cliché by acting like a trumpet calling across the space, announcing its and the band’s arrival, filled with pathos. So this synth is increasing in height in a projected sense (within the projected performative space), in an emotional sense, and in a physical sense (within our bodies). Finally, sealing this, the drums take up their normal position in the space: cymbals right and left (not just right as before), bass drum centre, and perhaps (prior to 2:38 where they take up a key role in the piece) lightly tapped toms.

Nonetheless, and persisting through the piece, there remains just the slightest touch of a hollowness at the centre of this space. There never seems to be an instrument or sound that fully occupies the centre: as noted, the wasp synth, which would seem to occupy a quasi-vocal role, is distributed, right, left and high, and the central bass is non-defined, as if it is a murmur. In fact, there is a series of quick sonic movements for the wasp synth which further add to the hollowness: its initial arrival on the drum beat at 2:15 is forward, full, and spread across the speaker (it actually seems it is multitracked, so that its body is generated by having a high rear synth and a more forward right synth) as it declares itself and the new section, with an abstract size that seems to disembody it. As it increases up the scale, it is situated clearly right, so that it empties out a little and becomes localised. And then at 2:32 it gets multitracked again, this time taking up a position in the left speaker in addition to the current position in the right, so that it seems to nimbly skirt itself and yet still dominate the space.

This hollowness gives the track a coolness, but the result is not to alienate the music from the listener. Instead, the hollowness acts like a central ball of energy for the track, as it forms a kind of spring around which, or from which, the various physical effects of the song can move. Once the track moves into its full rock mode, there is never a point where the space around this ball is very great – the various sounds are generally only a breath away from this hollowness – but in so doing, it results in a sense that there is a kind of magnetic force both binding and just keeping apart the various elements of the track.

This is further exposed by the wasp synth at this section of the track, through the various qualities of its sound, and the way this modulates from 2:15 to 2:37, rather than just in its positioning in the space. Its first arrival gives it a body within the space which seems to soak the entire space up into it, a sonic version of transubstantiation. It does not do this in actuality of course: the space is “larger” than the synth. However, because the synth and the space can never be removed from each other – as long as the synth is there, it is of the space, and the space is partly of the synth – it has a fundamental effect on shaping that space. The space and all the other sounds are made to feel like they empty into the synth, and in so doing, it feels like we empty into it as well – it seems to have an emotionally and artistically transmuting capacity. But it is key to note that sense of “emptying into”, because the synth, as stated, is not the entire space: it seems to have an expansive role at 2:15, opening the space, filling it, but not filling it up. Into this space then other sounds rush in – the drums, the bass, the organ, the cymbals – but not only these, but the wasp synth itself, as it takes up a position in the right speaker. The synth is in a sense opening itself up to expose yet another manifestation of itself; or it is creating a space for itself to take on a new form. The synth in the right has a clear location in the space – it locates itself within a hall-sized space - but also has a physical presence, that familiar scratchiness on the ear, though by being given an imaginary location, this scratchiness now seems to be contained within another framework. Yet this imaginary location is also slightly dissatisfying, both because there is a faint sense of incongruity in giving an electronic sound such an identifiable location, in that electronic sounds are artificial and don’t seem naturally to have a “real world” identity; and also because there is a sense of other earlier Wakeman works in this location, and therefore a kind of referentiality[1] that seems slightly out of place and unnecessary or redundant in a work that seems to work so unreferentially (despite its title and presence on a concept album). Furthermore, the position of the synth is contained in the soundspace – it is right in the speaker, so that it loses physical body, compounding the sense of recession from the listener’s physical experience into an imaginary one. Interestingly enough, the referentiality of the synth paradoxically adds a slight and new dimensionality to its sound, by slightly sliding it off onto a plane that comprises a series of heard (imaginary) environments, rather than acoustic ones. This both deepens the dimensionality of the synth, but also lessens it, as it consequently slightly removes it from us as listeners in the here and now.

As a result of all this, the synth doesn’t seem to have one fixed quality: its movement into the right speaker, and into a projected space, seems to fold it back from us in a way, so that though it is still sharp on the ear, its sharpness is contained. This re-positioning of the synth results in the synth dancing around itself so to speak; but not only that, it dances around us, and around both our physical and imaginary relationship with it.

Of course, this is not the final move here. Following its movement into the right speaker, it then multitracks into the left speaker at 2:32, so that there are two distinct simultaneous wasp synths. The synth therefore doubles in size, but not only that, it moves forward again in our hearing, out of the performative setting imagined for it in the right speaker. We lose a predominant sense of the concert hall, though there is still a note of it: instead, the synth takes on a body of its own within the soundspace, with a distinct glistening but massive clarity and lyrical quality, so that its physicality is folded or pressed forward to us again. It once again expands inside our heads and expands our emotional response as it reaches joyously higher. In this expansion, it once again, as at 2:15, seems to soak up the space and soak up its manifestation in the right speaker: it’s only on close re-listening that we realise that in fact it still exists as a distinct entity in the right, and is now also a distinct entity in the left. There is a sense that it is absorbing itself and the other sounds into a new height of joy. However, as before, there is a hollowness here: the wasp synth is panned left and right, and there is something just missing in the centre – despite its qualities, it does not take up a clear central vocalic position in the mix. So, from 2:15 to 2:37, the wasp synth manoeuvres itself in a number of ways around this hollow core. First, it never takes up a single consistent position in the space. Second, it never takes up a single consistent quality of sound in the space. Third, it never takes up a distinct central position in the space. Fourth, it never takes up a single consistent imaginary location (and in fact, at one point has a touch of deferring to a pre-established imaginary location, rather than even one inherent to this recording). Added to this, there is the sense of a varying physicality, of it folding back and forth in our bodies, and reaching in various degrees of proximity to our ears. And finally, there is a sense of the quality of its sound folding up preceding or surrounding sounds at 2:15 and 2:32.

