Orbital / Around the World: The Brothers Hartnoll on the Long and Wonky Road
This special feature originally appeared in Magnetic on May 22, 2012. It’s a travel diary and an in-depth primer on Orbital, one of techno’s greatest acts of all time. I met up with them in Paris, France, for their Wonky album tour and reunion come back. They would split again the next year for five years until announcing in 2017 they were reforming for good. The story’s parting sentiment has held true. SBTRKT, Machinedrum and Kraftwerk also feature.
“I think electronic music sounds quaint and old fashioned. Just look at electric organs. It’s easy for me to say that because I really like vintage synthesizers. I always find myself going back to the point where I’d like to include one of these big analogue cinema hall organs, the big ones that take up the whole structure of the building.” — Paul Hartnoll of Orbital
I’ve traveled halfway around the world to see Orbital. I’m not in Europe to dig up history, but to find the future now. Returning with their first new album in six years, Wonky — a clever trip through star bright melodies and dragon booty bass — brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll are back at the controls and ready for the next chapter in a storied career of ups and downs.
We’re sitting at a cafe in Paris’ hip Marais neighborhood on Rue Oberkampf before a record release party for Wonky at club Nouveau Casino, a sleek spot with chandeliers and bronze ceiling tiles a la Jules Verne that spike down like whipped meringue. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, just an American and two Brits in the City of Lights talking about techno.
Right now, Paul’s already envisioning the next Orbital album, waxing dreamy over using these massive contraptions from the silent film era. For a second, I can imagine a rejiggered Orbital organ as a musical time machine, with steam pouring out of its pipes and lights flashing in complex mathematical patterns.
“They’re the size of a fucking house,” Paul continues with childlike enthusiasm. “They’re absolutely bonkers. They’re designed to make live sound effects for film in cinemas like trains and whistles. They’re astounding synthesizers. I’d like to get one of those. There’s one that lights up like a big art-deco hall, whenever you go to the Odeon, but it never comes out.”
Phil, the older of the two, is nursing some coffee after a morning zip across the Chunnel from London. He’s more the rhythm man of the pair, forever dedicated to the beat of the drum.
Paul, infamous for his love of film composers Ennio Morricone and John Barry, is wearing a wicked t-shirt of an undead cat shooting ultraviolet rays from its hourglass eyes (Orbital’s latest video is a comedic take on feline paranoia). He opts for a “small beer,” worrying in jest that our French waiter may bring back a miniature bottle fit for a gnome.
Always quick to laughter and young at heart, Phil and Paul are old enough to be many of today’s ravers’ parents. Deadmau5? Skrillex? They were doing jumping jacks in grade school P.E. when Orbital were busy melting brains with their incendiary live shows, paving the way for every electronic act that has followed.
It’s a passion for playing live that brought the Hartnoll brothers back together in 2009. You can feel that same sibling spark on Wonky. The opening track ‘One Big Moment’ has all the magic of classic Orbital — including vocal samples about love, war and spiritual transformation — but is quicker on the attack. Its bass notes are more vertical and snarling. The harmonics ushered in by dubstep are compressed into quavering hymns.
About halfway through, Orbital motors the bass line up and down the octaves, dripping liquid fire right down the spine. It’s a clever salute to the new and old.
“We had about fifteen year’s worth of music that people loved and that we loved and it’s nice to play that for people but then eventually we wanted to inject new stuff,” Paul explains. “So the album was born out of wanting to play new stuff to play live.”
“Certainly for my part I’d been listening to less dance music,” he says. “So after two years of going to all these festivals and hearing contemporary sounds, listening to stuff at the back of the stage or standing in the audience stone cold sober was really refreshing, studying what I did like and what I didn’t like, what worked and what didn’t work.”
I’ve been writing about electronica for almost two decades and one of the main reasons I always took techno to heart is because of Orbital. I went to my first raves in 1993 and 1994, mostly Moontribe parties in the California desert. Orbital was a fixed star for the techno faithful in those days. Before I educated myself about the likes of Derrick May, Arthur Russell or Kraftwerk, Orbital was right there lighting the way. Their second album, released in 1993, the so-called “Brown Album,” is still in my top five of all time. It’s the first techno album I ever bought and to my mind pretty much perfect.
Wonky contains the DNA of that genius but successfully folds the more experimental and song-crafty direction of their later efforts into an airtight experience. Repeated listens reveal new layers under the dense sparkling of its surface. Aided by Flood — maestro producer Mark Ellis of Depeche Mode’s Violator, Nine Inch Nails’ early albums, and many other great releases — on the final mix, Wonky’s sound range also has a more dynamic feel and color than past Orbital albums.
The title track ‘Wonky’ is a good example. Featuring the rapid fire raps of MC Lady Leshurr, it puts an exclamation mark on a more bottom-heavy approach. Orbital were always drawn to long linear passages on a symphonic scale.
But here the new Orbital drops you right off a cliff before bouncing you back up above the clouds for some helter-skelter vertigo. The more you listen to it, the more wild it becomes, a Mobius drag race round the cranium. The cavernous drums that punctuate the song with zero gravity drifts also work as a fun echo of the main title from Jerry Goldsmith’s groundbreaking Planet of the Apes score.
Another edgy turn is ‘Beelzedub.’ Dismissed by Pitchfork as a “brostep” misfire, it’s anything but. It helps to know it’s a twisted update of Orbital’s classic ‘Satan,’ completely refashioned for a new generation. It sounds like a stomp through a robot battlefield with high-pitch swords and stabbing harmonies flaming from liquid bass explosions. It’s the perfect ring of fire that anchors the album’s final act.
