Electronica, dance band
Emerging onto the rapidly changing scene of synthe sizer-based pop music, called electronica or techno, in 1989, England’s Orbital rapidly staked a claim among the likes of acts such as Aphex Twin, The Orb, and Seefeel—artists that have expanded the boundaries of the electronica music genre and have proven that music generated through machines need not be inferior to traditional instrumentation. Alongside a portfolio of albums and singles that have received kudos from fans and critics alike, Orbital have also established themselves as one of electronica’s premiere live groups with music that ranges from dark, swelling arrangements to pulsating, joyous dance pieces. As The New Musical Express observed, “Orbital came along and took the technological out of techno. In its place they programmed pathos, humor, angst, suspense, guilt, euphoria, indeed anything in the emotional canon that equates with human feeling. They had created a living, breathing, staggeringly beautiful disco music … [T]his was the triumph of Orbital.”
Orbital is comprised of two brothers, Phil and Paul Hartnoll, who grew up in Sevenoakes, England. The suburban sterility of their environment, as well as their mother’s prolonged use of the medically condemned drug Halcyon, were influential in forming the Hartnolls’ views on the effects of the age of technology, an issue that would later be implicit in their musical motifs. Beginning with traditional instruments before quickly switching to low end synthesizers and electronic drum machines, the two brothers entrenched upon experimental instrumentation, fusing a hands-on approach to digital technology with a love for punk rock and thrift store easy listening records. By 1989, the Hartnolls amassed enough capital to press their first home-made single, “Chime,” under the name Orbital, and the single was soon reissued by Full Frequency Range Recordings (FFRR) to meet increasing demands. Although it has been generally acknowledged that the band’s moniker refers to a menacing London highway strip, the band also commented in a 1996 interview with Barbara Harrison that the name “seemed appropriate because of loops and things like that… Music is very circular and well … everything is, isn’t it really?”
The release of “Chime” brought Orbital almost instant acclaim, as the single shot to Number 17 in the British sales charts, and paved the way for an appearance on the television showcase Top of the Pops, providing national exposure. The Hartnolls took advantage of the occasion to wear T-shirts protesting England’s Poll Tax, a fragile political issue in the United Kingdom, making a gesture that foreshadowed the political themes the two would later voice. Although Orbital have never again been invited to Top of the Pops and despite the radio-incompatible format of many of Orbital’s sprawling songs, the group’s popularity in England ascended quickly. The band produced several more singles, including “Satan,” one of Orbital’s signature tunes, before tackling album-oriented material.
At the time of Orbital’s formation, electronic dance music in England was most alive at raves, frenzied dance parties held in warehouses or abandoned buildings which invariably ran into the early hours of morning. Although rave music has continued to cover a greater scope, its roots are in the energetic, dance oriented rhythms of hip-hop, a sound pioneered largely in Detroit, Michigan during the 1980s by underground deejays such as Juan Atkins and Derrick May, and Orbital’s first two albums reflect this. Both untitled, the Hartnolls’ 1991 and 1993 full-length recordings “fell clearly into the ’rave’ category,” as Fix magazine commented, “consistent, flowing, danceable workouts with a couple of ambient numbers inserted to provide a breather.” The two untitled albums—the 1993 release has since been dubbed “the brown album” for its sleeve color—were generally well received and loomed in the independent sales charts in England for months. In addition, the albums harvested enough acclaim for diverse artists such as Meat Beat Manifesto, EMF, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and Queen Latifah to collaborate with Orbital for remix projects. Nonetheless, compared to the material the Hartnolls would soon produce, their debut albums lacked the scope and density of sounds that truly set the band apart.
Band comprised of brothers Phil Hartnoll (born 1965, in Sevenoakes, England) and Paul Hartnoll (born 1969, in Sevenoakes).
Orbital was formed in 1989 by the Hartnoll brothers; released first single, “Chime,” the same year, performed on Top of the Pops wearing anti-poll tax t-shirts, 1990; released untitled debut album, 1991; appeared on Midi-Circus tour roster, 1993; released a second untitled album, 1993; performed at Glastonbury Festival to rave reviews, 1994, released Sniuilisation, 1994; appeared at Woodstock II festival, 1995; released Insides, 1996; appeared on Lollapalooza tour, 1997.
Addresses: Office— A.R.K., P.O. Box 2879, London, England N7 6DF. E-mail —[email protected] SUBSCRIBE ORBITAL.
In between recording sessions, Orbital also began generating their music on live stages for the first time. Since electronica outfits are often criticized for merely playing largely pre-recorded tape loops as a concert performance, Orbita’s approach of creating as much sound as possible spontaneously with analogue synthesizers was instantly appreciated. For Orbital, live performances became a communal enterprise which lessened the canned, lifeless aura of electronic instruments. “I feel that when we play live… it’s more like being part of the party,” Phil Hartnoll told Harrison. “Rather than being a them and us, it’s more of a joining.” Accordingly, as Orbital played several U.K. and U.S. tours, including a headline slot at the 1993 Midi-Circus techno festival, the techno scene in England grew more and more socially oriented, slightly rekindling the spirit of political awareness witnessed during the 1960s.