The energy generated by this hollowness is also demonstrated in the first major change within the full rock mode, when the organ re-enters the space (2:37). It seems that, as it arrives, the organ is moving out from within the overall mass of the track, but there is also a sense that it is skirting something, that it is not quite hitting the mark. Part of this lies in the fact that the organ does not quite dominate the central position – it is a bit back, a bit right and left, with something in front of it just missing. Part of this lies in the fact that it is quoting a classical composition, so is not quite of the track in a rock sense. Part of this also lies in the fact that, like the arrival of the full rock mode itself, it feels like the organ is replacing something, or acting as a reprieve for something, but there is nothing that it is clearly replacing: it is coming into the space anew and in itself. Part of this lies in the fact that there is a note in the quality of the sound of the organ of being quoted as a “classical” instrument, as if it does not quite exist in the here and now of the recording. And finally, part of this lies in the fact that the very sound of the organ seems to act to transmute the space, or the sounds in the space: it is a thick, chunky sound, which is not consistent with the other sounds, with a slight drag to it, so it has an element of absorbing the other sounds into it; yet it cannot fully absorb them, because they are largely so bright and present in the space.

The other element at this point which exposes the hollowness is the sound of the drums. The drums from this point have a totally idiosyncratic, unique, individual sound. My main interest here is in a particular sound which is generated on the toms, but it is not always there: it occurs first in the song here at 2:38. This particular sound is at the same time beautiful, irritating, excruciatingly pleasurable and complex. On the one hand, the sound is dense, tight, and flat on the speaker. There is no mistaking the drums’ presence – they fall into the space with clarity and precision. But there is also a paradoxical hollowness to the drums, a space within them, and a soft spread as well. With the hollowness, there is a subtle clarity and note of something that seems like reverb, so that they have a declarative size, a kind of rock performative punch, as well as a lyrical almost liquid beauty, like a drop of mercury. The spread, overlaid on the dense core, at times also gives a temporal containment of the sound, a feel where, a fraction of a second after the drum has been hit, we realise that it is now past (for instance, the beats at 3:26 to 3:28, and through the passage commencing 4:09). This containment, allied with the closeness of the sound on the mike and its precision, gives the sound the edge of being just a bit too “pat”, making an assumption for itself that is a little too easy and self-contained, and not wishing to engage with the rest of the space. And within all this, there is a quality of the pure sound of the drums as well, a character which feels somewhat woody and grainy, but also flat and hard. As a result, these drums seem to be orbiting themselves, hitting at something but also rounding themselves out so that the mark is both hit and also not quite hit. They have an authority or fixity, but also a volatility, a kind of fissile nuclear certainty.

Consequently, the drums, within the dynamics of the space, act in a similar way with respect to the space and the other instruments, as they do within themselves. So, unusually for drums, while grounding the space, they also give it a volatility and springiness, lifting it up at the same time that they solidify it. They knock at our ears while hitting a rhythm in our innards. Like the overall sound schema, there is not a point where the drums can be heard to comprehensively sit immobile in the space: they are constantly negotiating it and moving to points within it. This reflects the playing of Alan White, who is restless across the drumkit, moving between the various toms, cymbals, high hats and the bass drum, often brushing the cymbals up into the upper corners of the space. He also has a fluid, funky style, both precise and discursive, able to work across and with the rhythm at the same time. The drumkit’s sound therefore is inseparable from the playing: it constructs a net of sonic movements within the space, operating like a web or a skeleton extended along which the soundspace operates, moving at the joints with the soundspace, and effecting a consequent response in the soundspace.

There is a beautiful moment where this is demonstrated, from 4:09, where Wakeman bursts into a virtuosic flourish as he plays along the keyboard. Yet White’s drums are decidedly tight and dense, and the temporal containment of their sound seems to pull back at each beat away from Wakeman’s histrionics, as if we haven’t quite heard something, or haven’t quite heard it right; yet at the same time, the drums are giving the synth a rhythmic kick along, a bathetic kick in the pants. It results in a stretchiness to the sound (not just in the rhythm), where the two main elements, synth and drums, are both drawing away from each other, and driving each other forward, like muscles and ligaments tightening to move joints. This is made musically explicit at 4:19 where both White and Wakeman chase each other, interweaving through each other, with Wakeman’s pulsing synth taking over White’s role and drawing back from the drums, with White ranging over the drum kit, but with Wakeman, in so doing, never opting out of a rapid forward-moving display of his flexibility on the keyboard.

