Phil and Paul Hartnoll pieced together their classic electronic single “Chime” on their father’s broken tape recorder back in 1989. The conventional wisdom is that the total cost of recording this single was less than £1, although some estimates have it as high as £2.50; either way, it was a landmark in UK techno music.
“Chime” is the first song on Work 1989-2002, this eagerly-awaited greatest hits compilation. Sure, it sounds a little dated 13 years later, but (even in the truncated three-minute version here) you can hear exactly what turned people on in those pre-Pro Tools days. Sure, all they were trying to do was sound exactly like Detroit electrohouse people such as Carl Cox—but somehow it sounded quintessentially English. Maybe it was the way they just couldn’t resist messing with Motor City Minimalism by throwing in extra touches and spreading the (admittedly thin) melody amongst various different synthesizer lines; maybe it was just the orientation towards the growing rave scene. (The name “Orbital” came from the circular M25 train line that most club kids used to go from rave to rave.) But whatever it was, it set people on absolute fire.
Work saves Orbital’s second big hit, “Belfast”, for the end of the disc, and lets it play on for its entire eight-minute length, which is gratifying: I would have hated to miss that funky breakdown at the 3:29 mark. In between, we get songs from their albums—heavier on the first two, generally revered as their classics—from a Spawn soundtrack remake of their “Satan” single (with Metallica’s Kirk Hammett rather appropriately on guitar), and from their remake of “Kinetic”, now called “Frenetic.” The order is far from chronological, and most of these songs are edited heavily from their album and club versions. Why out of order? Why pared down? I have my suspicions . . . but they’ll have to wait.
First, let’s talk about Orbital as composers. The importance of the Hartnolls often overshadows their brilliance as songwriters, but this collection should change all that forever, at least for our poor benighted American ears. Their good timing would have been nothing without their gift for hooks and orchestral timbre. Every piece here has three or four or seven different riffs that stick like peanut butter and intertwine and break apart and come back together. If I didn’t think it too pretentious, I’d compare them to Bach; the Hartnolls have a knack for themes and variations that few of their contemporaries even bothered with.
I was surprised at how unified the record sounds. It’s hilarious to hear the early aggro-thrash of “Choice”, with its loud political ranting, right up against 1999’s “Illuminate”, with its smooth David Gray vocal part, and realize that they sound pretty similar even though they were recorded a decade apart. I have heard some critics wax wroth over the decision to include “Illuminate” on this album, because it features Gray (who I guess is supposed to represent “sell-out”) and because it comes from their latest album, the disappointing The Altogether. Maybe I’m supposed to affect a superior purist-type pose, but I just don’t see it. Even though I’m not exactly a Gray groupie, I love “Illuminate”. Sure, it’s pop music, but it was probably the best pop music released by anyone other than Missy Elliott last year—its circular structure is the perfect backdrop for Gray’s great chorus: “Building a wall inside / A wall ‘round my heart”. I’m going on record as saying that purist critics should just chill the hell out on this one.
Other beautiful stuff abounds.“Halcyon (+ On + On)” really does suggest the tension and false bliss of that drug, which their mother was on for years and years—not an easy feat by any means. I was a little surprised that their 1994 album Snivilization is only represented by one song, the Top 30 hit “Are We Here?”, and that in massively edited form. Yeah, it’s a great song, with Allison Goldfrapp’s guest vocals floating above a robot dance beat that sounds simultaneously otherworldly and way too human, but why give us only four minutes of a 16-minute song?
That was probably to make room for the full-sized anthem “Impact”, off their second record (generally called “the brown album”). This track shows everything that is great about the Hartnoll brothers. It’s intense but not depressing, heavily layered (great dissonant fake horns this time) but with a lot of respect for each layer, and danceable without being mindless. The subtitle of this song, “The Earth Is Burning”, gives it a kind of political consciousness that they are more or less known for, but there are no screaming “Oh God help me” samples or crash noises here—just a sad wailing voice that shows up to cast a pall over the happy house rhythm. Does this mean that the Earth is already burning, somehow, what with global warming and toxins and all? Or just that people are groovin’ on the dance floor? Either way, it’s key, especially when the spaceship noises come in at the 5:30 mark to change everything up again. It isn’t until the eight-minute mark that the dude starts talking about “crying for survival”. Splendid.
Time and time again, Orbital shows that they are the hardest-working men in techno. One never gets the sense that they just turn on their computers, press play, leave the room for a pint, and come back to hear their new hit. No, these are compositions, shot through with humanity and love. Check the extra-squelchy “Style”, from The Middle of Nowhere, or the tiny little piece of “The Box” from In Sides. You won’t find any more human-sounding pieces on anyone’s list. They always sound like they’re working hard, which is probably why they’re the only techno band to boast “classic live performances,” most notably at Glasto in 1994. They’re more than just laptoppers: they’re homo sapiens who craft their music out of love.
Which is, finally, what’s weird about this collection. There’s no way that anyone who is familiar with Orbital would want this CD. You just get too frustrated at the eviscerated versions of your favorite songs, and it’s impossible to judge the progression of the band when their songs are all out of order. No, this is just for Orbital neophytes, who will get all geeked up about finally discovering this music and rush out immediately to get everything in their catalog. Fans who are waiting for a best-of will just have to accept it: owning all the albums is the only way to do that.
But if you’re just joining up now: welcome to the Orbital universe. It’s a wonderful place to be.