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