|Track||Album / EP|
|Belfast||III (EP) / Orbital I|
|Lush 3-1 and 3-2||Orbital II|
|Halcyon + On + On||Orbital II|
|Are We Here?||Snivilisation|
|Ska'd for Life (Instrumental Mix)||Back To Mine 10|
|You Lot||Blue Album|
Orbital: Phil and Paul Hartnoll
Contributor: Rob Langham
On leaving university in 1990, I spent a couple of years treading water musically, wheeling out my Wedding Present and Sonic Youth records for their thousandth plays, marooned in the decidedly less exciting quarters of Reading after three years in Madchester-era Manchester (the local shoegaze scene notwithstanding) and lacking the wherewithal and inclination to seek out anything new.
Pixies’ underwhelming post-Doolittle efforts signalled that enough was enough, however – and it was time to take a chance on something new. The album I chose from the racks of Friar Street’s HMV was Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha and while in retrospect that album, for all its excellence, merely tweaks the indie template, it was nonetheless a gateway for me to explore matters that were a whole lot livelier.
At the time, UK dance music was split down the middle between puffa-jacket wearing Londonistas, all urban grit and scowls, and the slightly curious band of misfits that centred upon the legendary Megadog events – the latter influenced by world music, the short lived and unlamented ‘crusty’ scene, baggie, fluffy jumpers and muddy fields. Indeed, Andy Weatherall, DJ and high priest of the former faction at one time, spoke disparagingly of ‘jugglers’ when referring to the provincial dance scene.
Never in the least bit trendy, Orbital nonetheless fell into the latter camp and for a gauche guy in his early twenties who was about as likely to attend a night at the Ministry of Sound or Club UK as to be drafted in as a replacement host for Blankety Blank, the Hartnoll brothers’ homespun, all-inclusive take on dance music was very welcome indeed, especially given that the lush synths recalled the dancier tracks I had engaged with in the previous decade such as New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle.
Over the next couple of decades, Orbital, named after the mighty London ring road that was still in its relative infancy and had served as a jumping off point for illegal raves, became one of the leading lights of the dance landscape, paving the way for the ever so slightly ridiculous ‘Superstar DJ’ era of the late nineties and accompanying their peers, Leftfield, The Chemical Brothers and Underworld into the nation’s consciousness, skilfully throwing off disdainful descriptions of ‘white boy techno’ and providing a soundtrack to the era that became every bit as indelible as that of the parallel Britpop universe with which they occasionally interacted.
Along the way there were artistically but probably not financially ill advised forays into the mainstream including the opening credits to the movie, The Saint and a techno take on the Doctor Who theme as well as some Glastonbury shows that achieved near legendary status. I saw them in venues as varied as the Fillmore in San Francisco and the Royal Albert Hall, the venue’s galleried seating not preventing a right old knees up.
So Orbital provided cores of great club bangers, one or two of which I’ve included, but in assessing their best work, I’ve been inclined to select tracks where the duo tried something a little different, the occasions when they drew on the latest craze in British dance music – and it did always tend to be British, be it jungle, drum ‘n’ bass, dubstep, grime or whatever.
The band’s first two albums were untitled and have come to be known, somewhat unimaginatively, as Orbital I and Orbital II. This certainly represents the most ‘rave’ section of their career, but it was closing track Belfast, a lush, contemplative, transcendentally gorgeous chill-out exercise that was to become one of their all-time greats. Later in the decade, it was to appear on the soundtrack of Human Traffic, a film which I loved at the time but which I found myself watching through my fingers with horror two decades later. Sometimes things are best left in the past but the tune is still good.
Amid those early full-length affairs, the act released a number of singles and EPs and these were always good value. Belfast also appeared on the III EP which actually predated the first album by a few months in 1991. Alongside it, one of the band’s most reliably popular live tunes, Satan represented Orbital at their most hard hitting, the track making use of a sample from an unlikely source, The Butthole Surfers’ Sweat Loaf. With LC1 another cut on the release fully good enough to make this list and featuring a sample of former World of Sport presenter Fred Dinenage describing an alien invasion, this was a stunning manifesto for the genre.