In fact, the whole piece from 2:37 on is constructed as a kind of sonic dance between the two instruments, manoeuvring around each other over and over, but never quite touching, occasionally locking in step, but then free-wheeling again. This is another way in which the absence at the centre of the piece constantly drives the piece forward, and is one of the reasons that the drumkit is given such a complex and textural sound. The “pat” sound of the drums described above is a way of constantly trying to rob the dominance and pervasiveness of the synths: it acts like a series of rocks in the stream, constantly interrupting the flow, but also sending out new ripples of its own. In this way, it is constantly negotiating the physicality of the sound of the synths, pulling it back from filling the head, sucking it into the innards. A great example of this is the passage from 2:47. Here the wasp synth is doing what it does best, filling the head with its clear, beautiful sound, constantly warping the space, having lost almost all sense of itself as a performed instrument. Even the tinkle of the space around it acts as a kind of psychedelic sheen over its sound, rather than as a locating device: it lifts the synth up to an abstract, almost celestial space, or acts to dislocate the space. This is something that Wakeman is a complete master of: using a defined, clear synth, or even a piano, to twist the space, bending it out of its frame without bending the frame itself (compare, for instance, what is possibly the same synth in the middle of “Jane Seymour” off The Six Wives of Henry VIII), in contrast to the ambient practices of contemporaneous artists like Tangerine Dream and Rick Wright (who used thick, space-filling/space re-shaping synths for the same purpose). The pulse of the wasp synth into the head here is assisted by the mid-range throb of what seems to be the bass, centre in the space, and ranging from a vertically central to a somewhat lower position, as a kind of sonic reverb to the synth.

Yet the drumkit here, especially the “pat” toms, are slicing into this space, pulling it into the gut at the same time that it is stretching ever higher with the synth, punching the sound into the head. Due to the overwhelming nature of the synth, there is a quality of the drums of being hidden behind a thin veil, through which the drums punch. This is played musically structurally by movement between the bass drum and the tom: the tom hits the notes under the synth, bringing the drum forward, but at points drops out, replaced by the bass drum. This effects a quick, sudden, but kind of after-the-fact withdrawal from the head, dropping the beat onto the bass drum. The bass guitar plays a key role here too, acting viscerally as a kind of thickening element, pulling the synth backward. Of course, in doing this, these two elements, despite their more earthy feel, are also warping the space, both because it is impossible in a logical “real” world sense for these disparate elements to represent a real space (thereby making the space more unreal), and because in a physical acoustic sense they are stretching its dimensions. What complicates this even further is that the spread cymbals, panned left and right, push the space out either side. However, rather than making the space more massive and heavy in that way, either adding to the weight of the synth, or given a crispness that might add to the pull of the toms, the cymbals are given a sibilance, and are not fully exploded in the space, so that they seem to brush at the edge of the space.

The intense physicality of this section is then relieved at 2:58 with a more normalised discursive section to 3:18: instruments take up positions in the space that are more consistent with a performative space: drums and bass stable and central, cymbals spread right and left, organ slightly left of centre and taking up a quasi lead vocal position, bass a relatively undefined thread low and back. It is as if the pressure wave has inverted again, but it would not be correct to assume that the track thereby loses its physicality. The effect is of relief but not of dissipation: the bass, for instance, has a kind of just-in-the-cranium feel to it, as if its fingers are just holding on to us; and the organ maintains the sharp on the ear feel, though it is somewhat recessed. There is a sponginess to the space relative to the surrounding passages: there is a sense that the space has become a bit more dense, less hard on us physically, but still with a physical weight to it that seems to lean rather than push hard on us. Furthermore, as the sponginess metaphor suggests, the song’s hollowness is maintained: in the drumkit, for instance, there is a sense that it is touching the sides of the space but not coalescing inside it - the cymbals are once again moving out to the edge of the space from a somewhat inner position right and left, and the toms have an odd referred quality, not quite “here”, as if they are behind something in the space.

At 3:18, the space changes again, fracturing kaleidoscopically as the sounds scatter through the space, with various percussion instruments and elements of the drumkit sounding off at different points in the space, and the bass guitar pulsing apparently randomly both musically and spatially (it’s never quite clear whether the bass is central or right at this point). The drumkit also has a sense of restless motion here, repeatedly coming from a right receded position to fully front on the deeper toms and bass in the left, with its sound consequently varying in great detail: for instance, there is a tight quick roll on the toms at 3:22 which gives a quick touch of graininess in the midst of this clatter. In a way, by being temporally in the middle of the song, this also becomes the manifestation of the song’s hollow core, in that any pretence to move to a certainty of space or sound is here broken up: the effect is of the instruments sliding through the space and over each other, never coalescing at any single point. It’s like just as the microscope’s focus has enough resolution to get to the core of matter, it only exposes a whirling mass of neutrons and electrons. What could be seen as a resolution at 3:28 (a return to the musical passage of 2:37) is in fact no resolution: it comes across as a kind of forgetting or ignoring of the preceding 10 seconds, as if it hadn’t happened, as there is no single distinct structural element cohering the two passages. In so doing, the “resolution” merely confirms the lack of solidity at the centre of the track.

