The 90's were a fertile time for electronic dance music, so it's no small thing to say that Orbital were one of the best and most productive electronic acts during that period. Starting in 1989, the duo (consisting of brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll) made music that was a logical continuation of the feel-good vibes of the Madchester era, but it was capable of going in a lot more directions. In a sense, they weren't too different from 808 State, but they did take things a little further. They went through so many phases from album to album that it's no surprise that they had little left to give as the scene was dying down. The result is an awfully impressive (and diverse) body of work that remains essential to this day. Some of this is because they were able to sidestep some of the usual trappings of their peers; for one, they had a real gift for writing melodies, so they could make tracks that eclipsed 10 minutes seem overflowing with hooks. Secondly, they managed to make their music resonate by giving it something of a symphonic and rich quality, without relying on vocal samples. Thirdly, their experimental work was actually largely successful, since it didn't deviate from their principles. That is, keep the music at a high tempo, don't lose focus, and emphasize the melodic stuff. It's due to these qualities that they were able to become known as an album-oriented group despite having lots of singles.
In fact, Orbital was known for many things - they were an amazing live act that focused on improvisation in a genre that usually wasn't built for that, shunning the DAT machine altogether. They also became fairly well known as a remix unit, though no official comps have ever come out. Therefore I'm confined mostly to talking about their studio albums, which should become their lasting legacy anyway. Like Underworld, the Orb, and the Chemical Brothers, they had a consistent run of great albums in the 90's (if you discount their debut, for reasons I'll outline below) that still stand at the top of their genre. Also like those groups (and nearly every other big 90's electronic act), they had trouble staying relevant into the 00's, and wound up splitting in 2004. But none of these acts really "break up" in the long term (save for Fluke, I guess), so after kicking around with a couple of side projects, they reformed in 2009 and are currently recording new material for release sometime in the near future.
A.K.A. "The Green Album"
Orbital's debut album was cut from the same cloth as a lot of electronic debut albums; it's about 20 minutes too long, filled mostly with the 12 inches and singles that were put out a year or two prior. Unlike their later work, this isn't album oriented at all; in fact, there are at least four different configurations of this album around, a few of which have live tracks on them. Mine is the American release with the Moby remix of "Speed Freak" on it, which is the only one you can easily find here. Still, there are a couple of things that surprise me about this every time I listen to it. One, that the most recognizable part of the album ("Chime") is not the lead-off track, and two, that the most downbeat and resonant track ("Belfast") is. Those two songs (also available on every Orbital compilation ever) are both highlights; "Chime" shows off their melodic, immediate side, with a big hook and a bouncy rhythm, while "Belfast" is a thing of true beauty, with operatic vocals and a melodic underpinning. The other big highlight/single is "Satan", a much more aggressive jam with rolling drum sounds and memorable vocal samples. And the rest? Well, they're generally pretty melodic, with at least one decent hook and busy, overlapping rhythms, but they're also fairly simple and static. At worst, you have "Desert Storm", which slogs over familiar TV war-drama themes for TWELVE minutes; embodying the worst habits of early electronic music - the idea of extending a track through endless shuffling of the combinations of the elements that make up the tune and applying a bunch of effects and filters to the sounds. If it lasted six minutes, it would be fine. Many of the tracks operate something like that - they've all got good hooks, but they're not really memorable and don't get a chance to build or peak ("Speed Freak", "Fahrenheit 3D3", "Oolaa", "Choice"). It doesn't have the power of early 808 State and isn't as fun as early Fluke, but technically there's nothing wrong here. It's just that the only times they really get things right are on the singles, which seem to be assembled with so much more care than the other tracks; "Satan" shifts around and builds so much that you almost feel shorted on the other material. So keep the singles and ditch the rest, though God knows you could do so much worse than "Choice" or "Midnight" (probably the best non-single here) if you're getting into early-90's electronica.
Radiccio EP (1992)
A small teaser release for the next album, consisting of three tracks spanning about 25 minutes. The most notable one is the original version of "Halycon", which was spruced up for the LP release. The other two are "The Naked and the Dead" and "Sunday", a more techno-oriented mix of Orbital 2's "Monday". However, numerous other versions exist - mine has the somewhat rare "Deeper" along with a "Halycon" edit and "The Naked and the Dub". Nowadays I'm not too sure what the value is of all this; as obvious as this sounds, outside of "Halycon", everything else sounds like a bridge between the first two albums, which may have been exciting at the time but feels like a stopgap now. If you're a real devoted fan you'll probably want this.