One of the best things about Orbital is their ingenious use of voice samples. They’ve always tried to get at the mystery of things. On their old track ‘Planet of the Shapes,’ they loop a snippet from Withnail and I mixed with the sound effect of a broken record, that goes “even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day, even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day…” I’ve always loved that.
Physics, actually, is not a bad place to start with Orbital… The arrow of time moves in one direction but our sense of it can go in loops. That perception is ruled by the rotation of the Earth, the Moon and our solar orbit. Every day and night we get older as the seasons pass and years become decades, and on and on.
Breaking the trance of time requires a radical shift in perspective. In 1609, the Renaissance astronomer Galileo Galilei made stronger telescopes than previous Dutch models, magnifying their power until he could see the Milky Way’s sea of stars and espy satellite moons circling the planet Jupiter.
Tabulating their orbital periods, he was able to start unlocking an essential insight that would rock the Western world: Our Earth is just one of many celestial bodies looping round the Sun. Translation: We are not the center of the universe.
You can still see two of Galileo’s innovative “spyglasses” at a museum in Florence, Italy, which I visited on my trip a week after meeting Paul and Phil. Next to the telescopes in a display case is another invention by the famed stargazer, the Jovilabe, an analogue computer of mind-boggling detail that calculates the positions of Jupiter’s moons in relation to the Sun and Earth.
What does Galileo have to do with Orbital?
Not just the perspective of time and distance, but persistence. Galileo belonged to a community of astronomers who were charting the universe, chipping away age after age. The man credited by Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein with birthing modern physics wasn’t afraid to upset conventions or tweak benefactors. I’m not saying Orbital are Galileo, but if electronic music was itself a kind of solar system, they’re an object worthy of fascination.
I’ve flown thousands of miles from Los Angeles to find out for myself what makes Orbital tick. I found three universal things for starters: they’re hilarious, they’re down to earth and they still make music out of love.
Along the way to Paris, I checked out dub-house sensation SBTRKT in San Diego and Kraftwerk at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (more on them later) — that’s three generations of electronic music. You could say it’s my techno pilgrimage and Orbital are my final destination.
Every step of the way I encountered echoes, like those looping roundabouts throughout Europe’s roads. Playing on the concepts of time and circles in association with Orbital is nothing new. But it bears recalling the core ideas that drive the Orbital mythology as a new generation is claiming victory in the pop arena: Swedish House Mafia, Wolfgang Gartner, David Guetta, Benny Benassi, 12th Planet.
Orbital’s new album is very good, even great. It’s at least their best album since 1996's In Sides. But when younger music fans read the Orbital name, does it ring any bells? And for older ravers who once flocked to Orbital’s banner, does it carry the same weight?
It’s the last thing I really ask Orbital: what does their name even mean to them, after all these years?
“It means 22 years of history,” Paul says dryly. “I can’t dissociate that word. I snigger when I read Iain M. Banks’ science fiction novels. He always uses the word ‘orbital.’ It just takes me out of the book.”
“When I’m driving on the M25 motorway and I see the name ‘orbital,’ I think, ‘Oh yeah!’” Phil notes, referring to their name’s original inspiration: the M25 ‘orbital’ motorway that loops London and was the main artery for England’s outdoor rave scene during its first big bang in the late ’80s.
“I think it’s a ridiculous name,” Paul says with a chuckle. “It’s hilarious. It’s as stupid as The Jam. I always thought The Jam was a ridiculous name for a band. But once the music is good, it doesn’t matter. It becomes what you hear. I think sometimes, ‘What the fuck were we doing calling ourselves Orbital?’ But you know, I like it. It’s got a piece of history and it’s connected to the motorway that went straight through our village.”
This is typical Hartnoll humility mixed with their self-effacing humor. Personally, I’ve always loved the name. It’s simple and powerful. It’s a smart tip of the hat to Kraftwerk’s epic ‘Autobahn.’ It speaks of outer space, mysterious laws of gravity and motion, a sense of location and dislocation all at once. It’s even shorthand for everyone’s favorite cliche: What goes around, comes around.
One of my Orbital t-shirts from the ’90s, tattered but still prized, is an image of them as twin Jetsons characters pointing to the sky. Looping the timeless is just one slice of their genius.
If you’re going to come back to life, then you need a searchlight of sorts and something to tell those who loved you that you’re alive and well. The first single off Wonky, ‘Never,’ does just that. It’s a perfect combination of the old and new Orbital, short and sweet.
Its video is the ideal companion, a clever and simple night drive along the ‘orbital’ M25 motorway, accelerating and coasting into the city where the 2012 Olympics will soon welcome the world. It ends back on the M25 with a ghostly moon on the horizon. The directors who made the video are young chaps, Elliott Williams and Matt Fleming of Decode Film, and the visual narrative was their idea, a touching homage to Orbital’s beginnings.
And what about those 22 years? The brothers, hailing from London satellite town Sevenoaks, got their first break in 1989 with the classic track ‘Chime,’ a rave anthem featuring an echoing piano looped into ecstatic delirium. The word “piano” means plane in Italian and Orbital shattered its woody surface with naive electronic joy.
It’s a well-worn techno fable but it’s worth repeating: ‘Chime’ took Orbital up the British charts, winning them a spot on the BBC’s Top of the Pops show, where they helped shock a conservative nation with their geek aplomb and shaved heads, wearing anti-Poll Tax t-shirts and rocking behind a bank of drum machines and synthesizers. All of a sudden, acid house was spilling into the UK’s Thatcher-ized family room.