By 1994, Orbital’s promise as a truly brilliant band came to fruition, thereby winning credibility for the whole electronica genre. At that summer’s Glastonbury Festival, Orbital played to an enraptured audience with an array of dazzling stage props, ranking the show among Q magazine’s list of the best 100 concerts of modern times, a list largely habituated by rock oriented bands. As rock journalist Danny Eccleston recounts, “the sense that something amazing was about to happen around the second stage was enough to drag many of us techno skeptics away from a bullish Paul Weller [a popular rock artist, formerly of the bands The Jam and Style Council] in full swing, in order to establish our positions. The result—a tidal wave version of ’Chime’ right across the temples, pitch darkness criss-crossed by lasers, all prompted by just two shiny headed insects and a bank of machines—was a revelation.”
The legendary 1994 Glastonbury show gave the public its first glimpse of tracks from Orbital’s third album, Snivilisation, released in the fall of that year. Entering the U.K. sales charts at Number Three, Snivilisation was most likely the band’s first true masterpiece. Musically, the record was a dense forest of layered sounds, featuring sampled noises and voices (although hardly any lyrics) hovering over dance-oriented, if not always easily danceable, beats. Despite the seemingly upbeat flavor of Snivilisation, however, a sinister element pervaded the album as it made satiric intimations towards the Age of Technology, most apparent on tracks such as “Philosophy By Numbers” and “Science Friction.” While the Hartnolls celebrated the realm of possibility provided by modern technological advances, they were also critical of the alienating and destructive effects that might ensue, and Snivilisation’s subtle blend of energy and foreboding reflects this. “We tend to be more on an ecological side of things,” Phil Hartnoll said in response to questions of Snivilisation’s political flirtations. “Caring about the earth and caring about the way people are treated by other people, really, rather than overtly political … well, people say that’s politics, social politics.”
Orbital continued to elevate their already impressive status as a live act, both at home and abroad. In the United States, the twosome played at the Woodstock II Festival, an attempt to revisit the spirit of pacifism and political commitment of the original Woodstock 25 years earlier. Although the overly commercialized event was a general misfire, it did add to Orbital’s growing profile in America. The group’s shows in Britian were even more successful, selling out almost every venue. Orbital’s live presence now included a specially constructed scaffolding tower which loomed over the stage, in addition to their already dazzling laser arsenal. By the time the brothers returned to the Glastonbury Festival of 1995, this time on the main stage, they had exceeded the standards set at the previous year’s gig.
The band’s recorded output had become more and more ambitious, with many of their single releases too long to receive general airplay. In this mode of musical grandeur, Orbital released their fourth album, In Sides, in the spring of 1996, instantly receiving comparisons to classical composition. Containing only six tracks and lasting 70 minutes, In Sides was hailed almost universally by critics in the U.K. and America. In NME writer Keith Cameron’s words, “In Sides is the best of Orbital thus far. It refines their previous tricks further, taking them into the realms of what now feels dangerously close to perfection, whilst also standing tall and utterly distinct from its contemporaries and historic predecessors.” With songs as diverse as “The Box,” a mysterious 28 minute foray into film soundtrack territory, and “P.E.T.R.O.L,” a pulsating piece originally commissioned for a home video game, Orbital had made one of the strongest arguments in favor of the fertility of electronica. At the same time, Orbital still weaved ominous elements into their music as subtle warnings of the negative side of technoculture—; “a very Orbital motif,” as Select magazine noted, “they spot the malaise behind the modern idea of happiness, but also draw beauty from the saddest subjects.” Indeed, the dense, constantly changing In Sides can almost be said to reflect the emotions that accompany political realities. As Rolling Stone assessed, Snivilisation had [Orbital] lashing out against a corrupt society, [while] In Sides is more about personal politics, culling inspiration from environmental issues, young war casualties, and a dead friend.”
Despite the critical triumph of In Sides and frequent airing of the mesmerizing, cryptic concept video for “The Box” on MTV, Orbital still fell short of breaking into American radio. There is a general reluctance of audiences in the United States to accept electronica as a genre, the lack of traditional vocals, and the often anonymous quality of electronica bands, in a culture that values the image of its musicians. Nonetheless, America may change its taste, as happened earlier in the U.K. “Despite the perception that Brits avidly embrace dance culture while Americans resist its charms, electronic music never had much real pop success in Europe until it conquered the summer rock festivals,” posited Charles Aaron in Spin magazine. As Orbital were instrumental in that siege overseas, their inclusion in America’s Lollapalooza Festival for 1997 along with other electronica acts such as Tricky and The Prodigy may prove to have the same effect in the United States.
Untitled, FFRR, 1991.
Untitled (also called “The Brown Album” and “Orbital 2”), FFRR, 1993.
Snivilisation, FFRR, 1994.
In Sides, FFRR, 1996.
Fix, June 21, 1996.
New Musical Express, April 26, 1996.
Q, September 1996.
Rolling Stone, August 8, 1996.
Select, June 1996.
Spin, October 1996.
or·bit·al / ˈôrbitl/ • adj. of or relating to an orbit or orbits. ∎ Brit. (of a road) passing around the outside of a town. • n. Physics each of the actual or potential patterns of electron density that may be formed in an atom or molecule by one or more electrons, and that can be represented as a wave function.