Photo: Kenny McCracken via Magnum PR

Orbital Entertain Our Collective ‘Optical Delusion’

Orbital’s Optical Delusion is what we have all grown accustomed to with them, but there are plenty of bold moments that skew the imagination with each revisit.

Optical Delusion
London Records
17 February 2023

Orbital‘s Optical Delusion begins with a track named “Rina Ringa”, a steadily pulsating techno number that features the Mediaeval Baebes singing the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie”. Most American children grew up learning the third line as “ashes, ashes” before rounding it out with “we all fall down”, but the standard British version turns the third line into either “a tissue, a tissue” or “A-tishoo! A-tishoo!” In other words, chanting out a sneezing fit.

Orbital subtitled “Ringa Ringa” as “The Old Pandemic Folk Song”. When Paul Hortnoll, one half of the brotherly team that is Orbital, first heard this recording of the Mediaeval Baebes singing the nursery rhyme, he felt it was a perfect musical folkloric update to the age of COVID-19. A 21st-century plague isn’t the only thread woven through Optical Delusion, an album which, by its very title, reminds us time and again that humans always trip themselves up by perceiving only what they want to perceive. You don’t have to spend a lot of time on social media to see how pervasive this Optical Delusion truly is.

Paul and Phil Hartnoll have remained busy since their second reunion but haven’t had a proper record together since 2018’s startlingly excellent Monsters Exist. Like its predecessor, Optical Delusion features a striking painting from artist John Greenwood that matches Orbital’s musical approach and aesthetic. Unlike Monsters Exist, Optical Delusion features many guests. Of the ten songs here, eight feature a collaborator of some kind.

The first single, “Dirty Rat”, comes with a confrontational spoken word performance from Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods. For lack of a better description, it’s quite the British rant. “Blaming everyone in hospital / Blaming everyone at the bottom of the English Channel / Blaming everyone who doesn’t look like a fried animal!” It’s a cautionary tale of voters troubling their own house: “This is espionage / And you’re the self-saboteur!” Williamson’s thick accent is mixed with a nervous warble that feeds into genuine punk energy, forming a political apex Optical Delusion of which Phil Hartnoll says plainly, “It’s a really simple statement. You voted for them, so take responsibility for your own actions.”

The rest of Optical Delusion may be less barbed in its attack, but it still has something to say. Even some of the song titles read a little too much like doomsday warnings: “Day One”, “Are You Alive”, “The New Abnormal”, and “Requiem for the Pre Apocalypse”. But a feeling of futility doesn’t always mean there’s a lack of vitality. “Frequency”, a twisting, grinding piece of electronic fog showcasing the Little Pest on warped and treated vocals, rides on stuttering beats, and one hell of a bass line.

Anna B Savage’s performance on the lonely-sounding “Home” brings her within whispering distance of being a chanteuse, while Dina Ipavic’s voice on “Day One” is borderline operatic. The Little Pest makes an encore appearance on the rather abstract penultimate number “What a Surprise”, a track that leans against the art of sampling more than usual. The final song, “Moon Princess”, featuring Coppe, is one of the more elastic moments on the album, one that treats all the synthesizer textures like taffy to string about rather than just parts to layer on one another.

For all that Optical Delusion has going for it, it just doesn’t feel nearly as crazy or unique as Monsters Exist. Many parts sound like the Orbital we have all grown accustomed to over the years. There aren’t many bold tracks, but plenty of bold moments can skew the imagination with each revisit. Like their first reunion album Wonky, Optical Delusion makes a case for Orbital remaining a creative working force without actually being their best work.

RATING 7 / 10