Orbital 2 (1993)
A.K.A. "The Brown Album"
This is a big step forward - although the running time is still over an hour, there's a big focus on making the material album-oriented, and as a result the entire album flows well (perhaps better than any other electronic LP at the time), sequenced more like a DJ mix album than a studio effort (at one point, the music goes for nearly 30 minutes without a break). Bass lines and other elements are shared across tracks, and the album has a great sense of beginning and end, opening with a slow-building collage track ("Planet of the Shapes") and ending with the epic and beautiful "Halycon", which quickly became one of their signature tunes. Once the first real beat kicks in (about four minutes into the album), things don't really let up; the album functions as one giant space-groove with a high-intensity climax - "Impact", at over ten minutes, is the centerpiece, and their real tour de force of melodic techno; there are so many hooks in there that there's hardly room to fit them all. Some of this stuff is super memorable (particularly the three singles - "Lush 3.1", "Impact", and "Halycon"), but the more jam-oriented stuff is plenty enjoyable too ("Remind", "Walk On..."); they can't help but be melodic nearly all the time, but focusing on the thick beats and bass kick is alright too. They get bonus points for looping a didgeridoo all throughout "Walk On..."; I know Aphex did the same thing a few years back, but Orbital are clever enough to loosely tie everything together by constructing the melody out of Australian traffic crossing signals. However, added bits of cleverness aside (such as the first and last tracks), this is not altogether different from the material from their debut album; it's more diverse and has a better sense of direction, but their fundamentals are the same. Melody trumps ambience, and rhythm trumps all. But they sound so much more commanding here; none of this sounds like background music, and I would imagine you could play it straight in a club and capture everyone’s attention for nearly the entire running length. This is not unlike Kraftwerk’s peak efforts – this one also seems mired in its own time, but it captures its scene so well that it’s still totally enjoyable now (and will be for decades to come).
A U.S.-only release that acts as a companion piece to Orbital 2, as it remixes a whole bunch of those tunes (mostly "Lush"). I didn't really find it too interesting when I listened to it all those years ago, and didn't even know that "Impact USA" was actually a remix (sounds just like the original minus a few things). It is pretty damn long though (over an hour, yet only six tracks!) Full review coming someday (maybe?)
Accessibility has always been a strong point of Orbital's music. They keep melody up front, don't slack on the rhythms, and generally don't do anything too odd or extended without throwing a bone to the listeners. Most importantly, they frame their tracks well - almost every tune they've ever done is anchored by some kind of "big hook" or something similar. Snivilisation takes all that and adds another element to it - experimentation bordering on surrealism. That's not to say they've gone off the deep end, but they're tackling the genre from several different angles; they still can do "straight" electro ("Crash and Carry") but seem more interested in building off hypnotic loops, similar to Steve Reich ("Kein Trink Wasser") or Phillip Glass ("Science Friction"). The most notable change is that they don't really confine themselves to their usual drum patterns or bass lines, allowing them to free up the sound and venture around (sometimes going outside of their basic 4/4 rhythm). The key to all this is the sonic density, which make the group's loopier ideas more enveloping than similar experimental efforts. Not only is it dense from a musical standpoint, but most of the tracks have vocals of some sort, either sung by a guest vocalist or sampled from an outside source (most of which are quite strange). This allows them to do such brilliant things as "I Wish I Had Duck Feet", which is based on a simple tribal drum rhythm and a pitch by a carnival barker, but slowly layers more and more surreal types of sounds underneath it. Or even better, the absolutely brilliant closer "Attached", which has a deep, symphonic feel to it, with operatic vocals and a lush string section underneath a melodic buzz synth. The result sounds something like a remix of a purely classical piece, and I mean that in a good way. They're still able to capture the beauty of their previous female vocal tracks - this time there's a great, layered groove piece ("Sad But True"), and the absolutely mammoth "Are We Here?", a 15-minute showcase of complex jungle beats that doesn't even drop its main hook until more than halfway in. Any one of these pieces - particularly those in the second half - could probably be used as the basis of an entire album. But packaged together like this, it's a treasure trove of bizarre and fantastic music to wrap your brain around.