“We grew up in a small village where there was fuck all else to do and we both liked electronic music and started collecting and creating it,” Paul explains.
“Paul liked all the stuff I liked,” Phil teases. “It’s still the same way. He goes off too far into the folk world for my like. So sometimes I think, ‘Oh, I better stop there!’”
“He gets a bit too techno-y for me,” Paul jabs back amid laughs.
“Yeah, I do,” Phil proudly accepts. “I get a bit too handbag.”
“Handbag” for those in the dark is a UK rave term for anthemic dance music stuffed together with little heed for moderation.
When you listen to the Hartnoll brothers talk, you notice an almost telepathic interplay that feeds off tiny barbs. It’s that brotherly bond, a give and take that comes across in their casual banter. I think this is part of what makes their music so distinctive. Only two years apart, they’ve known each other all their lives and it’s that almost twin-like understanding of the other that helps make their sound so intimate and alive.
“One of our biggest influences is Severed Heads,” Phil says about their Sevenoaks genesis. “They were from Australia. They were like a darker version of Kraftwerk. They are one of the seminal electronic bands.”
“When I heard that, Phil brought his friend down from London,” he says. “He put that on and I just went, ‘Oh my god, what is that!?’ It entranced me. It’s haunting, beautiful and it’s scary. It’s got a sense of humor. It’s absolutely hilarious. It scares the shit out of you. I’d listen to it on my Walkman at night walking back from my girlfriend’s house and there were certain tracks I just could not listen to. Absolutely beautiful stuff. ‘Dead Eyes Opened’ is the closest they ever came to a hit. But if you listen to it, you can totally hear their influence on us.”
When you listen to Severed Heads, especially their early albums, you can hear the Orbital DNA: synth arpeggios, found sounds and filmic voice narratives. Orbital was also heavily influenced by Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Cabaret Voltaire, as well as hip hop and punk. All of those streams, stirred by the advent of Detroit techno and Chicago house, spurred Paul and Phil into their gutsy do-it-yourself experiments.
Following ‘Chime,’ Orbital released their first album in 1991. Untitled and nicknamed the Green Album, it was one of techno’s first. The U.S. version included the metallic ‘Satan,’ which sampled the Butthole Surfers‘ ‘Sweet Loaf’ and clearly takes a cue from Severed Heads in the wicked humor department.
The other standout was ‘Belfast,’ a soft breakbeat ride into angelic peace. It was a tribute to the city of Belfast, Ireland, after a fond performance at David Holmes’ Sugar Sweet club. Holmes, an acid house DJ and remixer at the time, would later become film director Steven Soderbergh’s composer of choice and a key role model for LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy.
‘Belfast’ remains a favorite of ambient heads across the globe.
But it was really Orbital’s second album that changed the game. Again untitled, the Brown Album was a stunning manifesto of the genre’s limitless frontier.
‘Planet of the Shapes’ boomed to Jupiter beats, its blowtorched riffs clashing in a sonic war of the worlds before opening up to tranquil pipes, sounding as if played by some pagan god. The shimmering ‘Lush 3–1’ and ‘Lush 3–2’ sprung through an Edenic rain until ‘Impact (the earth is burning)’ crashed through a maelstrom of baroque chaos. ‘Remind…’ let loose with banging drums and thunderbolt acid while ‘Walk Now…’ tripped out to Dreamtime didgeridoo.
A tribute to their mother, who battled an addiction to the prescribed medication Halcion, the closing ‘Halcyon + On + On’ became perhaps their most celebrated tune. It has graced funerals as a bittersweet salve for sorrow and made its way onto soundtracks for Hackers and Mortal Kombat as key story cues — such was the licensing ghetto of techno acts in the early ’90s — though both films went on to become cult classics for the millennial generation.
Not surprisingly, to me, ‘Halcyon’ is the best thing about those flicks. It’s used in the opening to Hackers and in the climax of Mortal Kombat. As Paul said recently, Orbital’s music has to elicit an emotional response: “It has to give me butterflies. It has to make me cry in the studio.”
One of my clearest memories of falling in love with electronic music was listening to ‘Halcyon’ in 1993 with my brother Patrick. We were driving around for fun while playing a See the Light Tour promo cassette.
It included just four sample tracks, three of them by Orbital tour mates Moby (‘Unloved Symphony’), Vapourspace (‘Gravity Arch of 10’) and Aphex Twin (‘D-Scape’). As ‘Halcyon’ began, its warm notes oozed out of the speakers, like a beach wave onto our souls. Patrick, who was still dubious of techno at the time, simply gasped, “It sounds like heaven.”
One of Orbital’s signature live tricks is a hilarious and inspired mash-up of ‘Halcyon’ with Bon Jovi’s goofy ‘Shot Through the Heart’ and Belinda Carlisle’s sappy ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth.’
Phil and Paul take two embarrassingly bad pop songs and elevate them to something defiantly spiritual. Somehow, it all works brilliantly, recast over a deep click-clack groove.
Orbital followed the uncanny Brown Album with two excellent follow ups, the soul-searching Snivilisation and the cinematic grandeur of In Sides. Beautiful tracks like ‘Kein Trink Wasser’ and ‘The Girl With the Sun In Her Head’ set new standards for electronic sensitivity while the darker ‘P.E.T.R.O.L.’ and ‘Out There Somewhere?’ stunned with their intricate sound designs. Both albums boosted the Orbital brand with critical acclaim and a reputation for serious, thought-provoking concepts.
