[9 April 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
For a while there, Orbital was done. DJing brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll admitted that their collective inspiration had run dry and that they weren’t interested in wasting anyone’s time if they just weren’t into the Orbital thing anymore. Some artists take sabbaticals, but the silence of Orbital felt like it was going to be permanent. After toiling through the underground of techno, ambient and rave for so many years while gradually surfacing to the main stages, it’s probably easy to believe the brothers Hartnoll when they said they had just run out of ideas. But if 21st century pop music has taught us one thing, it’s that longstanding acts like Orbital, given enough time, can regroup without any problems. In 2009, Orbital reclaimed their name at the Big Chill music festival. From there they gigged regularly to crowds who were content to hear new material. The last time Orbital had an album was in 2004 with Blue Album. Children who were born at the time of Blue Album‘s release are probably all learning their multiplication tables at this point, so it’s high time to rev up the Orbital engine for round two, to give Wonky a fair shake and see if Paul and Phil Hartnoll can still make people feel deep emotions while they dance.
Well, Orbital fans everywhere can breathe easy. Not only is your group back, but they’re still good. More time spent with Wonky is time getting acquainted with that old friend electronica, which takes its sweet time developing mood and melody. The art of the beat still gets shuttled around as it does on other Orbital releases. But just like on other Orbital releases, what rides on top of the mix takes priority over the rhythmic foundations underneath. In other words, Wonky is a danceable album that is capable of taking you to lower depths. Old analog synths are dug out of storage, samples are kicked around en masse, and they even bring the old showstopper “Satan” down to grinding dub tempo as “Beelzedub”. In other words, it’s Orbital doing what they do best… again.
Wonky has a vague arc to it, one that doesn’t tell a story but prepares you for travel. The opener “One Big Moment” is the rise-and-shine wakeup call that allows for adjustment before it starts a gentle seesaw of clicks and buzzes. The locked-on beat and sashaying melody of “Straight Sun” takes you just beyond the barrier, closer to the album’s centerpiece (whatever that may be). “Never”, leaked on Orbital’s earlier this year, thrives on the same attributes though it percolates at a far slower rate with a syncopated halftime beat. “Distractions” has an even more deceptive start, with synth lines and vocal samples that sound like any other dance floor staple. All of a sudden, someone opens the doors to the industrial floors and the song has a new light in which to fly. Its segue into “Stringy Acid” never fails to surprise, stacking chords on top of chords, effectively disguising what key Orbital just came from and to which key they are headed. The start of the aforementioned “Beelzedub” interrupts Wonky‘s brisk flow due not only to its dirge-like tempo, but also to the guttural grindings that propel the track. Then again, the Hartnolls admit to intentionally challenging their dance audiences with songs like “Satan” and its recent successor.
Wonky features two guest vocalists, Zola Jesus on “New France” and Lady Leshurr on the title track. The latter neither bolsters nor subtracts from the album’s overall quality. If anything, it treats Zola Jesus’ voice as just another instrument to slide into the mix along with the pumping sounds of sky-high electronics. It’s with the song “Wonky” where Orbital indulges in their weirder side. Instead of simple keyboard motifs driving the song, the Hartnolls opt for a kitchen sink approach with metallic clangs and the digital manipulation of the keys and the vocals during the supposed “refrain”. Lady Leshurr’s performance, crammed with plenty of rapid fire wow-wow-wows, zoom-zoom-zooms delivered in a baby doll groan adds to the addled feeling already established by the music. It’s hard to tell what would have been a better title for the song, “Wonky” or “Distractions”.
Wonky touches down with a rhetorical question: “Where Is It Going?” It’s a fair question to ask since Paul and Phil Hartnoll were once so scared for their own capacity to create that they had to call it quits for a while. Will the well ever run dry again, or was that just a fluke? People have a right to be suspicious since many veteran statesman of pop music have a tendency to disappoint fans after a long nap. But these are the people who think none of this stuff will ever take the place of “Chime” or “The Girl with the Sun in Her Head” because they don’t want it to. If Wonky doesn’t live up to be an Orbital classic, we can all rest assured that one is just around the corner.