I realize the idea mentioned above of “throwing a bone to the listener” may be kind of a turn-off to those who actually like wildly experimental stuff, but I do wonder how much of a good listen this album would have been in the hands of Autechre or Mouse on Mars. The appeal in this album really has more to do with the fact that they’re able to throw out so many off-the-wall ideas in the context of a really well-made electronic album; even if you don’t really appreciate all the weirdness, it still keeps things grounded and enjoyable in a way that say, Aphex Twin’s I Care Because You Do or The Orb’s Pomme Fritz doesn’t.
This time, the brothers go for a more symphonic techno sound, and again the result is a massive success. Instead of using samples or doing "concept" pieces, this has a straight-up progressive feel, as most of the tracks run around 10 minutes and have three or more sections ("Out There Somewhere?", the half hour monster that closes the album, has about a dozen). While I hate the "Intelligent Dance Music" moniker, it's a wonder why it's used so often to describe a lot of glitchy and somewhat junky music that isn't danceable in the slightest when one of the genre's biggest acts was making complex and rewarding music that doesn't rely on any gimmicks (and is at least semi-danceable). There aren't any real new sounds here, nothing overly experimental, in fact, very little that wasn't possible ten years ago. But it really works, thanks to their ability to layer complex melodies together and muster all sorts of emotions out of their synths and drum machines. If Klaus Schulze or Tangerine Dream were raised on acid house and had a stronger sense of melody, maybe they would have made records like this. They can do standard, end-of-the-world techno ("P.E.T.R.O.L"), but most of this is affecting psychologically - "The Box" is a classic thrill-ride that's downright unsettling, while the first part of "Out There Somewhere?" evokes paranoia. However, the prettier moments are the standouts - opener "The Girl With the Sun in Her Head", a tribute to a friend who passed away, is easily a top 5 track in their discography; sad and incredibly beautiful, it shows the band at their most tuneful. But the album's climax and best moments come at the end - the awe-inspiring second part of "Out There Somewhere?" not only has a big, spacey atmosphere, but the music itself functions like a grand symphony with several movements (and a few breakbeats).
I'm not sure if it's really productive to name highlights - the whole album is like this. Even the middle of the album tracks like "Dwr Budr" and "Adnan's" are epic, multi-part tunes that inhabit their own little astro-world. It's a reminder that once upon a time, there were groups like Orbital, Underworld, and Global Communication that could put out 70+ minute albums that were not only listenable all the way through, but could actually be played on repeat. This is the golden era.
Note: To make things even better, not only was this album budget-priced (I've never seen a copy over $10), but it also came with a bonus disc. The original pressing had both the great Time Flies EP and the full, 28-minute version of "The Box" which is done like a true progressive rock epic like "Tarkus" or "Supper's Ready". Later it was replaced with a bonus disc that had a couple versions of "Satan" along with their theme to "The Saint" and the famous live "Halycon" that includes samples from "Heaven is a Place on Earth" and "You Give Love a Bad Name". Both are worth having, but the first one is a must-have if you're anything more than a casual fan.
