Orbital: The Blue Album

The Blue Album

What can be said about a group such as Orbital? Is it possible to speak profoundly on the subject of such profoundly important music? In the realm of electronic music, it would be hard to imagine two more important figures than Paul and Philip Hartnoll. As Orbital enters retirement and the duo slowly fades into the past tense, we cast our gaze back through the preceding decade in search of our own meaning.

Certainly, Orbital didn’t invent electronic music. They didn’t invent house or techno or acid or rave. They were heirs to advances made throughout the course of 20th century music — from the creation of the theramin to the beginnings of musique concrete, from the electronic genius of Kraftwerk to the electrified funk of Afrika Bambaataa, and from the death of disco through to the dawn of house. Orbital emerged from the crucible of late ’80s British acid house, propelled by that scene’s signature energy but also animated by a discerning intelligence that set them apart from some of their more thuggish peers, and placed them more firmly in the company of the terminally precocious Detroit techno savants.

If Orbital can be considered pioneers in anything, it would probably the perception of electronic musicians as pop stars. You would be hard pressed to find two more gleefully uninteresting fellows than P & P Hartnoll. They’re not rock stars. They present themselves as studiously conscientious professional musicians, slightly embarrassed to be found in the clutch of semi-stardom and therefore somewhat reserved, but generally affable. This is the same template that would inform the careers of Underworld, the Chemical Brothers, the Orb, Moby, Fatboy Slim, the Basement Jaxx and countless “superstar” DJs. There are some who disparage electronic music for the faceless and unassuming nature of its celebrity, but the egalitarian nature of electronic music is absolutely intrinsic to any understanding of the genre as a pop phenomenon. It should always be remembered that when the Prodigy were cover featured on Rolling Stone magazine in 1997, the cover featured a photo not of the group’s mastermind Liam Howlett, but of Keith Flint, the group’s dancer.

As electronic music grew from humble beginnings, Orbital were there for almost every step of the way. The release of their first full-length (and self-titled) album in 1991 was a more portentous event than advertised. You could be forgiven for underestimating the disc, being as it was mainly a compilation of previously released house singles (including their first, the staggeringly successful “Chime”). Given the novel and frankly disposable nature of most acid house culture up to then, few would have believed it if you had insisted that this group was in it for the long haul, and that these two unassuming guys were set to become one of the most influential British group of the decade. But, amazingly, Orbital’s career didn’t end with the “green” album and “Chime”. The release of the “brown” album in 1993 was hailed as an immediate triumph, based in no small part on the success of “Halcyon+On+On”, a slightly reworked version of a track (“Halcyon”) which had appeared the previous year on the Radiccio EP.

There are still those who maintain that the brown album was Orbital’s finest moment, but they would continue to record and release staggeringly beautiful music for the remainder of the decade. 1994 saw the release of Snivelization, regarded by some as an experimental misstep but hailed by many as Orbital’s finest moment. Certainly, there’s no arguing with the pulsating grandeur of tracks such as “Are We Here?” and “Attached”, which married the groups traditionally complex electronic sound to a more ambiguous and emotionally affecting political and historical perspective. The early comparisons to Steve Reich and Miles Davis were certainly deserved, but their more emotionally rewarding material reminds me of Samuel Barber, with a rich and well-delineated sense of melancholy juxtaposed against a spry — and uniquely British — sense of humor.

1996’s In Sides took the group in a much darker direction, featuring long and moody instrumentals mostly bereft of any vocal element whatsoever. The ecological themes, which had previously bubbled near the surface, came to the fore on this album. “The Girl With The Sun In Her Head” was recorded exclusively with solar power, and tracks such as the claustrophobic “P.E.T.R.O.L.” (later used to great effect on the soundtrack to the unsettling p) and the nightmarish “Dwr Budr” (Welsh for “dirty water”).

The release of In Sides was followed by the fateful events of 1997’s short-lived and ill-fated “electronica” revolution. Whereas groups such as Orbital, the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers had been popular in Europe for the majority of the decade, America had proven immune to the charms of electronic music. Sure enough, in an effort to create “the next grunge”, the American music industry tried to introduce “electronica” as the next big thing. Orbital were commissioned to create the theme song and a smattering of incidental music for The Saint, a Val Kilmer vehicle whose soundtrack was primed to be at the vanguard of the “electronica” movement. They also contributed a reworking of their single “Satan” (with Metallica’s Kirk Hammett) for the soundtrack to Spawn, in addition to providing the entire soundtrack for the 1997 sci-fi/horror picture Event Horizon.

As we all know, “electronica” failed to achieve any real market traction in the United States, and the groups who had been among the critical and commercial vanguard of this particular British invasion were soon abandoned as the US music industry moved on to greener pastures filled with preening boy-and-girl bands. But Orbital produced what many (including myself) consider to be their finest record in 1999 with the release of The Middle of Nowhere. Eschewing the darkness of In Sides for a more considered and up-tempo conviviality, the album could be legitimately seen as a friendly corrective to the then-prevalent pretensions of epic trance. There were also traces of the late-90s big-beat sound. But ultimately, Orbital have never been influenced by any passing sound so much as their own specific approach to making music. The Middle of Nowhere stands the test of time as a near-perfect distillation of everything that makes electronic music so damned invigorating on both an intellectual and visceral level.

