Wednesday, June 23, 2004
The end is nigh. This summer, after 15 years, Orbital will cease to be, at least in the form that we have known and loved them. It seems wrong to say they’ve ‘split up’, because the Hartnolls are not only brothers but also an amiable pair, so there’s been no animosity, no ‘falling-out’ or ‘musical differences’; the Orbital name will simply produce no more music after this, the Blue Album.
Given that their last album proper, the messy and inconsistent but far from bad The Altogether, was widely perceived as being their worst record, and failed to make as much commercial impact as earlier efforts, Blue Album could easily have been a step too far for a band past their artistic peak. What the Hartnolls have wisely done, however, is take a step backwards. While Blue Album doesn’t break any moulds, match their best records from the mid 90s, or (quite) end their career on a triumphant high, it will almost certainly find favour with old fans because it is an undeniably good record, certainly their best since The Middle Of Nowhere and possibly even since In Sides. What makes Blue Album good is that it is a very Orbital record; it seems at points to refract every phase of their career thus far, pulling together each creative strand and echoing their past impeccably.
Album opener “Transient” doesn’t start proceedings in this manner though. Almost entirely beatless and surfing a proggy time signature, it grows from nearly arrhythmic bass pulses into an abstract lament, slowly becoming laden with elegiac yet dramatic strings. So unlike Orbital’s previous work, one can’t help but feel that “Transient” is a eulogy for their career, a mechanical mournfulness that veers into Phillip Glass territory via a repeating harpsichord momentum. But this exploration of new sonic territory is the exception that proves the rule; and so the following “Pants” is a close but less sophisticated cousin of “Adnan’s” and “Dwr Budr” from In Sides, darkly melodic and with a gentle yet determined impetus, but lacking that frisson of purpose that its antecedents had, the knowledge that “Dwr Budr” was Welsh for ‘dirty water’ and driven by ecological anger, that Adnan was a real person, a young man at that, caught up in the Baltic conflict. Likewise “Tunnel Vision” harnesses the kind of paranoid velocity perfected on “P.E.T.R.O.L” and “Technologicque Park” without being quite as strong as either.
Blue Album manages over the course of its nine tracks to push all the buttons that Orbital fans have already had pushed so deliriously well over the last decade and a half by (generally) superior albums and songs. It is dark but not oppressive (the “Kein Trink Wasser”-esque “Bath Time”, and the lounge-muzak chimes of “Easy Serv” lighten proceedings tangibly), sophisticated, atmospheric, loaded with melody and gorgeous synths, unafraid of both the dancefloor and the headphones, and touched with mania on the Sparks-starring “Acid Pants”. It even has, in “One Perfect Sunrise”, the kid of epic, pseudo-spiritual 4am rave climax that you thought they’d finished with on “Belfast” and “Halcyon” all those years ago. It may sound recycled and contrived to hell and back (as most of the album does, in truth), but this doesn’t prevent it stimulating an incredible surge of euphoria within you. It may have been done before, it may be a cliché, it may be Pavlovian, but you can’t deny that it feels good.
There are two secret trump cards on Blue Album, and they run back-to-back at the centre of the record. “Lost” is five minutes of subtle cyber-melancholy, oddly reminiscent (to me at least) of Aaliyah’s “Try Again” in its spooky, desiccated melody, and drifting through time and space with little thought for where it finally resides. “You Lot” is a different kettle of fish, and probably the best song on the album. Coming on like a beefy hybrid of “Science Friction” and “Philosophy By Numbers”, it melts away after a couple of minutes into Aphex-like ambience, before a sampled rant about man’s relationship with God (“If you want the position of God then take the responsibility”) causes it to kick in again, the key lines of the rant subverted through cybernetic filters to delirious effect. It’s one of the most glorious and effective things the Hartnolls have produced in years.
And so Blue Album is a fond farewell, a photograph album encapsulating past experiences and emotions but never quite managing to be as good as actually being there first time around. Neither their best nor their worst, it is simply the Hartnoll brothers doing what they have always done exceptionally well, which is make music. Orbital, we’ll miss you. But we’re ever so glad to have known you.
6/23/2004 10:32:00 am