Middle of Nowhere (1999)
This is not exactly a progression from the last two albums, but it's still very good. They haven't tossed out the symphonic or experimental stuff altogether, but there's a nod to the Big Beat movement ("I Don't Know You People" has the same big drums and heavy guitar riffs that Dig Your Own Hole was full of). Essentially, this is an hour-plus of bouncy, fast-paced, mostly A-grade electronica, and while it doesn't have the depth or hypnotic qualities of the last three albums, it's arguably more entertaining. The best parts come up front - the first three tracks are all interconnected, going through a lot of different movements before their nearly half-hour combined running time is through. What makes them work is that they arrive sounding fairly developed on their own, but add new hooks and change focus about halfway through, which takes away the static feeling this type of music usually has. They have some tricks up their sleeve - "Know Where to Run" uses a deep bass buzz and stadium house synths, and the opener "Way Out" has unexpected trumpet flourishes, like Cake gone techno. Meanwhile, "Spare Parts Express" is pure melodic bliss and probably the best part overall. The second half is mostly dedicated to "Nothing Left", which, like "Are We Here?" sees the group fiddle around with a more beat-heavy approach before dropping the main hook halfway in. At least this time they're nice enough to divide it into two seperate parts. It uses a lot of breakbeats and ghostly female vocals, while the big hook itself almost sounds like sugary Europop. It's so melodically pleasing on its surface that it's easy to overlook that it runs out of ideas rather quickly. Your mileage may vary. Elsewhere on Side 2, there's the Latin-tinged oddity "Otono" which is only good for a listen or two, and "Style", which is even more odd. It's named after the old Stylophone synth (which sounds similar to NES in-game music), which plays a very random-sounding melody that the boys attempt to build around. It actually works fairly well, and became the album's first single. Overall, I like the idea of Orbital doing something more straightforward and immediately enjoyable, though I do wish they could keep up the relentless and fun vibe of the first half hour through the whole album. That said, I'd definitely place this as being a part of Orbital's prime.
The Altogether (2001)
Did you ever have those moments when you were a teenager where you tried to convince yourself that one of your favorite band's new discs was just as good as their old ones? The albums in question come from bands with a good track record, and they're not bad releases on their surface, but the reviews aren't good, and they may not grab you as much as the old ones did. You know the arguments - "this one almost has as many good tracks as the last one!", or "if this had come out first, everyone would like it better!". It's not so much that you feel ripped off by buying the album, rather that you don't want to accept that one of your favorite bands may be going downhill. These albums are always fun to re-evaluate - Underworld's A Hundred Days Off (good album, but not by their standards), The Orb's Cydonia (not as bad as everyone says), They Might Be Giants The Spine (not a lot of ideas, the better tracks don't hold up), Cake's Pressure Chief (okay listen, very forgettable), and so on. The Altogether is definitely one of those albums. Every track has a beat and a hook, and glimpses of their usual melodic brilliance shine through in some parts. But this resembles Fatboy Slim more than it does any Orbital album, and you can't help but wonder what happened to the group that could do no wrong for nearly an entire decade. The brothers sound like they're running on empty - a few of the tracks are heavily based on samples and play more like remixes. They draw from Ian Dury's "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" ("Oi!") and Tool's "Sober" ("Tootled"), which might be okay if the source material wasn't so tired by now. On the plus side, there is a truly awesome opener ("Tension") that draws heavily on "Surfin' Bird", and it's both intense and amusingly clever. As far as original material goes, it's hit-and-mostly-miss, with a mix of tunes both gimmicky ("Waving Not Drowning") and inconsequential ("Last Thing"). I'd say the worst is "Pay Per View", a porn groove that sounds more like a sketch than a finished tune, as it goes nowhere. But they don't mess up their patented "ghostly female vocal" track, bringing in Naomi Bedford for one hell of a catchy single ("Funny Break"). The other guest vocalist is David Gray (!), who slurs his way through "Illuminate", though it doesn't matter because the lyrics are stupid anyway. What you get is a pleasant but irritating pop tune that was aimed to be a crossover hit but just wound up pissing off a lot of Orbital fans instead. I understand the hate, but it's such a dorky song that I can't help but like it a little. They do throw a bone to the fans, though - the epic final track "Meltdown" is a solid piece of apocalyptic techno with enough in it to sustain an 11 minute running time. It's not as good as, say, anything on Snivilisation or In Sides, but it's definitely welcome. If there's one must-own track, it's their infamous remix of the Doctor Who theme that appears here. It's awesome dance floor material, with complex and relentless beats alongside a killer hook. Sadly, the remix itself was a live staple for five years at that point, which doesn't exactly disprove that these guys ran out of ideas fast.
Ten years later, it's a lot easier to accept that Orbital simply hit the same wall that plastered nearly every 90's electronica act when that decade was through. They still keep the beats coming and don't let things stagnate too often, and if you don't try to compare it to their other albums, it's a fun listen with about 15 minutes of killer material. Plus, most editions in America come with a bonus disc of Middle of Nowhere-era B-sides and remixes, including some clever remixes of "Style" (including "Bagpipe Style", which is as awesome as it sounds). Bring everything together and this is a good deal, especially since some of the B-sides best almost everything on the actual album ("Monorail", "Beezlebeat"). "Mock Tudor" could have made the album as well. All told there's probably an hour's worth of decent-to-good material here, though some digging is required. Does it sound like I'm still trying to talk myself into the album? I realize that the brothers lost it here, but give them some credit - they seemed to recognize it too, and rather than flail around and try to recapture their earlier efforts, they at least made something easily enjoyable and offered up a whole disc of bonus material to choose from.