But after playing several festivals around the world, year after year, including album tours, film scores and remixes, fatigue started to set in. Orbital was also locked in a seven album contract with FFRR/London Records. While containing plenty of genius, like the brooding ‘Know Where To Run’ and the yearning ‘Illuminate,’ featuring David Gray, 1999’s Middle of Nowhere and 2001’s The Altogether sagged in parts and 2004’s Blue Album felt scattershot and incomplete.
“We were burnt out,” Phil says. “We just got to the point where we couldn’t do it anymore. We were producing stuff we weren’t really happy with. It wasn’t flowing. We said ‘This is the end.’ And we really meant it.”
Paul and Phil didn’t just sit around after the “end.” The brothers split but carried on making music and defining their individual paths. Paul released a delicate solo album, The Ideal Condition, which explored his love of strings and melody. Phil paired up with Nick Smith as Long Range for some Balearic breaks on Madness and Me. As impressive as those albums were however, none of them quite matched Orbital’s best moments.
After a few years regrouping on their own terms, the itch to play live as Orbital came back. In 2009, they did their first reunion show at The Big Chill festival and headlined RockNess. They also made a big appearance at Coachella the year after. But Phil and Paul were just getting warmed up.
During that time, they studied their peers and rising stars. Paul heard Annie Mac play dubstep on a loud system, which opened his ears to its harmonic range. He also enjoyed seeing Richie Hawtin’s live Plastikman show. It was so minimal, he reports, it was almost painful. But he was also inspired by its uncompromising purity.
“I saw a lot of people I didn’t like and that was encouraging as well, but I’m not going to name names because that’s rude,” he adds with a laugh.
“We had healthy feedback actually because we played live for two years before we had fully got back into what Orbital was and is,” Paul explains about their return. “We had five years of fresh perspective.”
“It’s a bit like that film, It’s A Wonderful Life,” he says. “We actually were able to die, be shown what it was by time, and to see, ‘Look what we had. Look at how brilliant it was.’ And saw what it was like to be in a band called Orbital, and to realize, ‘Yeah, we did enjoy that. It was quite good, wasn’t it?’ So we came back and it’s a celebration now. We appreciate everything we were and so now all of that has gone into the new album. I think it’s infused with what we liked about Orbital minus what we didn’t like.”
It’s been 22 years since I lived in Paris. The clouds are passing over the Eiffel Tower’s graceful iron lattices, lit from below just as I remember, spiking into the sky above lose-yourself boulevards and streets.
The countless to and fro of black-clad couples carry the romance of ideas forward in the cool April weather. Monet, Debussy and Satie helped envision our minimal future 100 years ago in this old town of Rococo and Gothic shapes: Impressions stripped down to the vibrant rhythms of nature and everyday life. Two World Wars disrupted its exuberant dance but not forever. This is Daft Punk territory.
More than just a structure, Gustave Eiffel’s greatest achievement was one of the first beacons of modernism. Eiffel and his company leveraged the power of industry to refine and rivet more than 18,000 pieces of wrought iron into precise connections. It was finished in two years and stands 320 meters tall. It towered above the city, changing how people saw the world.
Hot air balloons were one thing, but this iron giant was something else. From its great height, visitors had leaped to the pinnacle of man-made construction. The Eiffel Tower was actually built as a centerpiece and entrance arch for the 1889 World’s Fair. It was only supposed to be temporary, to be torn down after 20 years.
Like electronic dance music, it wasn’t supposed to last in the eyes of its critics. One of the world’s greatest engineering and architectural triumphs was considered a fad.
The week I moved back to the U.S. from France in 1991, I stayed at a family friend’s apartment. It was on the Champ de Mars and I had a view of the Eiffel Tower from its corner windows. I watched MTV Europe on their television, which ran KLF’s rave smash ‘Last Train to Trance Central’ in heavy rotation. The video, a wacky psychedelic circus of divas, rappers, metal sparks and toy trains, is the Blues Brothers meets Run DMC meets Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ on acid and ecstasy.
I had no idea at the time, but I was getting a glimpse of “acid house” just as I was leaving Europe.
The shock of re-entering American suburbia threw me into an instant funk. MTV in America didn’t help much. It felt depressingly predictable and inane. The chart lords at the time were Bryan Adams, Naughty By Nature and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. As far as popular music goes, the teenage mainstream got little better with grunge and gangster rap.
It wasn’t until my brother John took me to my first Full Moon party in 1993 — a racially and culturally diverse mix where people boogied all night long in the desert to two turntables and a sound system — that I began to feel at home again. That ease was in part because electronic dance culture was global and universal in nature. In a sense, I could feel the Eiffel Tower in its waveforms, a higher dimension of reality, a larger viewpoint encompassing distance and time. I’d never felt more free and alive.
Since we’re in Paris, I ask Orbital if there’s a special meaning behind the title of their second single off Wonky, ‘New France.’ It’s a slower track featuring Gothic vocals by Zola Jesus. Like in the past with singers including Alison Goldfrapp, they use her voice mainly as an instrument. The video is funny and surreal, showing a girl’s teddy bear hitting the town and getting wasted with two clubbers while she sleeps.
“You’re going to find this really boring,” Paul laughs. “I was in France and finishing up a new track. I was in the back of my dad’s van as he was taking me to the airport and as I came off the airplane, I thought ‘Oh, I better save this’ and named it ‘New’ and ‘France.’ Simple as that. Never changed it. I quite like that. It’s got a sort of science fiction edge to it. I was told at some point that there was once a New France in America, during the era of New Amsterdam and all that.”