A month before the release of the first album, Midnight appeared as an advance single but it’s the Double A-side to that effort, the insistently pacey Choice that confirmed the rich vein of form the duo were in. Again, a sample borrowed from the heavier end of the musical spectrum, Crucifix’s Annihilation was used at a time when the fall of the Berlin Wall had ushered in a whole raft of new uncertainties: war in the Gulf and the Balkans, regime change in Russia and, at home, the Poll Tax riots and Criminal Justice Bill. ‘PEACE OR ANNIHILATION?’ was the simple ‘choice’ of the title.
At the time, naysayers might accuse Orbital of a certain tinniness – the crowd who’ll liken the ability to dance to techno as a love of the sound of a car alarm. Unfair for sure, but on second LP, Orbital II, the band’s sound became a whole lot fuller and it’s with the seamless Lush 3-1 and 3-2 and Halcyon + On + On that the band reached their majority. The latter, featuring vocals from one hit wonder Kirsty Hawkshaw of Opus III, was melodic indeed and featured on the outstanding Serious Road Trip compilation designed to raise funds for those disadvantaged by the war in Bosnia. Both tracks were cornerstones of those legendary Glasto performances.
As the nineties reached their adolescence, the gentler, pastoral end of dance music culture started to take a back seat. I myself moved to the UK capital, a rain soaked post-Thatcherite city where the shiny new temples of the financial class existed cheek by jowl with the forgotten slums of the poor. Hitherto only associated with black music at second remove, Are We Here? from the band’s third, most complex and innovative album, Snivilisation, was an environmental and existential call to arms that made use of London’s latest creation, the jaggedy, cacophonous rhythms of Jungle, in the window before that genre softened into the more user-friendly but still distinctive mode of drum ‘n’ bass. The breakbeats on the track clatter thrillingly and make use of the vocals of Alison Goldfrapp, herself to mutate into a major star in the subsequent years.
Orbital’s fourth full length outing, In Sides is often acclaimed as their masterpiece and pretty flawless it is too, prefaced by the release of a mighty single in four movements, The Box, and sealed with the twenty minute topping, Out There Somewhere. With subsequent long players The Middle Of Nowhere and The Altogether signalling a slight decline in relevance, it wasn’t until 2002 and the chance to curate an entry into the superb Back To Mine series that Orbital again hit top form. Ska’d For Life provided evidence of a long-standing love of The Specials and others amid an album that featured The Selecter, John Barry, PJ Harvey and Tangerine Dream – it’s a copper-bottomed stunner of a compilation.
Forward two years and the satisfying Blue Album was a real return to form. Listening to it on a trip to New Zealand, its charms suited the eerie volcanic landscapes to perfection while You Lot broke in the middle to reveal a wonderfully chosen sample of Christopher Eccleston addressing a crowd in underrated and slightly barmy Brit TV series, The Second Coming, a show that saw the Mancunian actor come back as Jesus and ascend into heaven from Manchester City’s Maine Road stadium. As a track, it was a guarantee for an audience to lose the plot – “Are you ready for that much power? YOU LOT?”.
As the years wore on, the excuse for sabbaticals and full on splitting up became more regular and this onlooker for one began to lose track as to whether the Hartnolls were still a going concern. The band did eventually sign off for good after the appearance of Wonky, their eighth studio album in 2012 and one that again displayed their urge to innovate and take on board ideas via the grime inflected title track. It was on New France, however, that Orbital once again knocked it out of the park, American-Russian singer Zola Jesus providing a new soundtrack to the continent’s early fur traders and Mississippi Purchase. As a whole, Wonky more than lives up to the band’s high standards and provides a fitting epitaph to a near quarter century of excellence.