Work 1989-2002 (2002)
I guess I should point out that this compilation was my introduction to Orbital, but I wouldn't recommend it for anyone else. It focuses mostly on the first two albums, while Snivilisation and In Sides only get one track apiece. As fan bait there's a couple of rare tracks here, one being a new version of "Satan" with Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett on guitar. Let me just say it appealed to me more at the age of 17 than it does now. The other new track is "Frenetic", a remix of "Kinetic" (also hard to find), which has a vocal spot with lyrics and everything. That one's better, but it's hardly worth the price of this compilation, which condenses classic tracks like "Are We Here?", "Nothing Left", and "Halycon" into less than 4 minutes apiece.
A film score to a movie that nobody remembered. I'll pick it up eventually but the reviews did not make it sound too exciting. It's worth noting that Underworld, Daft Punk, and the Chemical Brothers have all done film scores since.
Blue Album (2004)
What happened here is that the Hartnoll brothers realized they had run out of ideas and that Orbital had run its course, but decided to stick it out and release a "last album" for the fans to put a capper on their career. What more can you say about albums like this, other than "well, it's decent"? Decent it is. Despite what some have speculated, this isn't really a look back on their career, though the album's high points both draw on their previous work. "You Lot" is one last stab at an epic, sounding like Middle of Nowhere-era techno that heavily samples a speech from Christopher Eccleston. The effect is a lot like "Forever" or "S.A.L.T." (wait, that one was the Orb). The other highlight is "One Perfect Sunrise", which is one last go at a "Halycon"-type track that really DOES sound like a career-ender. It's one tune that can stand proudly among their greatest and the only one they bothered to release as a single. There's not much of a concept to this album - one minute they're doing tense, cinematic music ("Tunnel Vision", "Pants"), the next they're doing novelty techno ("Bath Time", "Easy Serv"). None of this is particularly exciting, although "Pants" is quite good. "Easy Serv" is notable for being the exact type of playful tune that Aphex Twin loved to go absolutely schizoid on, but Orbital doesn't really have those impulses and plays it straight. There's also a collaboration with Sparks ("Acid Pants") that's either a banger or horribly annoying. It depends on whether or not you know who Sparks are and what you think of goofy stuff like "Waving Not Drowning". The one new thing they try is an abstract, string-based piece that's along the lines of what Phillip Glass does ("Transient"). It's a good way to open the album but nothing else here sounds remotely like it. Like their debut, the order of the tracks doesn't matter aside from "One Perfect Sunrise", which should be last. This is an album that I'd probably like to rate a little lower, but it's really not bad unless you start comparing it to Orbital's past, which you shouldn't do.
Apparently some versions of this add three tracks and jumble the tracklisting. The extra three are "Initiation", from their Octane soundtrack, "Technologicque Park", which they did for the movie XXX, and "What Happens Next?", a B-side which probably should have made the cut.
Live at Glastonbury: 1994-2004 (2007)
I was really hoping this would be Orbital's version of the teriffic Everything, Everything live album, especially since they had never released a live album before. Unfortunately it seems like they never got a soundboard recording of their legendary Glastonbury sets, so the result doesn't exactly make it feel "like you're there", so to speak. Still some interesting mixes here and fans will probably find it worthwhile. Full review coming at some point.