“I also liked the idea that there may be some funny little town in America named New France, where a bunch of people are going ‘Yeah! We’ve made it! Someone has crafted a tune for us.’”
Like ‘Wonky,’ ‘New France’ is part of the new Orbital. When they play it live at Nouveau Casino, the bassline is huge, pulsing like big waves under a boat. It doesn’t grab you right away but eases you slowly into its snapping beat, its ethereal synths rising to the wailing of Zola Jesus, who sounds both in pain and ecstasy. The more you listen to it, the more it haunts you. Listeners — fans included– who can crack the moody exterior of ‘New France,’ will love Wonky. In some ways, it’s the keyhole to the album’s inner depths.
The week before I made it to Paris to meet Orbital, I saw London’s SBTRKT play a solid set at the House of Blues in San Diego. Their smart hybrid of Afro-dubstep and sultry house drew a mostly young college crowd that was racially and culturally diverse. Like the music of SBTRKT, ‘New France’ strikes a nice balance between dubstep’s slower tempos and techno’s disembodied melodies.
The big surprise of the SBTRKT show though was the opening act, Machinedrum, which was one guy behind a laptop and a few pieces of gear. He played a mixture of drum ’n’ bass and hardcore breaks. He also looked like a young Bill Gates, someone you might mistake as a Dungeons & Dragons game master or World of Warcraft denizen.
None of that mattered, because the crowd was eating it up. It was as if the laptop and lack of traditional instruments was perfectly natural. There were no hang ups, just bumping music.
Without Orbital, I’m not sure someone like Machinedrum would be hailed in a live context even today. Sure, there were others that led the way, like Underworld, Spacetime Continuum and The Orb. But like Kraftwerk before them, the Hartnolls defied convention with a purely electronic vision and made live techno something people wanted to see. Machinedrum on the stage looks little different from Paul and Phil on Top of the Pops in 1990.
Except Orbital live is something much more overwhelming. They blew things wide open in 1994 with their headline performance at the Glastonbury Festival. Q Magazine rated it one of the top 50 performances of all time. By that point they were sequencing their tracks live, triggering samples and improvising on their analogue synths.
The guts of today’s live performance software like Ableton Live didn’t exist then and had to be simulated with several pieces of gear, all connected in a circular rig. Phil and Paul were famous for wearing head-mounted lights that allowed them to see all their complex controls and buttons. The sight of them on their mountain of electronics, lights beaming like reflective frog eyes, everyone knew they were in for something monumental.
I had seen Orbital play twice before their set in Paris. The first time was at the old American Legion Hall by the Hollywood Bowl in 1996 when they toured with Spring Heel Jack in support of In Sides. It was a packed room thrilling to every grain of electronic sound.
The second time was in 1999 in Long Beach for the finale of their “Community Service Tour” with The Crystal Method. That was a bigger venue. What impressed me the most both times, and everyone I went to the shows with, was how truly live Orbital sounded. Every note and every beat felt like a separate living thing, moving in concert as if guided by Paul and Phil’s searching light beams.
That was the last time they played in the U.S. until Coachella in 2010. A lot changed in those years. The music business was upended by technology, not once or twice, but many times: Napster, iTunes, Pandora, Beatport.
The antiquated chart system that originally helped Orbital rise but then weighed them down is mostly a formality these days. America has also awakened to electronic dance music (“EDM”) in a big way after years of mirthful ignorance by the media.
A number of factors converged. Chief among them, besides its popularity, was dance music’s key role in music festivals, accompanied by the rebirth of the Los Angeles rave scene. Something seemed to shift in 2006 when Daft Punk closed out Coachella with a now legendary performance.
As the first French musicians, save maybe Serge Gainsbourg, to gain mass popularity overseas post World War II, the Gaulic robot duo upped the ante the following year with their eye-popping Alive world tour and a music score for Tron: Legacy. Light bulbs went off and everyone’s been following suit ever since.
Yet others were laying down the foundation and installing the power years ago. We all know or should know about the essential contributions of Detroit techno artists like Juan Atkins and Jeff Mills, and house legends like Jamie Principle, DJ Pierre and Larry Levan.
In the ’90s, the biggest U.S. rave scene was in the Golden State. Fueled by spare cash from Internet code warriors and party outfits like Wicked, Funky Tekno Tribe and Insomniac, it was an underground landscape filled with what URB Magazine dubbed “future primitives.” Those heady times are now inspiring the mainstream, (ulp!) from Katy Perry to the Black Eyed Peas.
Orbital, one of the world’s first globetrotting techno acts, are part of that legacy too, particularly in California where their frequent visits were a constant encouragement.
The phrase “live techno” used to draw hackles in most quarters.
Phil and Paul changed that almost single-handedly by showing everyone that electronic dance music could be amazing live, and they did it with wit and human feeling. All that touring expanded people’s sense of the possible.
The first rave my wife ever went to was actually an Orbital show at the Shrine in downtown Los Angeles called “Tribes” on November 26, 1994, just blocks away from the Electric Daisy Carnival’s old address at the Coliseum and the location of Daft Punk’s brainwave at the Los Angeles Sports Arena more than ten years later.
She was a ska nerd who went to Sublime and No Doubt shows for a good time. But at Orbital, she had her teenage mind blown wide open. They were playing on a tower in the middle of the room and the crowd was on fire.
