Yesterday I went to a record store and bought a record. Admittedly, this isn’t that rare an occurrence, but it was especially nice to be able to do it yesterday, because the record in question was the new album by Orbital, who, I suspect, if I’m being honest, are probably my very favourite band ever. Above and beyond The Beatles, The Stone Roses, Talk Talk, Caribou, Embrace. More than any other musician(s), they changed my understanding of what music could be, my attitude towards it. I’ve never taken MDMA or been to a rave, never found myself wandering country lanes at 5am after dancing in a field until the sun came up, never even managed to see their legendary live show, but I still find their music to be a transcendent, euphoric, mind-altering experience.
I’ve written about Orbital before plenty of times (plenty of them on this blog), but I still don’t feel like I’ve ever captured what it is about them that affects me so strongly. I guess that closest I got was a piece about Halcyon+on+on that I wrote for Stylus back in the day. I remember a moment on a train once with Matt, I have no idea where we were going or what time of day it was, but Matt spotted a young couple, probably about our age at the time (we would have been about 17 or 18), and they were both wearing band t-shirts. “Orbital girl; Oasis boy” said Matt, in reference to the bands emblazoned across their torsos. It seems a strange and insignificant moment, but it’s stuck with me. It felt like it meant something, though I haven’t the foggiest notion what.
Orbital’s last album, which at the time was meant to be their last album, wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t amazing either; even at the time it seemed like a tired shrug of a farewell. I suspect they were never quite as out of fashion as they were in 2004, lost amongst Girls Aloud, Franz Ferdinand, Dizzee Rascal, Kanye West, The Streets and Arcade Fire, words and faces crucially important to all those artists but not things that had ever been important to Orbital.
I deliberately tried to avoid hearing much of Wonky pre-release – I downloaded free teaser track Never, and then studiously ignored it, and tuned my ears out every time something that could possibly be New France came on 6music. When it leaked in the few days before release I found an upload of it, but, to quote Clinton, I did not inhale.
In 2001 and 2004 Orbital sounded old-fashioned, which didn’t make any sense, because Orbital, in my mind, were always about the future. Or, at the least, about an intense “now”. Perhaps they were about the future sonically, and about now emotionally? But that doesn’t quite explain the astonishing, euphoria-meets-nostalgia-meets-melancholy of Belfast or Halcyon+on+on.
Post M83, post Oneohtrix Point Never, post Delphic, post dubstep, post Azaelia Banks, post boys who, a decade ago, would have been indie kids but who are now making electro, and Orbital make more sense in 2012. But Wonky isn’t nostalgic, even though Beelzedub reminds me of Out There Somewhere Part 1, and also Satan (of course; it’s the root source, I gather). Some of what they do on Wonky involves reusing old sounds (the euphoric oscillations of Where Is It Going? for instance), but there’s a sense of urgency and nowness, too, which was missing from The Altogether and Blue Album. (Even the title of Blue Album feels tired and rote, now. I guess it did then, too.)
I didn’t understand how Lady Leshurr could work on an Orbital track; how Orbital could work with a proper lyricist on top of their music, when so many of their amazing moments have been augmented by wordless, transcendent vocals by the likes of Alison Goldfrapp. But Lady Leshurr’s turn on the title track works because she’s about excitement, about the build; she’s not rapping, she’s MCing, bringing the crowd up, which is what Orbital have been doing for more than twenty years.
Maybe the reason Orbital seemed out of date and old fashioned a decade ago is that dance music had moved pretty comprehensively out of the fields and raves where they’d begun, and become a very urban thing – I guess the appropriation of certain dance tropes and aesthetics and functionalities by hip-hop (I’m talking Missy Elliott and Timbaland, The Neptunes, crunk, etc etc) helped acclimatise it to exclusively urban context and audience. Instead of heading into hip-hop and grime and (later) dubstep nights, Orbital headed into the cinema, which made a certain amount of sense given their filmic, soundscape leanings: but that was only ever part of what they were about. Wonky returns a sense of hands-in-the-air-ness to their music; it’s just the air of a sweaty club rather than a starlit sky. I’m projecting here, of course; I’ve not been to a nightclub in years. But you don’t need to be in a club to be struck by the momentum, the physicality of it, and the visceral surge, which climaxes in astonishing emotional release.
If anything’s missing with Wonky, for me, it’s the way that, around that mid-period three album run of Snivilisation / In Sides / MoN, Orbital would interpolate outside sounds into their music beyond drum machines and synthesizers; not just samples from films and other sources, but the creaking chair and zither in The Box, the coalescing rain-becoming-bassline in I Wish I Had Duck Feet, the live drums in TGWTSIHH, the trumpets in Way Out. It gave them an incredibly broad sound palette, which made it feel like anything was possible within their music.
Years ago I remember pre-release press for In Sides, and reading the Hartnolls describe Out There Somewhere as a 2-part, 25-minute symphony to “alien abduction”, with the first part being the nightmarish, anal-probe terror scenario, and the second part being the beatific, Close Encounters scenario, and thinking ‘wtf?’. And then hearing it, and understanding… You don’t hear Kaiser Chiefs say they’ve written a 25-minute alien abduction symphony.
I remember reading that Adnan’s was about the Balkans conflict, that Dwr Budr was about an oil spill in Wales, and being fascinated with the idea that wordless techno music could be “about” something. Here was this music, incredibly melodic, incredibly rhythmic, incredibly intricate, incredibly emotional, unlike anything I had heard before.
I’m not saying Wonky is as good as In Sides, or even Middle Of Nowhere – I’ve only had it 24 hours – but right now, 16 years since I first bought a record by them, hundreds, if not thousands of hours of listening later, I’m really, really enjoying it.