Paul Hartnoll - The Ideal Condition (2007)
There's a novel concept behind the younger Hartnoll brother's first (and probably only) solo LP. Many of Orbital's compositions can be described as "symphonic" (particularly the In Sides album), but they're almost all decidedly "electronic". On The Ideal Condition, however, Paul's gone through the trouble of actually hiring an orchestra and choir, whose presence is felt on more than half of the album tracks. Some of this was definitely made with a cinematic eye - opener "Haven't We Met Somewhere Before?" feels like an overture to an epic movie, while the closing "Dust Motes" feels like the calming epilogue to something dramatic. Both of these are fully orchestrated and feel like they could slot right in to a movie soundtrack, but Orbital fans shouldn't fret, as there are electronics everywhere else, sans one track ("Unsteady Waltz", which is pretty but somewhat slight). Otherwise, Hartnoll moves all over the place, and the album feels something like a collection of singles as a result. Then again, so did the last two Orbital albums, and the good news is that this fares better than those did. The bad news is that Hartnoll doesn't really try anything extended or daring, and as a result it's not really a must-have even for the fans. The cinematic feel bleeds over to some of the vocal tracks - both "For Silence" and "Nothing Else Matters" lay the strings down heavy and let the guest vocalists take center stage, similar to what Moby does (or did?). The other vocal tracks are a couple of guitar-led pop songs ("Please" and "Aggro", the former featuring Robert Smith of the Cure), which are actually pretty good (especially when the benchmark is "Illuminate"), adding a bit of welcome edge to the package. Overall, this album benefits a lot from being only 40 minutes long, as even if none of the ideas have very much depth, they're tuneful and memorable enough to fill out 4-5 minute running times nicely. Plus, there are a couple of knockout instrumentals - "Simple Sounds" uses a crystalline harpsichord sound and spins a couple of gorgeous melodies around it, while "Patchwork Guilt" (the only straight electronic track here) has the same type of addictive wonky electro-catchiness that previously marked stuff like "Time Flies" and "Monorail". Given the low expectations that were cast on this album, it’s actually quite a pleasant surprise. As far as I know, a few more singles do exist, but his solo career basically ends there, as Orbital reunited in 2009.
There's no feeling of "destiny" or "the time was right" with Orbital's comeback - they straight-up admitted they were jealous of the Chemical Brothers. Let's get this out of the way right now - this is way better than both The Altogether and Blue Album, and old-school fans won't be disappointed, as this is a very hard album to dislike. It might be their most melodic album yet, as nearly every tune has a big hook, sometimes dominating the entire track. The first three tunes are all these types of exercises - opener "One Big Moment" is a straight bliss-out, with scorching synths, sharp beats, and a huge, uplifting melody. The Hartnolls know we've waited long enough, so they deliver the goods right away. They show their melodic brilliance early ("Never"), then really get to work with "New France" and "Distractions", which are more in the tradition of the bigger sounding tunes of albums past, wordless vocals and all. If you're wondering if Orbital is still relevant, look no futher than the title track, a rave-up that's constantly accelerating, and bringing in Lady Leshurr puts it over the top (in a good way). There's even a take on dubstep ("Beezlebeat"), essentially a remix of "Satan", gracefully mixing in the old with the new with a surprising amount of depth (meaning, they don't rely on drill noises like every other dubstep producer). But they're still the same as they ever were - "Stringy Acid" is a clear throwback to 1992 acid house, even re-using what sounds like an old-school TR-808! If that can't bring a smile to the face of a 40-something ex-raver, then I don't know what will. "Where is it Going?" is another in a line of classic Orbital album closers, with buzzing synths and a hook that feels too big to be contained. Had they come up with this during the In Sides days, it would be twice as long, but veteran producer Flood keeps everything short and to the point, and the result is an endlessly replayable 50 minutes.
Originally I was fine giving this four stars, but the more I listened to this, the more I realized that this really does bring back the thrill and wonder of the group's classic run, particularly the idea that beat-oriented electronic music could go way beyond the dancefloor. Every element of every track seems so perfectly placed that it's hard to imagine them doing it any better (again, "Where is it Going?" is the kind of track that makes you want to put it on repeat immediately after you hear it). Who knew we needed another Orbital album, 20 years (!) after "Halycon" and "Impact"? Plus, the second disc features a long set with five tunes from their first two albums that's a better glimpse of their live magic than any of their releases so far. I can't wait to hear how the new stuff factors in - you can practically hear the drop-in point for "Wonky" eight minutes into "Impact", and bangers like "One Big Moment" and "Stringy Acid" seem like they could be absolutely massive live. This is the album that everyone was hoping the Hartnolls still had in them when they announced their reunion in 2009.