For the remainder of the track, it ranges restlessly back and forth between these different sorts of passages. It can’t be said, however, that the song is ever searching for something in doing this: there is never a sense that the track feels a sense of its own lack, that its hollowness is a void that needs permanent filling, some identifiable stable centre. Though it’s true that the track is always looking to find new ways to fill that hollowness, it is that sense of always looking, and enjoying that process, that characterises the track. In fact, as a kind of reinforcement of this, the fade-out of the track at 5:48 returns to the kaleidoscopic passage of 3:18, this time featuring the bass more prominently, as a kind of self-contained substitute for the wasp synth of the earlier passage, as if it is erasing the wasp synth. The bass also has a transformative quality that has similarities to the synth in the passage of 2:47: it fills the head with an interior quality, as if it is expanding in the cranium. But the bass here is also somewhat disfiguring, rather than having the rapturous quality of the synth, largely due to its lack of spread or sustain: it drops into the space, expands, and then contracts, on each note, rather than moving to fill the space. In fact, there is a note of subtracting something from the space in these notes: each note seems to suck something away, though this is only temporary with each note, as the arrival of each note also drops something back in the space. Metaphorically it has the quality of shoes stepping in mud, so that in lifting the shoe from the mud, there is a sucking of air away, but in that same moment, the mud returns to fill the space. There is a paradox here, because the bass takes up a clearly central, vocalic position, the only time this occurs for any instrument in the track; yet the bass also has a quality of not quite sitting with the other sounds in the space: once again, there is a sense of some kind of gap here, this time between the bass and the other instruments and the rest of the space. A hollowness follows the bass here, and sits between it and the other instruments, which have a quality of slipping around behind it. In a way, the bass is summing up the way the track works overall, because it is drawing its sound forward onto us, foregrounding its own and the space’s physicality, while also leaving something behind, not quite drawing the rest of the space and the other sounds with it. Furthermore, while in itself it bends the space, it also bends the space around it, leaving a sense of the malleability of the space, so that it pulses on and off our ears in this closing passage of the song, with the other instruments behind it refracting the space and tinkling at our ears. In this closing, we are left with a sense of the track losing referentiality, logic or destination; and yet there is also a sense that it is still moving on. We are left in a space of negotiated physicality, with the sound pressing onto us at various points in the space and retreating again, pressing into our heads and also into our guts, and always with a sense that there is still something remaining which is yet to arrive.

[1] By this I mean that the sound of the wasp synth recalls Wakeman’s earlier, more commercial work, on Journey To The Centre of the Earth, and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, especially as this type of synth was at the time well associated with Wakeman. These works are clearly conceptual and referential; the way they function musically is to convey a story, and the synth is subject to that purpose, rather than being exploited primarily to convey its own presence and qualities. The production of both those albums is also clearly figured around an imaginary performative space (explicit in Journey To The Centre of the Earth as it is a live recording). So there is a referentiality bubbling under this synth here, in referring to the earlier albums, in indirectly referring to a referential form of musical performance, and in referring to an already-established performative space.

"Statue of Justice", "Jane Seymoure" available at iTunes store
The Six Wives of Henry VIII; Journey To The Centre of the Earth; The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; Rick Wakeman's Criminal Record available at

"Statue of Justice" may be heard here:
I provide this link purely for the purposes of reference. If the copyright holder wishes, I am happy to remove the link.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark - an introduction

A series of little songs, set bleakly, with adrift emotions. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark has an overall drollness and coolness that somewhat lessens the impact of the songs' melodies and some of the album’s electronic sounds. The drollness is most obviously conveyed through the vocals of Andy McCluskey, whose voice is less lyrical than gestural or even conversational, in that its tonalities seem more to be inflecting various conversational tones than melodic ones. The melodies too are often droll or made to appear droll, in the main seeming to lack the brightness and breadth of melodic range that one might expect in more conventional pop or rock music.

This is well established and demonstrated in the third song, “Mystereality”, where McCluskey’s voice seems to glide over the melodic variations in the song, rather, expressing them in a series of distinct conversational tones. Obviously McCluskey is singing the tune; but the way he wraps his voice around it seems to elide notes, or to mask the variations in the notes, so as to generalise the melody towards conversational tones. This is partly effected by his half-slurry, half rounded way of pronouncing the words, which in other circumstances manifests a histrionic quality (as in “Maid of Orleans” off OMD’s 1981 album, Architecture and Morality). The overall effect of the singing of the verses is that of McCluskey making a point, as if he is speaking his view to the listener: the melodic range of the song is subsumed to a movement from a midrange conversational tone to a higher one, where McCluskey’s “point” is made, down to a lower almost mumbled tone, as if, in conversation, he is adding a coda to his point. This in no way totally describes the melody of the song, as there is more variation to it than this would suggest. However, it is the way in which McCluskey controls the melody through his voice which tends to dampen the effect of the range of the song’s melody.

There is a contextual imperative for this. The effect of punk and the early new wave is to lessen a desire for the crafted or well-made, and to emphasise the ready-made and non-virtuoso. A song can’t appear to be worked-over. There is also an imperative to reduce the impact of the emotional or the highly-wrought, unless it be emotionally negative or angry.

Specific to this song, the effect of McCluskey’s vocalisation is to lessen the impact of the “point” that McCluskey is making, or the content of the lyrics. The lyrics become less a projected expression of some value beyond the ordinary or the negotiable, as might be expected in other more melodic songs, but appear to become more tied to the voice that is singing them. In effect, the lyrics become an expression of one viewpoint, one opinion, expressed by the disembodied voice. They become relative and negotiable, rather than insightful, absolute, didactic, or directive. In the end, there is no point to be made, just a view to be expressed.

Yet even this is further minimised. McCluskey’s vocals are at times not clear, so we often do not hear what he is singing. There is a nihilism in this lack of clarity, as if even the view which is being articulated in the end may have no value. This is what contributes to the songs’ bleakness and nullity. This is expressed in a number of ways. In “Mystereality”, for instance, the last two lines of the verse have an under-the-breath quality that suggests a defeatism of the voice, or a put-upon quality. Another example is “Bunker Soldiers”, where the spelt-out words of the chorus are hard to make out at first, partly because there are two things being spelt out simultaneously in the left and right speakers, with melodic lines intermittently sung behind this. On closer listening, it seems that the title is being spelt-out, as one expects with this type of device (compare, for instance, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”, Hall and Oates’ “Method of Modern Love”, and so on). However, careful listening reveals that two different things are being spelt-out: in the left speaker, indeed, the title is being spelt-out, but the letters are jumbled – “K-B-N-U-R-E-S-D-R-S-O-L-I-E”; while random letters and numbers are spelt-out in the right speaker. Both the “words” being spelt out, and the collision between them, is almost a reflection of the line “there’s no use talking, there’s no decisions”, because nothing can come of an attempt to make sense.