As she was dancing she saw Perry Farrell, the former frontman of Jane’s Addiction and Porno for Pyros. He was a rock god at the time and he was right there grooving with everyone else. That told her too that she’d hit the action big time.
“Ohhh, yes!” Paul recalls with excitement when I tell him the story. “Was that the one with the tower? That was mad!”
“We met Perry Farrell at that same show,” he recounts. “I was so naive. We were interviewed by Tracy Lords, the porn star, and she introduced us to this guy. She said, ‘This is my friend Perry.’ And I just thought,” Paul says in a hushed voice to laughter, “It’s a pimp! It’s her pimp!”
“He just had this look about him, like a pirate with striped trousers,” he says. “And I thought, ‘That must be a pimp! He looks like Huggy Bear.’ That’s what I assumed. Such an unusual character. He was very friendly. I had thought he was just a dodgy LA type. That was a great show.”
Exit the robots, enter the spacemen: “With science fiction, you get a lot of different philosophical ideas,” Phil says. “Like with the Star Trek Federation, it’s set up to to keep the peace. But it’s a bit of ‘Peace our way or else.’ Captain Kirk is in a fight every week. But at least he’s honest. Fucking Picard? Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Orbital have a thing for science fiction. But not science fiction for the sake of ray guns and neat gizmos. They’re actually drawn to its nightmares, whether it’s the bizarro world of Doctor Who or the cosmic conundrums of the best Star Trek.
The one thing they’ve never mined much though is robots, the chosen talisman of Daft Punk and their heroes Kraftwerk. Androids are the perfect pop tool because they openly mock our sense of self-importance.
Irony runs throughout Orbital’s work too but they’ve also been more willing to look at humanity’s evils straight on. Daft Punk, for example, hardly examines our darkest moods, except in their visual narratives and limited to their heady art film Electroma. But while Orbital uses images of war and destruction when they perform ‘Satan,’ I can’t imagine Daft Punk ever doing the same. This is not a criticism of everyone’s favorite French robots. I love Daft Punk. I’ve been to three of their shows, including their Coachella performance, and every one of them blew my mind.
What I’m trying to point out is that Orbital’s conscience is pretty unique in a music genre that prizes optimism (and sometimes hedonism) above all else. They’ve always been concerned about the environment, social injustice and the dangers of technology. Their third album, Snivilisation, was a pointed statement about the moral pitfalls of modern civilization. “What does God say?” their gorgeous classic ‘Are We Here?’ asks memorably. ‘Dwr Budr’ (“dirty water” in Welsh) was about the polluted seas off Wales. ‘You Lot’ samples a spirited monologue about the responsibility of power from BBC drama The Second Coming.
“We’ve always been into the psychological state of the human condition,” Paul notes. “I’m not very politically minded. I mean many of my friends can talk me under the table about politics. But I just find it funny the way humans are. We’re not very nice. On a personal level we’re alright. But as a group it keeps going wrong. Why does that happen? I like to point my finger at that.”
Wasn’t this whole rave thing helping us evolve? Not necessarily. Phil and Paul are far outside the techno stereotype of the pied pipers leading kids to a techno utopia. At a time when Steve Jobs has practically been made a saint by the media, Orbital are right there questioning technology’s true value. In that sense, the title Wonky is classic Orbital. Machines can go wonky and the events that depend on them.
“The same things concern us,” Phil adds. “It’s the whole disappointment in so-called civilization. We’re not advanced at all really. We haven’t advanced. While people are still killing each other, don’t even talk to me. It’s ridiculous.”
That’s a high measure for any age and yet common sense when you look at the world the way Orbital does. Where’s our moral imagination?
I’ve been listening to Wonky again and again as I drive across Europe and my admiration for it has only grown. Some of the tracks I felt were weaker at first have become essential shadows, emotional counterpoints that sharpen the album’s peaks. ‘Straight Sun’ uses piano but its melody is nowhere near the carefree joy of ‘Chime.’ Autumnal and warped, it observes the world from a distant cave, as if sheltering us from the cold rain and tears outside.
‘Distractions’ is a bit brighter but it too has a sadness that is heavier than in years past. Chopped up female vocals form a restive choir over neoclassical melodies, a mixture of falling leaves and broken glass. An insistent line of inquiry builds into an elegiac trail of light, shimmering in a call and response of talking synthesizers and grinding distortion. This is about as funereal as Orbital has ever dared venture and the result is eerie and magical.
In 1994, New Music Express caught this psychological dimension of the Hartnolls beautifully when Paul told interviewer Roger Morton about a recurring dream he had about family trips to Hastings, the coastal strip of England where the Norman Conquest began.
“I’d be be looking down the hill towards the sea and you’d see the mushroom cloud go up,” he told Morton. “You’d feel your bowel loosen and this warm feeling of horror. I could see my dad doubling up in pain. And then I’d turn round and try and go into the caravan, and someone would say, ‘You can’t go in there,’ and I’d say, ‘Why not?’ and they’d say ‘Don’t you realize you’re dead?’”
I ask the brothers about this nightmare, which is as poetic as it is creepy. I’m wondering if this big world anxiety is still under the surface and works as a driver of their artistic uplift. In some ways their concerns about nuclear weapons and the faulty human thinking behind them have only grown.
“It’s like suicide, social suicide,” Paul says, his voice rising a little. “Nuclear war, what the fuck is that? The year Chernobyl went off, that was an accident. That wasn’t even supposed to kill anyone.”
