Orbital's Cellar Monsters and Cosmic Despair

Photo: Kenny McCracken

Phil and Paul Hartnoll reunite as Orbital for a second time to sculpt another career highpoint with Monsters Exist.

Monsters Exist


14 September 2018

For Orbital's 1991 debut album, the track listing for the US edition was different from the running order released in their native land England. For their fourth album In Sides, most copies came with a bonus disc. Depending on where in the world you lived, the contents of that bonus disc differed. Their sixth album The Altogether was a double. Now that brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll have reunited for the second time, the electronic music duo known as Orbital once again have more material than they know what to do with for their new album Monsters Exist.

Fans who pick up the deluxe edition are treated to a grand total of 17 tracks spanning 84 minutes of new material, provided they don't remind two reprise appearances in the form of one instrumental mix and one remix. But even if you can't get your hands on this limited edition, a single disc copy of Monsters Exist still rewards you with a bewilderingly unique album, one that manages to perk your ears in the same ways that their earlier albums did. Seriously, if you thought that 2012's reunion Wonky was a little on the underwhelming side, you would be doing yourself a favor by picking up Monsters Exist.

The cover art is a big tip-off that you're about to get yourself into something strange. John Greenwood's surreal cartoon work bears a resemblance to Jim Woodring's work viewed through an extra nightmare filter. The title track, which starts the album, goes the extra terrifying mile in convincing you that, yes, monsters do exist. As a harmless keyboard couplet rolls around and around in the treble clef, a series of ominous tones are stabbed out at the opposite end. They are too melodramatic for any "serious" IDM but are also too scary for any light listening. As the song gathers some mid-tempo steam, these troubling tones are joined by orchestral hits that just can't be listening to while alone at night. Any softer tones thrown in to simulate melody are overpowered by the doom this bass sound continues to bring, and it's a tremendous thing to hear from a band that is, according to some, 25 years removed from their artistic peak.

For "Hoo Hoo Ha Ha", you've finally entered the dance club, but something still isn't right. It's as if the Joker did the interior decorating and the maniacal laughter of its chirping synthesizers is destined to follow you forever. Even the main melody sounds bent and broken, at the mercy of a playful pitch-bender. "P.H.U.K." is playful and chipper, but don't count on that settling into a constant mood when it is punctured by melancholy passages and preceded by a track containing a sample that proclaims with a shout that the world "is poison!"

"Tiny Foldable Cities" sounds like one of the cables connecting the synthesizer to the speakers kept shorting out, the bottom end of "Buried Deep Within" returns us to the aesthetic of the title track, and "There Will Come a Time" features British physicist Brian Cox waxing philosophical about how everything in the universe will die one day: "In the far future, there will come a time when time has no meaning as the universe expands and fades. Our descendants, isolated on an island adrift in an ocean of dark, will watch as the galaxy evaporates away. How does that make you feel?" Orbital's seven-minute soundtrack to this Cosmos-lite episode is appropriately amorphous and haunting. But I still can't detect the significance in a sentence like "Meaning is not eternal, and yet meaningness exists today because the universe means something to us!" The last "us" is punctuated by multiple voices chiming in at once as if that were to clarify everything.

If you find this to be too heavy-handed or corny for your techno needs, there is an instrumental mix on the bonus disc. Kareful's remix of "Tiny Foldable Cities" gives the track a more relaxed feeling while managing to keep its sense of mystery intact. As for the other six selections, they are more light and frivolous in nature in comparison to the parent album. "Kaiju" is just some fun '90s-era EDM, "A Long Way From Home" is a 90-second lullaby performed on a classical guitar, and "Analogue Test Oct 16" sits somewhere between synth noodling and synthpop.

Things start to get skewed on "Fun With the System" in a manner not unlike "Hoo Hoo Ha Ha", though it does so without all the menace. Orbital tackle that lovely paradox known as ambient techno of "Dressing Up in Other People's Clothes" and whip up something that sounds like a soundtrack to a blindingly dizzying light show on "To Dream Again". Just a cursory listen to the 34-minute bonus disc makes it crystal clear why these selections were omitted from Monsters Exist.

With just nine tracks, Orbital once again prove that their chosen genre of music need not be so devoid of emotion or variety, and why they, despite the time off, continue to remain at the top of a heap heavily populated with copycats. Given that they've disbanded twice, we can't be certain about anything in the Hartnoll brothers' future. But with an album like Monsters Exist, their legacy remains securely locked into place.





'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.


Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.


Country Music's John Anderson Counts the 'Years'

John Anderson, who continues to possess one of country music's all-time great voices, contemplates life, love, mortality, and resilience on Years.


Rory Block's 'Prove It on Me' Pays Tribute to Women's Blues

The songs on Rory Block's Prove It on Me express the strength of female artists despite their circumstances as second class citizens in both the musical world and larger American society.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 3, Echo & the Bunnymen to Lizzy Mercier Descloux

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part three with Echo & the Bunnymen, Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu and more.


Wendy Carlos: Musical Pioneer, Reluctant Icon

Amanda Sewell's vastly informative new biography on musical trailblazer Wendy Carlos is both reverent and honest.


British Folk Duo Orpine Share Blissful New Song "Two Rivers" (premiere)

Orpine's "Two Rivers" is a gently undulating, understated folk song that provides a welcome reminder of the enduring majesty of nature.


Blesson Roy Gets "In Tune With the Moon" (premiere)

Terry Borden was a member of slowcore pioneers Idaho and a member of Pete Yorn's band. Now he readies the debut of Blesson Roy and shares "In Tune With the Moon".


In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.


Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.


Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.


Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.


Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.


'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.


Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.


From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.


Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.


Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".


On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.