Yet the effect of this is not to be completely negative. OMD is not a band whose oeuvre fixates on nihilism (unlike other bands of the time, like Joy Division). “Electricity” (to which I will return) is an example of a song that advances a positive viewpoint. Nonetheless, the mitigation of this album’s negativity is not normally through such a positive moderation or modulation. Instead, there are various gestural manoeuvres (not confined to the vocalisations) which glint off the stone of the album’s bleakness, and twist it out of familiar emotional territory (as uncommon as that territory may have hitherto been in pop music generally). The effect is to leave a shimmer of abstraction around the bleakness of the album’s emotional drive, such that the bleakness tends not to take ground in personal experience or political intent. Through the album, and much of OMD’s work, there is a continual interplay between the particular and the mundane, the purposely abstract, and a dismissive disconnectedness that is in itself abstract, but also has a peripatetic, exploratory quality, without being programmatically so. It is as if OMD are letting themselves fall into a statelessness in their music, while nattering around with the bits and pieces of a post-industrial life with which little sense can be made.

In the first verse of “Mystereality”, much of which is not easily decipherable, there is a moment in the middle of the verse where McCluskey sings “tick tick tick tick tick tick” in a kind of hiccup which sticks out from the rest of the verse. In a way this compounds the sense of no-sense of the lyrics. However, it also has a quality of unwiring of the conversational logic of the song, a non-linguistic tic in the conversational flow. The repetition is in fact, it seems, linguistic, as by the tone and rhythm of the words it seems to resolve into a verbal expression that follows on from the foregoing lyrics; but I am still unable to make sense of what this repeated word is, and it remains a fleck that seems to make the song become more bleak (by being indecipherable and hence alienating) but also to make it skate over its bedrock of bleakness (again, by being indecipherable and hence more abstract, less tied to a distinct emotional expression).

This is taken further in “Julia’s Song”, where the lyrics become almost impenetrable due to McCluskey’s vocal gymnastics and “hysterical” tones. It is hard to find the exact word to describe the vocal mannerism which inflects much new wave singing of the time, and which McCluskey employs at intervals through this song, most notably in the first verse. More broadly in the new wave, it can stretch into a histrionic somewhat tearful or even hysterical tone (as when employed by Ian McCulloch for instance), but it is not decidedly tearful in this song. It is a way of unloosening the voice, from conventional forms of expression or singing styles, and disconnecting the vocals from what might otherwise be expected in a pop song. This disconnection is obviously taken to an extreme by McCluskey being barely understandable at times in the song, so that the vocals seem in a way to become a naked expression of emotion rather than of any ideational content.

However, emotional expression is not the ultimate effect of these vocalisations, because at times it is hard to know exactly what emotion McCluskey is expressing, especially as he begins to extemporise towards the end of the song. For instance, there is a kind of high-pitched wail at the end of the last verse of the song, but this is neither desperate or aggressive, and it is hard to align it with any particular emotion. But it also lacks a sense of “going off the rails” – it’s not as if this comes across as some sort of expression of increasing insanity. The lack of referentiality of the emotions starts to unhook the song, so that it seems to start losing any connection with the putative intent of the lyrics.

This works in a dynamic way across the song. It is not that the song’s vocals are entirely unhooked; nor that the lyrics are entirely indecipherable; nor that the song overall is some kind of rambling abstract piece. There is a sense that the song is in a state of perpetual unhooking, but of never quite being unhooked, because of the way the various manoeuvres in the song operate. There is the musical structure and material of the song itself, which is relatively obvious and simple: some simple electronic and percussive rhythms overlaid by a simple bass line and simple drum line, with some sustained electronic notes filling in the sonic space, and a glinting guitar-ish synth line moving through the song. The synths themselves are generally relatively sweet and pretty in the unadorned style of the time (compare, for instance, the contemporaneous “New Life” by Depeche Mode, or OMD’s own “Enola Gay”). In effect, musically the song is basically a simple piece of new wave pop, with few if any musical pretensions.

However, these elements seem to keep slipping or spinning out from the obvious: the rhythm of the opening synth has a slightly incongruous calypso feel, which is surprising both for the genre and for the mood of the piece. It is important to note here that the calypso feel is only slight however – it is an element that seems to skew the song slightly, but not into completely unfamiliar territory, nor into a new genre. This opening synth and percussion are also produced in a somewhat ethereal way, given a fair bit of spread and space – the synth is spread up and central, the percussion is also spread but back, behind the synth, giving a zoned out rearward size to the piece, as if it is receding from the listener. But these sounds, especially the percussion, are given a distinctness that does not diminish. There is, of course, a dub influence in these sounds and rhythms, but it is not strong enough to give the song dub’s familiar blissed out drug-state feel.

The bass, too, though simple, has a slight incongruity, due to its forward presence in the mix and its decidedly non-electronic presence in the midst of the electronics. Even the drums, for instance, have a spread and quality which makes them feel less acoustic than they otherwise may be (it is hard to tell whether they are acoustic drums treated in the mix, drums with electric pick-ups, or electronic drums). The bass comes across as a kind of awkward lock-step attempt at matching the rhythms of the synths and the percussion, which have a more fluid feel (though this is only relative to the bass, and is assisted by the spread with which they are endowed in production).

