When Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark returned in 2010 with History of Modern, the band reignited a career that has remained strangely under appreciated by mainstream fans of 80s synth-pop. The band’s balance of art and commerce has occasionally danced too far in one direction (Dazzle Ships) or the other (Crush) but the albums that strike the right balance, such as 1981’s Architecture & Morality, are essential to the genre. Their last two albums, English Electric (2013) and The Punishment of Luxury (2017), are stunning works of pop from the packaging to the songs. In fact, they might be the band’s two strongest albums from start to finish. And then there is 1991’s Sugar Tax. Somewhat lost between their imperial phase of 80s hit singles and their glorious return, Sugar Tax has faded from memory.
Left to carry the OMD name alone, Andy McCluskey pushed into a more dance-oriented sound on Sugar Tax but the band’s experimental playfulness remains intact. While the glam-stomp hit single “Sailing On the Seven Seas” brought commercial success, the album’s highlights are buried deep inside. Reminiscent of 1983’s Dazzle Ships, the innovative “Apollo XI” uses samples from the moon landing to set the race for space to music. For fans of Public Service Broadcasting’s magical The Race For Space (2015), it is a little disconcerting to realize OMD landed on the same creative moon almost 25 years earlier.
The moody cover of Kraftwerk’s “Neon Lights” provides another highlight on Sugar Tax. OMD has never shied away from the influence of Kraftwerk and the cover pays homage to the German pioneers while adding a glistening pop shimmer to it. The same can be said for Sugar Tax as a whole. It is a moody slice of synth-pop with an emphasis on the pop. While it lacks the immediate punch of the last two albums, it reaffirms that the years between The Pacific Age and History of Modern are critical to the OMD story and worthy of a closer listen.