- Top 100
April 11, 2012
By Greg West
Twenty years ago I caught the bus downtown to by an import 12″—Orbital’s Halcyon and on and on. It cost several weeks worth of odd-job and allowance money, and I could have gone out and ordered off the kids’ menu afterwards. But I’d heard it the week before—through headphones on late night radio, up way past my bed-time, and it had given me such a strange sense of freedom, it was worth every hard won cent. I remember to this day the smell of the vinyl record and inky album sleeve, that I though was the smell of the UK. Opening with choral voices filtered through reverb and a slow creeping melody, the track builds on layers of chords, lyrics and barely-there beats to achieve a sweet polyphonic tapestry. And I think that if you were to scratch the surface of contemporary electronic dance music, you might just find the brothers Hartnoll.
But it’s now been eight years since their last album (which was, if I’m honest, fairly uneven)—and when I heard about their new release, I’ll admit that rather than excitement, my first reaction was trepidation. In a scene that’s so focused on contemporaneity, I wondered how much attention they’d been paying to the genre. I heard about the collaborations (with Zola Jesus and Lady Leshurr), and thought of how often these turn out like old men with very young wives—cool only with other old men, rather embarrassing anywhere else.
I’m glad to report that I’d worried needlessly.
The album opens with One Big Moment, a track that’s wholly Orbital: deceptively simple melodies layered with a relentless restraint. The track launches with a simple melody that builds into the song’s core melodic hook through progressive loops. It’s the backbone to a vocal sample of philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell‘s missive to the future:
… love is wise, hatred is foolish.
In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected,
we have to learn to tolerate each other.
We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like.
We can only live together in that way. If we are to live together and not die together,
we must learn a kind of charity and kind of tolerance,
which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet…
Filtered through other whispers, of ghosts and terrorist bombings, Russell’s speech acts as sort of an epigraph to the entire album. Everything here feels profoundly benign, even where it gets heavy. And I think that the mastery of Orbital has always been there way of presenting melody, rather than melodrama. Like Halcyon’s sample of Opus III’s Fine Night, One Big Moment distills, rather than amplifies it’s starting text. Here, the speech drops out and the real melody begins—spacious and sweet, full of jazz like interpretations on a theme, it’s a synesthesia inducing trance track that builds and recedes but never breaks—a single piece from beginning to the last echoing high note.
Interestingly, I think if there is a weak spot on the album, it’s perhaps a product of that same restraint. Beezeldub, a dubstep treatment of their track Satan, aims at contemporary dub-step from old school house, and lands somewhere in between. It starts out minimalist, and every note is full of the fuzzy bass vibe that is so hot right now—it steps towards a new genre, and everything that’s now—but when the song reaches it’s crescendoing third quarter, it makes a tentative lurch rather than a great leap forward. The sound-wall comes, but it’s all cardboard boxes instead of bricks. It’s as if all of the bass notes are pulled back just a little, and as a result, the startling chiaroscuro of present and absent sound that makes music from Deadmau5, Avicci, and Skillrex such a thrill never happens. It’s not even a bad track, it’s just not great.
Which, because the rest of the album is so stellar, is rather a shame.
Never and Straight Sun, like One Big Moment, are all throwback tracks in the best possible sense. They take everything that Orbital was, and pull it into the present with increasing sophistication and a more current analog/lo-fi sound. Distractions, New France, Where is it Going? and Stringy Acid are still downtempo—but are also successful experiments that purloin schemes from contemporary dance’s harder edges. On New France, Zola Jesus’ vocals glide over contemporary dysrhythmia with epic-old school house flair, pulling together perhaps the most club-rather-than-festival track on the release.
The title track? Maybe it’s the trippin’ video, that I made the mistake of watching before I listened—but it’s straight up WTF from beginning to end (delicious, banging, WTF, but still). Check it out:
Despite the fact that we remix, sample and re-engineer so often in this genre—or perhaps maybe because of it—it sometimes feels like dance music has no history. Outside the genre, people ignore the progression that’s gone on, and are prone to see it as all being programmed in by some automaton. The truth is that we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Some are past, but Orbital are still here to school us. Despite the strange and awkward title (does anyone else find it off-putting?)—Wonky is the sort of Magnum Opus that makes you remember why you loved a band, or a genre, in the first place. It’s full of grace and wise love.
Find Orbital on Soundcloud at: http://soundcloud.com/orbital-4
Album available almost everywhere.
Have a release I should check out? Drop me a line at email@example.com, or tweet me @worldsbestvegan
And, just a shout out to my fellow DJ Mag Canada blogger, who recently talked eloquently about my favourite club: Vancouver’s Fortune Sound Club. Thanks Alex, well said.