So musically, the song retains a basic solid structure that is continually loosened without ever being completely broken down. In fact, there is never a sense that the song will break down, rather, it is as if the song is spreading out from a solid core. This is realised structurally in the introduction of the somewhat gothic organ-sounding synth at 0:28, which both spreads the sound and adds an unsettling note to the song. Again, the song is never totally unsettled: it has an instrumental break, here fulfilled by the jews-harp sounding synth which is a hallmark of OMD (e.g. “Enola Gay”, “Talking Loud and Clear”), which is simple and pretty, and gives the song an element of a hook that it lacks in the vocal melodic line. This hook returns through the song under the return of the vocals, giving it a further element of solidity. But, as happens in other ways, the hook does not quite fully ground itself – its key changes down, and it remains as a bass element to the song, rather than a more melodic element, as if it is truly going to ground. This loosening-but-never-loosened sense is also conveyed in the introduction of the guitary synth (about 0:22, though it is never quite clear at exactly what point it enters the song) – not just because we are never quite sure whether this synth is in the song at any one point or not, but also because it is never quite clear whether this is in fact a synth or not – my label of “guitary” indicates that it may well be a treated guitar, but the synth never makes its presence felt strongly enough to determine this.

The vocals work in a similar way. The lyrics of the first verse can be deciphered to an extent, as a lament about alienation in the modern western world. However, to my ear, never having read a documented version of the lyrics, this verse remains somewhat obtuse, largely due to the way McCluskey enunciates and sings it. As noted above, the clarity of the vocals varies across the song, with the histrionic edge to McCluskey’s voice disappearing to a large extent in the second verse, but replaced by more vocal manipulation of the lyrics, so that when we might expect the lyrics to resolve in clarity they slip away from us again, to the extent that McCluskey’s voice settles onto some non-linguistic manipulations of the words. We kind of grasp the intent of the song, and kind of don’t; we kind of think it’s about something to do with alienation (after all, one of the clearest lines is “someone advised me to die”). Even structurally, and despite the foregoing comments, it is unclear what is a verse and what isn’t; the verses seem to slip, or to slip into each other; as indeed the lines seem to slip, as McCluskey elides words and melody into each other.

In this regard, structurally, “Mystereality” works in a similar way to “Julia’s Song”. The saxophone break in “Mystereality” seems to have the most vitality and expressiveness in the song, providing it with the closest thing to its “hook”. But the saxophone is also somewhat unexpected – saxophones are not normally associated with the new wave, though by this time they had some currency via ska, albeit played, as one might expect from the ska influence, in a non-virtuosic gestural way. Generally speaking, up till now, saxophones are associated with some level of virtuosity, or at least some sense of tradition via genres of jazz, soul and rhythm and blues. As this is primarily an electronic song, lying outside these traditions, the saxophone therefore has a slightly unhinging role. This is also compounded by the fact that, despite its status as hook, it is well-contained and, as stated before, non-virtuosic – this is not a free-form jazz-inspired solo. The melody that it plays is also reasonably droll, and the way in which it is played – the sound of the sax, as opposed to the virtuosity of its playing – is fat and somewhat laboured. The sax is therefore enacting a series of double movements: in melodically lifting the song to an extent (giving it its “hook”), it also uncouples the drollness of the song; but at the same time the sound of the sax, and the melody it plays, is nonetheless somewhat heavy, thereby dampening the effect of the hook itself. It is an odd manoeuvre, but one that is reasonably common in the new wave: the sax here enacts both an unfolding of the song, and also a folding over of the song into itself. It represents a frustration, and this, in a wider political sense, can be seen to be a frustration with established structures; but aesthetically it also ends up in enacting a kind of liberation, almost in spite of itself, because by both compounding and undercutting itself, it is not quite capable, ultimately, of settling on expressing any one defined thing.

Across the broad sweep of the album, this is also enacted by the two tracks “The Messerschmitt Twins” and “Dancing”. The former song, as end of side 1 on vinyl, is a closure of a sense, or a resolution of the foregoing tracks on this side. It begins as an ambient instrumental, kind of zoning out any earnestness of the foregoing tracks (and in particular, the earnestness of the immediately preceding track, “Electricity”). The sound of the electronics is trippy in that ambient way. However, more specifically, they sound as if they are run backwards, so they paradoxically lack a definition or end point. This might not seem to be how backwards sounds would operate – by running backwards, they would always be running to the point of initiation, rather than given the spread that is afforded by plosion. However, when the sounds are continually running to their initiation point, this gives a sense of multiple initiations, and consequently, by that very fact, a lack of a sense of initiation or resolution.

Even this, however, is only a perception, and is in fact inaccurate. Listening more attentively to these sounds, we hear that the sounds do play forwards, but the kind of echo given to them has a roundedness that suggests that they are playing backwards. These sounds therefore have a coiled shiftingness to them – moving forwards and backwards in the one movement. But this variation operates within a generally stable perceptual schema – we do not perceive that the notes are flying off uncontrolled or randomly, they play out in a fairly consistent rhythm.

Yet these notes are overtaken by a more conventional song, set to waltz time. There is no automatic connection between the two, though there is a kind of structural similarity, in that each apparently sustained note of the opening electronic sounds is actually split into two – a higher sustained note, and a lower modulated note that seems to “wobble”. (This in itself compounds the coiled variation in the sounds.) This repeated movement from higher to lower over and over is mirrored in the general move in the verse melody which moves from a lower melodic level in one line, followed by a higher melodic level in the succeeding line (though this is not sustained in the final line of each verse). So the verses both supersede the introduction, and also “kind of” develop it.

