Melody Maker? 1993
by Simon Reynolds
Orbital would deserve a place of honour in the pantheon of
'spiritual techno' if they'd only ever recorded 1990's shimmering,
hymnal "Chime" and the poignant cyberdelic symphony "Belfast". After
an undistinguished phase (a so-so debut LP, the indifferent
"Mutations" EP), the Hartnoll Bros had something of a creative
renaissance with last autumn's entrancing "Halcyon". Now this new
album (untitled, like the first) puts them firmly back in the
firmament, only a couple of clouds below The Aphex Twin.
Orbital know their drone theory, and the opening "(Time
Becomes)" reworks an idea of systems-music pioneer Steve Reich: two
tape loops of the same phrase ("time becomes a loop") run in and out
of synch. Actually, this Moebius-mantra irritates rather than
mesmerises, so it's a relief when they abandon conceptualism for real
substance, in the form of a four-part electro-symphony. "Lush 3-1"
is a tantalising, tremulous shimmer-swirl of synth-textures that
feels as sensual as spring rain. Orbital ooze a panoply of plangent
tones that seem to sing from the deepest chambers of your heart; an
inner choir of babytalk oohs-and-aahs that resembles nothing so much
as the hyperventilating harmonies on MBV's "Loveless".
"Lush 3-2" introduces an ethereal girl-voice whose ecstasy could
be either ecclesiastical or sexual, an unearthly horn-section, and a
rubbery bass-line that itches in your bloodstream. "Impact (The
Earth Is Burning") slips deeper into a squelchamatic Roland 303
acieeed groove, topped with Seventies sci-fi movie dialogue. The
symphony's last movement, "Remind", is their drastic remix of Meat
Beat Manifesto's "Mindstream", stripped of every last trace of the
original so that it's all Orbital and even more luscious than before:
a brimming, blossoming efflorescence of ever-widening wonderment, the
sound of a cup of joy overfloweth-ing. The goosepimples run riot!
On the flip, "Planet Of The Shapes" is a hissing and clicking
contraption that could belong on LFO"s classic "Frequencies" LP. It's
dank and morbid, until the sunburst entrance of sitar chimes and
flute-twirls. "Walk Now" shimmies nicely, but the didgeridoo (which I
always thought was the ancestor for the Roland 303 acid drone) is
already a techno cliche. The Detroit-styled "Monday" is crisp-and-
spry, glassy-and-classy, but a bit inconsequential.
Best comes last, with "Halycon & On & On", a fully-developed
version of the last single. Here, the tremulous New Age euphoria of
Kirsty of Opus III is modulated on a sampling keyboard and swollen
into the full-blown mystic bliss of Saint Teresa. Kirsty's breathless
gasps are looped into a locked groove of almost unendurable ecstasy,
such that your insides shimmer and shudder. "Halcyon" is further
proof that rave culture is all about clitoris envy. Where the multi-
orgasmic disco of Donna Summer's "Love To Love You Baby" invited male
lust, techno's sped-up girl-vox conjure a hyper-real, supra-human
rapture that (male) ravers identity with and aspire to. It's what
postmodern theorists call "gender tourism" (in rock terms, think of
Brett Anderson's swoony languour). As warm as plasma and as eerie as
ectoplasm, Orbital's (out-of-)body music is the true sound of
[tk - review of Snivilisation, 1994]
The Middle of Nowhere
by Simon Reynolds
Orbital's place in the Rave Hall of Fame would be secure if they'd only ever released three tracks--1990's spangly-tingly "Chime"; its original B-side, the heart-string tugging techno-symphony "Belfast"; and 1992's "Halcyon+on+on," 9 minutes of densely braided, wordlessly rhapsodic vocals that make you feel like you're hovering on the brink of a swoon. "Halcyon," especially, showcases Orbital's forte--melody and harmony, as opposed to dance music's real domain (rhythm, timbre and space). Orbital's beats, rarely more than adequate, are generally relegated to a relatively low position in the mix; texturally, Phil and Paul Hartnoll favor plangent, plinky, melodious timbres that barely stray from the orchestral spectrum (pianos, strings, woodwinds, and so forth). All of which explains why Orbital's music is simultaneously utterly lovely and yet somewhat conservative, at least from the stern perspective of purist club fiends and avant-technoheads.
In truth, after Snivilisation's flirtation with jungle breakbeats in '94, Orbital lost interest in keeping up with the state of the art. The Middle of Nowhere picks up where 1996's In Sides left off--stirring soundtrack music in search of a movie. With its piping string cascades, trumpet solo and wonderstruck female vocal, opener "Way Out" recalls John Barry's James Bond scores. Throughout the album, Orbital eschew the infinitesmal subtle shades of the digital palette in favor of deliberately quaint synth-tones--the soundpainter's equivalent of using only primary colors. As if to signpost this deliberate retrogression, "Style" starts by sampling instructions for playing the stylophone, an incredibly rudimentary toy-synth popular with Brit-kids in the early 1970s.
The riffs too are enjoyably oldfashioned--corrugated, rectilinear stabs that flashback to vintage rave anthems by Cubic 22 and The Scientist, the 1991 Euro-hardcore sound dissed as "heavy metal techno". The guitar-laced "I Don't Know You People" actually recalls English punk bands like The Ruts and The Stranglers, right down to the thuggish bassline and baroque organ vamps. But then Orbital basically are a rock group in electronic clothing. They've played the Royal Albert Hall, they've released a live single, and they sell shitloads of albums to a hugely loyal fanbase. In the high turnover world of dance culture, Orbital have endured, precisely through downplaying any rhythm-science that might confuse your average beat-deaf rock fan, and concentrating instead on crafting tunes that sing in your heart.