A techno group that makes albums?

That's what Orbital is. Instead of just churning out singles and compilation work like their early 90's peers, Orbital packaged their music to be sold 70 minutes at a time, like a proper rock record. And it worked, propelling them to the top of the techno industry and giving them longevity any John Doe with a synth and a sampler would sell all his ecstasy for.

Of course, this explanation for the success of P & P Hartnoll belies the fact that Orbital simply makes some of the best ambient techno ever burned onto a compact disc. No other techno artist has been able to maintain their creativity for so long without losing an ounce of accessibility, street cred, critical support, or sales. You can dance to it, but you don't have to -- their beats and synths are aimed directly at your brain. There's not really anything to dislike about their music: its immediacy is only matched by its subtlety. All in all, it's some pretty cerebral stuff, but Orbital plays it like they know that some people just want to feel the phat beat.

An Orbital concert goes something like this: It gets dark. Walter/Wendy Carlos' title music for A Clockwork Orange plays over the sound system. Like fireflies, four little lights emerge from backstage and settle into what appears to be a cage full of electronic equipment. The cage is what will be producing the music. The fireflies are what wrote it, the Hartnolls themselves, wearing lights on their heads like miners. Like the music of Orbital, this is functional art -- it looks amazing, but also lets them see what knobs they're twiddling. It's almost like being entertained by a cooler version of the Borg. Behind them are huge video screens, showing wondrous images that complement the music perfectly. You get a vague understanding that they're trying to tell you something (among the thousands of flashing images are hourglasses, Stealth bombers, dollar signs, and international symbols), but Orbital is more concerned with the powerful emotions at the core of the human condition than the messages themselves. In concert, Orbital is forced to make music for the moment, so they make sure the images will last. More than anyone else who fiddles with drum machines for a living (save maybe Kraftwerk and Aphex Twin), you get the feeling that Orbital is implanting something into you other than sound.

Phil and Paul Hartnoll are brothers, born during the mid-60's in Kent, England. They learned how to play the piano at a young age, but their musical inclination didn't seem to get them anywhere until 1987, when the brothers created a little tune called "Chime" using a four-track, a drum machine, and some keyboards. In 1989, this track finally saw the light of day thanks to a friend's independent label. The following year, Orbital (named after the London Orbital, the circular M25 motorway) signed a record deal with FFRR and "Chime" shot up to number 17 on the British charts.

After a few more successful singles, Orbital unleashed their first album. This self-titled work, better known as Orbital 1 or simply The Green Album, was little more than a collection a singles the brothers had recorded over the previous few years. Due to its piecemeal nature, The Green Album has a somewhat disjoint feeling to it, but this small qualm can't hide the fact that it contains some of the most innovative electronic music of 1991. "Satan" is a blistering fan favorite built around a Butthole Surfers sample. "Belfast" is blissfully uplifting. "The Mobiüs" is a driving track featuring Michael Dorn's now-famous sample. And of course "Chime" makes an appearance as well. The Green Album is unfortunately quite different in the US and the UK, and completists will have to resort to MP3s or CD imports.

The following album, known as Orbital 2 or The Brown Album, established Orbital as critical darlings. This recording found Orbital expanding in all directions and meeting with success. Beginning with the same ominous Star Trek sample as the first album, the album proceeds to plow through more than an hour of techno without peer. Widely recognized as one of the most important electronic albums of the decade, The Brown Album most importantly proved that a techno band could be more than a one-hit wonder. From the totally unique sound of "Lush", through the foreboding eco-disaster of "Impact (The earth is burning)", to the stunning beauty of "Halcyon + On + On", these tracks are instantly recognizable classics, rightfully catapulting Orbital to the realm of techno superstardom.

If The Brown Album pushes the boundaries of what techno can be, Snivilisation, Orbital's 1994 release, smashes right through them. The ultra-diversity and philosophical might of this album expand tenfold on the promise of earlier tracks, and at times it seems if the Hartnolls are visibly trying to prove their genius. "Forever" is prog rock gone techno. "Are We Here?" reveals P & P flirting with jungle (and succeeding). "Sad But True" plays with a hip-hop beat. "Quality Seconds" is a minute-and-a-half long blast of fast "guitars" and noise that nods in the direction of the fuck-everything punk they listened to while forming their sound in the 80's. "Crash and Carry" is dance floor fodder. "Attached" is the ambient closer. Loaded on top of everything are layers and layers of samples. If there's any flaw to this album, it's that it attempts too much. Claustrophobic and urgent.

In Sides, the "soundtrack album," mixes the ideas of Snivilisation with the distinctive lush sound of The Brown Album. At the center of this introspective work is the haunting piano melody of "The Box". Whereas "The Box" had been previously released in its epic 28-minute single form (complete with harpsichord and vocalist), here it is compressed to 12 minutes, 6 of which don't even rely on the famous five-note refrain to drive the track. "Dwr Budr" and "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head" find Orbital addressing environmental concerns again, whereas "P.E.T.R.O.L." and "Adnan's" are harsher dance tracks. A dark and moody album, In Sides finds Orbital at their most accessible and most bass-heavy. Clocking in at 72 minutes for 6 songs, however, means this one isn't for fans of the two-minute tune.

1999's Middle of Nowhere is a rather restrained effort, almost a tribute to the old days when the primary concern was keeping the dance floor moving. Although Orbital puts in another fine effort, true aural ecstasy is only to be found on the tracks "Spare Parts Express" and "Style". This album's slowly growing on me, however, and the speedy, robotic "Nothing Left" and the spacey "Way Out" are definitely covering new and innovative ground. More disappointing is Orbital's newest single, "Beached", a dismal collaboration with the usually talented Angelo Badalamenti. I realize it was for a film, but Leonardo DiCaprio samples? There's no excuse for that. To Orbital's credit, this is just about the only misstep in an otherwise brilliant career.