In a sense, the song has a continual wobble to it, that never seems to even out. This is manifested further in the addition of some synth sounds under the vocals – a high pitched synth playing a simple clear melody with a slightly off-kilter quality to it that appears at about 3:04 and becomes the instrumental break, and a wobbly Autobahnesque synth with a pastoral quality, also appearing in the instrumental break. These sounds serve to wash out the vague anthemic qualities of the song’s melody, giving it a dissipated feeling. There is also something in the quality of these sounds which is reminiscent of a longwave radio transmission, perhaps in their echoic quality and the electronic wobbliness of the sounds, and this quality seems to affect our hearing of the vocals, so that they take on a slightly disembodied quality, losing some of their portent. This is gently underscored by the fact that, in muted form, these sounds also close the song, even at the point where it seems that the song is closing on a fade-out of the vocals. Combined with the overall production of the song, particularly the washy reverb on the vocals, and the white noise that lies behind much of the song, the song seems to lose a sense of itself, seeming to drift off balance, and by being the song closing side 1, thereby setting the album off balance. The song therefore has a double movement in that it begins as an easing down of the earnestness of the previous tracks, as it draws side 1 to a close, but then it cuts into something of an anthem, which in a way could be a kind of closure to side 1. But the anthem itself is undercut or more correctly dissipated by the production and the electronic sounds interfused with it. In the end, it leaves side 1 somewhat cut adrift, with a somewhat unhinged quality – it is neither clearly an easing down, nor a closure. If anything, and as is typical of OMD, “The Messerschmitt Twins” has the effect of wondering: leaving the listener wondering, and expressing the feeling of wondering, so that rather than closure, the end of side 1 is an opening, but into what it is never entirely clear. The album structure might suggest that this ending is a prelude to side 2, but it doesn’t quite work this way: the first song on side 2 is “Messages”, whose tone does not clearly pick up on the wondering of “The Messerschmitt Twins”. The tone and structure of “Messages” suggests that we have already fallen into a mood or outlook, as a result of a trajectory that is separate from any that side 1 has led us to.

Though lacking the same structurally critical point in the album, “Dancing” takes up a similarly loosening role in the album. As with “The Messerschmitt Twins”, which follows the more definite and punchy “Electricity”, “Dancing” follows the fairly simple and clearcut “Red Frame/White Light”, which is more or less structured round the repeated title line. “Dancing”, like “The Messerschmitt Twins”, has a decided wobble, and this is not confined to the slightly boozy synth sounds that dominate the song. It seems to wobble into our hearing: it starts with the somewhat thin reproduction of a recording of some orchestral waltz, which then morphs, through the device of its apparent slowing down (as if played on a wind-up gramophone that is winding down) into a later era orchestral dance tune with some jazz influence. However, the morphing is not as seamless as this. At the point of winding down, there is an overlay of the jew’s harp synth, playing what seem to be random notes, so there is a slightly skewed quality to this change. As the jazz-influenced dance tune takes over, there is a synthetic rhythm sequence that runs through it; but again, this part of the song is not as simple as this seems, as the orchestral waltz seems to continue to push its way into the mix (though it is not entirely clear whether it is the waltz, or an element of the dance tune), and there are also a couple more random jew’s harp synth notes.

The song then seems to resolve into a somewhat conventional piece of electronic corn: the aforementioned boozy synth concocting a swaying kitschy fx-oriented dance. However, the kitsch is somewhat mediated by the return of the jew’s harp synth and some more radiophonic string-sounding synth, that sonically seems to warp the song into more of a headspace. The boozy synth returns, but then gets replaced by vocoded vocals and the radiophonic synth, and the boozy synth gets twisted up and away. Movements like this keep happening, while the electronic “brushed” drum rhythm is maintained. The overall effect is to “de-kitsch” the kitschness of the boozy synth, so that it starts feeling less corny and more electronic: less connected to a genre or a style, less connected even to a sense of musicality, and more connected both to a sense of its own technological-ness, and to a sense of displacement and warping of perception. As elsewhere, the movement is not complete: there is a sense that the boozy kitschness remains somewhere, somewhat uncomfortably; and there is a sense that the warping is a way of compensating for the reduction to a need for this kitschness. This tends to make the song feel that it is not quite successful in some ways: it has the quality of being the production of a more conventional artist “mucking around” with electronics, without necessarily treating them seriously (compare for instance Paul McCartney’s “Temporary Secretary” of the same year); but the feeling of lack of success also contributes to the effect of the song’s not-quite-thereness. Because the song is only not quite successful – it kind of is and kind of isn’t, and that seems to be inherent to the way in which the song’s sounds work as well.

This seems to be acknowledged in the succeeding (and closing) song, “Pretending To See The Future”, which continues a thread of wobbling radiophonic synth, though this drops to the background as the vocals appear. This song is more conventional structurally and sonically, with an anthemic quality reminiscent of “Julia’s Song”, and it is as if the halfwayness of “Dancing” cannot be sustained into “Pretending To See The Future”, as “Dancing” itself conveys. Nonetheless, “Pretending To See The Future” does not quite settle either. The vocals are deep and produced so that they are not entirely clear, set in a space which gives them both a ghostly and a receding quality, like a face dimly appearing from shadows. Moreover, as the song builds to a crescendo, where we would expect the themes of the song to be projected most strongly, McCluskey’s (and maybe Humphreys’?) voice becomes multitracked, with the various voices starting to compete in the mix – it is as if the various vocal tracks are fighting to be heard and fighting to make their individual points made.