“It’s like wow, that’s a big area you still can’t go to,” he adds. “A slight nuclear war? That’s just not going to work. Not on any level. It’s just madness.”
“But then again, people have shown, they can do that,” he says. “They can actually strap a bomb on and go, ‘I don’t give a fuck!’ and blow themselves up. What the fuck is that about? You’ve got to be on some kind of promise to believe that’s not the end. I’m sorry, I don’t have that kind of faith. That’s what’s always scared me about religion. That someone makes the excuse, ‘This is just a test, we’re going somewhere nicer.’”
“Everyone should believe what they want,” Paul continues. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe in it. But it’s not for me to say what other people should believe in. But I find that scary when people do that. It’s kind of what nuclear war is, a big strap-on suicide bomb.”
It’s this darkness mixed with wonder that makes Orbital’s brand of optimism so human. Their track ‘Out There Somewhere?’ from In Sides, is a prime example. In the ’90s, a lot of techno acts were preoccupied with outer space. UFOs and aliens were ubiquitous icons. But Orbital was never about little green men. They were about expanding the human imagination.
“The outer space thing, I guess that is our version of robots,” Paul says. “It’s a desperate, ‘I hope we can get there someday,’ because we’re gonna need to if we keep fucking up this planet.”
The first is the Sea Organ. Holes are cut into a long strip of the promenade where a system of hidden pipes gasp and sigh with astonishing beauty as ocean waves from boats and winds shift air through its passages. The second is the Sun Salutation. It’s a 22 meter circle with 300 glass tiles that people can stand, walk, or lounge on, collecting solar power during the day and lighting up at night in colorful patterns that echo the solar system. It also keys off the Sea Organ and powers the waterfront’s vast lighting array.
Zadar is a hip place, filled with young people and international energy. It’s the site of a growing electronic music scene, hosting the summery Garden Festival every year, the Arsenal club and full-moon parties on the nearby island of Pag. It’s just one outlier of how Europe continues to change. Collectively, 20 years after civil war and ethnic cleansing tore the region apart, the Balkan islands off the Dalmatian coast are becoming the new Ibiza. Bacchus is alive and well here.
About 30 miles from Zadar is the birthplace of the electric dreamer Nikola Tesla. The famous inventor and electrical engineer immigrated to America in 1884 and worked for Thomas Edison before a falling out.
Tesla created the modern alternating current (AC) power system, possibly the first loudspeaker, engine igniter, and the theoretical framework for wireless communication and radio. He’s popularly known at events like Coachella and Burning Man for the Tesla coil, those big metal loops that shoot lightning into the air and hum with a wild crackling sound.
The quintessential “mad scientist,” Tesla did experiments proving the earth and air could conduct electricity. In his belief that power could travel efficiently through space and matter, he set up several laboratories over his winding career, most famously the Wardenclyffe Tower in Long Island, NY, to transmit electricity wirelessly over the Atlantic Ocean. He engineered several lights and devices that could transmit and receive electricity without wires but his dream of a “world system” was never realized.
I think if Tesla were alive today, he would appreciate electronic music. We too often take for granted what it is: the controlled shape-shifting of electric currents and electronic signals, using semiconductors, transistors and microchips to switch on the future. In a way, techno — “the sound of technology” — may not be far from what Tesla heard in his dreams.
From Wardenclyffe’s shadow to Zadar’s Sun Salutation, the power of electricity to shape the world has reached a new point. A few days before I interviewed Orbital, I was in Manhattan at MoMA to hear the seventh night in an eight night series for Kraftwerk, called Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8.
Kraftwerk were the first true electronic pop act, inspiring David Bowie, Brian Eno and just about everybody else who’s touched a synthesizer, to elevate the music of electricity to a conscious level. Kraftwerk’s super secret Kling Klang Studio in Dusseldorf is still synonymous with electronic nerd-dom.
With 3D glasses on for their animated visuals, I watched Germany’s first and maybe only international pop sensation post WWII entertain a privileged American audience with wit, humor and most importantly, kinetic grooves.
One of the highlights was of course their classic ‘Autobahn.’ The visuals immersed you in the seat of an original VW Bug, a hand turning on the car radio as the motor started. As I watched, I realized with renewed clarity that ‘Autobahn’ is the only song to truly celebrate one of modern life’s great pleasures: listening to music in the car. If you think about it, driving to tunes is almost as important as the use of color in TV or the addition of sound in films. If you live in Los Angeles like I do, you know what I’m talking about. In this sense, Orbital’s video for ‘Never’ is another fateful echo.
Performances of ‘Numbers,’ ‘Man-Machine,’ ‘Planet of Visions’ and ‘Tour De France’ were also stunning. Kraftwerk ended it with their latest rendition of ‘Music Non Stop,’ which was simply dynamite. And in a little poke at those who believe none of their music is live, each of the four band members bowed out by playing improvised solos, including co-founder Ralf Hutter, who took the song’s main chords to submarine depths.
I ask Orbital about Kraftwerk and the search for longevity in music. “We’ve tried to always have a sense of humor,” Paul notes. “Kraftwerk have always had a good sense of humor. They’re so funny.”
But it takes more than humor to keep at it. What else have Orbital gained in their time off?
“I feel older,” Paul says. “I feel wiser.”
Phil scoffs with laughter.
“I feel more like Yoda,” Paul continues with a huge smile, before digging back at Phil. “No, he’s the fucking Emperor! The Dark Lord of the Sith. Count Dooku here.”
Phil nods his head with approval, obviously relishing the tussle.