Or was. In April 2001, the duo released The Altogether, which, while it has its moments, has turned out to be quite the critical and commercial failure, alienating fans and performing poorly on the charts. Be sure to check out "Meltdown" though, as well as the "Funny Break" B-side "Beelzebeat". Unplug your headphones and grab a lifeboat; it looks like this once-invincible ship is sinking fast. However, their live show is still tops.


Editor's note: In the interest of keeping things up to date without completely re-writing this excellent writeup or putting a disappointing update writeup below, it should be announced that Orbital have ceased recording together. On August 20, 2004, they released their final album, titled The Blue Album in the vein of their first two albums, Brown and Green. This and a handful of live gigs will put an end to the rumors that were circulating a year before the release of the album. Presumably, they will remain brothers. --mkb

An enormous ring-shaped habitat in space, in Iain Banks' Culture novels. An Orbital seems to be somewhat smaller than Larry Niven's Ringworld. In addition, an Orbital has a hub at its center (instead of a star like the Ringworld) where its Mind lives.

However, an Orbital must still has a circumference of millions of miles, and support several orders of magnitude more people than the Earth. All spinning so fast that the ring makes a complete rotation in a standard Culture day (a little bit more than 24 hours).

Orbitals are for those Culture citizens who prefer a more bucolic, relaxed life, as opposed to ships which scoot around doing exciting things, in addition to breeding more ships, as well as minds and crews for them.

(See A Few Notes On The Culture)

In chemistry, an orbital is a part of a sublevel of an energy level. Each orbital can hold up to 2 electrons. An orbital is represented by the quantum number m. Orbitals are numbered from -l to l, where l is the quantum number describing the sublevel number. The s sublevel contains one orbital, and the p sublevel contains three orbitals, px, py, and pz. These are the most-used orbitals in chemistry, as they are the most relevant to bonding. In an orbital, the s quantum number refers to spin of the electron, which can either be -1/2 or +1/2.

The s orbital is shaped like a sphere.

The p orbitals are shaped like dumbells:

 .-------. .-------.
(         X         )
 '-------' '-------' 

Although the p orbitals are shaped like the sign for infinity, it is a good idea to draw them very thin, to avoid confusion with orbitals and hybrid sp orbitals (used in bonding).

Orbital in Atlanta, 10/5/2001.

Orbital decided to release it's sixth album in the states three months after it was released to the rest of the world. Who knows why, but I wouldn't be suprised if it was a decision made by their happy-go-lucky-drunk tour manager who couldn't decide what price a tee shirt should be in "bloody american money" or how much fine young Atlantean tail he should chase. So while British Orbital fans got to experience the less than satisfactory The Altogether in May, Americans had to wait for the release in late August.

However, Americans being the ingenious people they are, they just downloaded all the MP3s, and were disappointed along with the British at about the same time. However, because the European release was first, they had their European tour first. And while Americans were committing suicide because of lack of Orbital and the fear of imminent suckage, they got to see and hear Orbital's amazing live show. And while Orbital tried to make its ignored American fans feel better with a bonus cd full of B-sides, this was no In Sides bonus with "Satan," "Halcyon + On + On Live," and "The Box Extended Version." And after we had gotten nice and comfortable with the fact that the new album was a wash, they finally began their American tour.

No Halcyon would be played in this tour. In fact, only one of the Brown album tracks was played, "Impact." However, "Belfast" from the Green album was on the playlist for the first time in many years. Not even "Style" from the last album made an appearance. The set was comprised more or less of tracks from The Altogether. Maybe it was the scene, a small dance floor surrounded by stadium-style seats that rose high above the stage. Maybe it was the people, practically everyone went from frozen to motion in only a single song. Maybe it was Paul's and Phil's utter enthusiasm for the music and the moment.

No matter what, certain things became apparent: Orbital still could deliver the knock out to a dance floor, and The Altogether, which seemed like a unwieldly brick in their catalog became a fierce weapon in the hands of the Hartnoll brothers. The whole thing started with "Tension," a hyperactive piece that seems in sitting to be a slower overlayered song with too many samples but on the floor the beats miraculously doubled and it became the perfect song to smack the crowd into show without wasting any time. The David Gray assist from Illuminate became vocoded, something that would never fly with David Gray or Orbital fans, and it transformed the song into a crazy ode to the overvocoding in electronica and it made it dancable and lovable. The entire performance was capped the unlikable "Doctor?," a theme to the British Doctor Who Night on BBC which with a few beat changes somewhere in the structure, and you must forgive my memory as I had donated a lot of my braincells and 4-HTP to my muscles and the music, became a appropriate surrealistic finale that left the me wanting nothing more. Not even Halcyon, which is saying quite a bit.

From now on, if I listen to The Altogether it will not be from a seat, as I listen to the other albums. Orbital, known for their frequent and stupendous live shows may have metamorphosed into a group that exists to experience, not to please reviewers, wallflowers, or charts. While this may be giving the typical American the short end of the stick considering their quick and dirty tours of America, I really don't mind. They have trancended every stereotype in electronic music thus far, from one-hit-wonderdom to lack of dancability to lack of depth and meaning. At this point in their development, they seem to have imparted so much into their music that live shows are the only way of fully exploring it.

Or"bit*al (?), a.

Of or pertaining to an orbit.

"Orbital revolution."

J. D. Forbes.

Orbital index Anat., in the skull, the ratio of the vertical height to the transverse width of the orbit, which is taken as the standard, equal to 100.

 

© Webster 1913.

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