“Electricity” works in a similar vein. Being OMD’s first single, and already established before this album, it has an iconic and solidifying presence in the album. It would appear to be the focus around which the album is likely to be organised, given that the single is designed to sell the album, and given that, being the single, it is likely to have the most punch of any song on the album. It is also clearly a message song, thereby accreting to itself some sort of authority. There is a joy to this song as well, most obviously in the pretty sound of the jew’s harp synth, in its spiky rhythm, in the simple earnestness of the singers, and in the simple catchiness of the melody. Though the song’s message is somewhat bathetic, this lends it a simple pleasure, especially as there is an underlying belief in the power of technology (the point of the song being that it is wasteful technology that is the problem, rather than technology itself). Naturally enough, this is echoed in the music itself – the pretty simple electronic melody is a statement of the joy of technology, and is also a statement of faith, for this electronic music (in the context of the day) is the music of the future.

However, to start with, “Electricity” seems to get lost on this album. It’s placed fourth, which is not the norm for a single. It’s made to follow its B-side (which seems to give it a subordinate position), which is more melancholic and slow-paced. And its production style is somewhat incongruous with the rest of the album (and even with that of its B-side, which appears to have been re-recorded for the album). It has a lightness and dreamy size compared to the dark closeness of a song like “Mystereality”, or the dark depth of a song like “Pretending To See The Future”.

In itself, “Electricity” also has a quality of desperation which contributes to the feeling of it being lost in this album. The opening rhythms seem to labour into the space: of course this has a purpose within the logic of the song, as it partially conveys the sense of an engine starting up (presumably electric-powered, though obviously the logic of this is not quite clear – it seems that OMD are using this engine rhythm as a marker for technology in general). The sense of labouring is also partially a function of the song’s message and point of view – pushing an argument for solar electricity as opposed to other forms. Yet it also makes the song feel as if it is pushing against something aesthetically, especially as once the song gets going, the melody line of the jew’s harp synth is somewhat buried in the overall rhythmic thrust of the song, and one of the rhythm tracks – the “brush” synth - thickens the space, and somewhat drags at the rest of the sounds. There is a sense that there is always something pulling at the song’s rhythm.

In addition, the song overall comes across as very small, as if it is somehow diminished in our hearing. This is largely a function of the jew’s harp synth that dominates it – a small, contained and “pretty”, rather than dominating, sound, playing a simple melody, and somewhat overshadowed by the rhythm sounds. In the wider context of the time, the diminishment is compounded by electronic music still having a tentative position in the popular music scene, treated with some distrust and even disdain, as not being “real” music. The vocals paradoxically add to this sense of diminishment, paradoxical because, though both singers are singing the lyrics, leading to an expectation that there would be more weight added to the vocals, there is less weight, both because the lyrics become distributed across two voices (rather than given the clear authority of a single voice), and because the voices seem a little bit weak, and are placed in a space away from the listener, almost as if they are in the back of the performance space. Moreover, the voices do not harmonise – singing the same notes, the melody loses size.

In a sense, the song falls in on itself constantly, because in its continual moves to make a statement, it is framed in a way that lessens the impact of the statement. By the time that the song gets to its point – “the alternative is all we want, the final source of energy – solar electricity” – it seems to have lost its point, compounded by the closing lines, which are not “solar electricity”, but just “electricity”. Even the point itself is somewhat wistful and bathetic, rather than didactic: it is an expression of desire, rather than of direction. This is realised vocally in the repetition of the first syllable of the title in the fade-out.

This falling in on itself is also symptomatic of a wider musical context, one promulgated by the new wave but taking a particular line in new wave electronic music. I have already glanced on how this works in this song, in terms of the “diminishment” of the song, and its sense of desperation. As a function of the song’s wider musical context, its joy in its own simple technological beauty folds in on itself. The electronic melody and playing is simple – an explicit contrast to the more extravagant sounds of synth masters preceding the new wave, such as Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson. This gives this type of music a kind of redundancy – for all the technical wizardry available, the most that is made of it is to produce pretty simple melodies and rhythms, almost as if there is no point to all this technology (a theme initially advanced by Kraftwerk, and taken up by many of the techno-pop bands of the time, including OMD). For “Electricity”, this adds to the sense of defeatism of the song, no less because the song itself is about the advantages of one form of technology over another. There is a sense that the redundancy and simplicity of the song’s technology represents an opportunity missed, or a future passed by (just as, in the lyrics, solar electricity is a kind of future passed by for more conventional and “heavyweight” electricity generation). It is as if the song is a manifestation of Laurie Anderson’s “walking and falling” – a movement forward is also a kind of degradation. This is subtly underscored by the soft edge to the production of the song and the recession of the vocals in the space, and the soft slightly fuzzy feel of the synths, which lend a quality of deterioration to the sound of the song.

In total, the album feels both small and somewhat heavy. The songs are small in scale, melody and sound. Yet they have a complicated internal aesthetic logic, comprised of a series of internally recursive movements folded in on each other, a logic which is also made to work itself out to some extent over the length of the album. The effect is to make the album feel like it is skating over itself: at a point where it might seem to solidify around a conventional point (such as with the single “Electricity”), that point by its nature seems to slightly shift within itself, and thereby cause the album to skip a beat. It creates a kind of questioning energy, where there is a seemingly endless possibility for things to change, even where that possibility is never fully realised.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark; Architecture and Morality available at
"Maid of Orleans", "Method of Modern Love", "Respect", "New Life", "Enola Gay", "Talking Loud and Clear", "Temporary Secretary", "Walking and Falling" available at iTunes store