2001’s The Altogether represented Orbital’s first significant misstep. Markedly different in tone and content to the five albums preceding it, The Altogether was a patchwork of eleven mostly short and slightly poppy experiments. It was the first Orbital album that didn’t play as a cohesive unit, and although many of the tracks were as good as anything they had ever done, the album’s scattershot nature was a disappointment. It is best, perhaps, to view it as a sort-of sampler plate of Orbital’s many and varied influences, from the surf-punk of “Tension”, to the Tool-sampling “Tootled”, to their cover of the “Doctor ?” theme (long a concert staple and fan favorite). This album also featured my personal least favorite Orbital song, “Illuminate”, featuring a full vocal by Mr. David Gray. I can’t accuse Orbital of “selling out” by seeking to do a song with Gray, since he is actually their cousin (by marriage) and a close friend of the group, but I can say without reservation that this is easily my least favorite Orbital track. Inexplicably, it is also one the Hartnoll brothers’ favorites: go figure

The release of the Work: 1989-2002 anthology served as a decent, if perfunctory overview of the duo’s singles. Although, as is usually the case, the track listing for this collection was filled with some unaccountable gaffes, it presented an uncomfortably pat and rounded view of Orbital’s career. I remember wondering, vaguely, if this would serve as the group’s final statement. The concurrent release of their excellent entry to the Back to Mine series, with its requisite nostalgia, added to the sense of finality.

Of course, Orbital had one more card up their collective sleeves. The Blue Album is supposedly it — the last statement from one of electronic music’s definitive groups. P+P Hartnoll played their last gig in the BBC London’s Maida Vale studios on July 28th of this year, to a select crowd of friends and peers.

My wife remains eternally skeptical as to whether or not this is really the end. She’s right, of course, when she points out just how many groups have supposedly retired, only to come roaring back a few years later. But the circumstances here are different. The Hartnoll brothers didn’t have any sort of falling out. They don’t even want to stop making music. They just want to stop being Orbital, and the genuine solemnity with which they undertook their farewell tour brings to mind the unfortunate and regrettable sentiment that they mean it.

Because of this, it is nearly impossible to judge The Blue Album on its own merits. It has the unmistakable whiff of an epitaph. There are no new frontiers to be braved: none of the experimental urges that made Snivelization and In Sides so perpetually enigmatic, none of the surplus energy that made The Middle of Nowhere so invigorating, and none of the willful eclecticism that made The Alltogether so odd. The Blue Album is the quintessential Orbital album, because it manages to hit every expectation that the duo have created over the course of their 15-year career. But it meets these expectations, quite brilliantly in places, without ever truly exceeding them. Considering just how effortlessly Orbital made a career out of masterfully exceeding their audience’s expectations, their final statement cannot but be received as a slight disappointment.

The album begins with “Transient”, a moody and tentative introduction featuring the group’s characteristic metallic squelches contrasted with mournful strings. The album builds slowly from there into “Pants”, a mid-tempo techno number in the vein of their “brown” album-era material. “Tunnel Vision” is slightly more hectic, bringing to mind the dense, emotionally charged environment of In Sides.

“Lost” is a slow and contemplative number that brings to mind early triumphs such as “Belfast” and “Forever”, but especially the darker middle portion of In Sides. “You Lot” is an early favorite, featuring a classic Orbital breakbeat under a pile of whooshing and swirling synth lines brilliantly evocative of The Middle of Nowhere’s first half. This also marks the first use of vocal elements on The Blue Album, more than halfway through the track listing, and courtesy of an appropriately ominous sample taken from the 2002 British film The Second Coming.

“Bath Time” marks the first appearance of Orbital’s cheeky British humor, featuring a series of goofy synth line cavorting merrily over a typical mid-tempo Orbital beat. “Acid Pants” is another tongue-in-cheek track, a raved-up version of “Pants” featuring the divisive use of an annoying vocal sample that keeps on repeating “When the laugh track starts then the fun starts” over and over again. My wife can’t stand the sample and it totally ruins the song for her, whereas I don’t mind it so much but still find it annoying in repetition. If I didn’t know better I’d say the boys were having some laughs at our expense — but I do know better, right? Right?

“Easy Serv” is a relaxed and wistful samba-infused number that can’t help but conjure up images of tidying up the house and packing suitcases. It serves as a perfect introduction to the album’s final, climactic track, “One Perfect Sunrise”, featuring the vocal talents of Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard. In many ways, this track is really the perfect capstone to Orbital’s career. The driving force behind their music has always been an irrepressible desire to channel the spiritual abandon of dance music through the prism of a very deliberate intellectual rigor. They’ve experimented with just about every type of song under the sun, but in the end it always comes back to that numinous, pit-of-your-stomach moment when the sun in rising and the DJ is spinning that one perfect tune that makes everything come into sharp focus. It’s the proverbial money-shot, that one blinding minute where all pretense falls away and you’re left feeling very alone and very together all at once. It may seem cliched, but they wanted to go out on a high comparable to “Belfast” and “Halcyon” and “Attached” and “Style” — can you blame them? After fifteen years they may be playing a familiar tune, but its such a good tune that you hardly care.

So, that’s a career, then. As sad as I am to see them go, we are infinitely richer for their having passed by in the first place. I am reluctant to invoke the hoary clich√© that this is the “end of an era” — but in a very real and true way, this is the end of an era. Electronic music as a legitimate genre of pop basically came of age during Orbital’s tenure.

Godspeed, boys, and good luck.