“I do feel I can see the woods for the trees,” Paul says more seriously. “That stop was the best thing we did. You may lose some ground, but then there’s nothing to be gained by carrying on. We were tired. We needed a fresh perspective. And now here we are, thoroughly enjoying it.”
“We know so much more now,” Phil adds to his younger brother. “We know the signs. If we get tired, we just need to pause. We’ll never say never again. When we did our first couple of albums, when we did our first album actually, it felt similar. For me I felt the same kind of attitude. We weren’t doing records to make money or to get on the radio.”
“What does regret mean?”
“Well son, the funny thing about regret is that it’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t done.
“And by the way, if you see your mom this weekend, be sure to tell her, SATAN! SATAN! SATAN!”
Orbital begin their Paris performance with ‘Beelzedub’ (if you’re still missing the Beelzebub reference, please refresh your demonology), evoking the tongue-in-cheek voice intro from ‘Satan.’
Images of bombers and burning cities fill the stage screen. Hearing it on loud speakers, it’s indestructible, thrashing and wobbling through head-banging riffs and machine gun beats, a biting protest of war and hypocrisy. The crowd, transfixed, cheers Orbital’s return to form.
The packed audience at Nouveau Casino is an intimate mix of young and old. It also appears to be a sophisticated bunch. One guy is wearing an Orbital long sleeve. Another is sporting a red Aphex Twin. I also notice a girl wearing Radiohead. It’s a good range but I’m not sure I see any Justice or Ed Banger fans. So it seems this is mostly an Anglophile contingent on the “mainland.”
With a stripped down setup for smaller venues, Orbital take their French fans through most of their new album, including many of their classics.
‘New France’ quakes with subterranean bass. ‘Straight Sun’ accelerates through ping pong synths before rolling into ‘Never,’ which everyone immediately responds to. They get some of their biggest reactions with ‘Halcyon + On + On’ and ‘Are We Here?’ Phil and Paul also play rousing versions of ‘Chime’ and ‘Lush,’ both sending the room into a frenzy.
Before the show, I ask Orbital about one of the new tracks, ‘Stringy Acid,’ because I have a sense it’s a tribute to the old school. It has a beautifully nostalgic sound that reminds me of Derrick May’s ‘Strings of Life’ or early 808 State. It turns out it’s not a throwback but the real thing.
“Back of the net!” Phil exclaims.
“Don’t go there,” Paul warns.
“I’m not a big football fan,” Phil says.
“Liar!” Paul interjects.
“I’m not,” Phil protests as he leans in. “But when someone scores big, it’s like ‘Back of the net!’ And you noticed. Back of the net.”
“It was written at the same time as ‘Chime,’” Paul says. “It was something we always wanted to do something with. But it took us this long. ‘We must do something with that.’ So, 22 years later.”
‘Stringy Acid’ is fantastic live, bending and warping into new colors, not unlike the new album’s beautiful cover. It’s a perfect lead into ‘Wonky,’ which knocks us on our heels, a rowdy anthem celebrating Orbital’s survival. They conclude their set with the final track from Wonky, the aptly titled ‘Where Is It Going?’ It’s a scale-the-heights flight, its melodies gliding like a phalanx of birds over waves of bass, snaking like Chinese dragons.
But the best moment of the night comes with the encore. The room has been raising hell for them to return to the stage and when they do, Orbital unleash ‘Remind…’ from their Brown Album, the skitter-scatter of its high-hats clipping in at a cool velocity, before metallic drums flash like strobe lights, its acid line whipping like lightning in a storm cloud. It’s a meteor burning up in the atmosphere. It’s too old for everyone in the club to recognize but the whole room loses it.
For me, it recalls a bright memory. At the two-year anniversary of Moontribe in the summer of 1995, I had a personal breakthrough when I saw rave culture truly at its best. It’s one of the great parties I ever had the good fortune of attending. It was on a dry lakebed called El Mirage and the core group that started Moontribe, which is still running after 19 years, knew they were onto something big. Word had spread and LA ravers of all stripes were flocking in droves.
The first DJ opened with a blistering set of psychedelic breakbeat and progressive techno. The sounds seemed to beam right out of the speakers like light projections, filling the sky. We were in the middle of nowhere, with about two thousand other people of all backgrounds, getting down in the desert. The moon was hanging bright and full, illuminating the flat chalky earth. You could feel the electricity in your feet.
What I remember clearest from that night was a peak in that set. It was Orbital’s ‘Remind…’ It came in with its blazing fall and firecracker rattle, shattering through the air. At that echoing moment, half a world away from London, it fit perfectly, expressing with no words what was in everyone’s hearts: Let your fears go.
In an age when many of us over-promise on the future or fear the world is going to end any day, it helps to recover discarded things and bring them back into the light. Like that cinema hall organ Paul loves, I’m sure it sounds amazing, but it’s also dusty and faded surfaces that attract us to what was and what still might be.
Cinemas used to do this quaint and old fashioned thing called intermissions, when they would stop a long film halfway through and give the audience a breather and a chance to take in the story part way. Great films like Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey did this.
Well, our intermission is over. All the doubts about whether the Hartnoll brothers still have what it takes are delusions from another planet. They didn’t even have a label until a few months ago and now Wonky is spinning heads.
This is Orbital. When they’re having fun, when they’re on, the world falls into place.
And from what I see, they’re nowhere near finished.
Check out more of our stories at GhostDeep.com, a digital magazine focused on electronic music, technology, art and the history of rave.