2. Orbital – ‘Orbital 2′ (The Brown Album)

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Ambient, Ambient Techno, Breakbeat, Techno | Tags: | No Comments »

Orbital - Orbital II

Orbital * Orbital 2 (The ‘Brown Album’) * 1993 * London Records / FFRR

“Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day. Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day…”

By 1993, ‘acid house’ was taking the world by storm. At the head of that charge were two brothers who had a gift for marrying incendiary rhythms to euphoric melodies. They called themselves Orbital, a name inspired by the M25 ‘orbital’ motorway that fed Greater London’s outdoor rave scene. Their first two hits, ‘Chime’ and ‘Belfast,’ were wordless wonders, perfectly capturing the communal energy of dance parties across Europe.

But rock fans and critics were still scratching their heads with this new sound: The conceit was that techno had no message and no soul. Phil and Paul Hartnoll were the antithesis of that stereotype. They had grown up steeped in punk, hip hop and working class values. Both were concerned about social inequality and the dangers of technology. They were members of Greenpeace and in 1996 recorded ‘The Girl with the Sun in Her Head’ using a solar generator.

Techno was predominately instrumental music. But it still needed words and word of mouth to help convey its essential message of empowerment — that the poetic meaning of its interacting notes and beats was infinite and democratic. Orbital’s exhilarating second album, 1993′s “Brown Album,” made that case better than anyone. It was packed with sheer sonic joy and raw primal energy. Yet it was its odd voice samples about time loops and stopped clocks that firmly placed the listener in a pinpoint relationship with history and the universe.

The starter ‘Planet of the Shapes’ was a sonic war of the worlds. Its blow-torched sheets of metal clashed over booming beats while a serene melody piped as if it were played by the mythic Pan enmeshed in elastic, elysian drones. ‘Lush 3-1′ and ‘Lush 3-2′ wound through melancholy notes with chugging rhythms in an Edenic spring rain. ‘Impact (The Earth is Burning)’ tipped a hat to dinosaur-killing meteorites, muscular bass plunging into a maelstrom of baroque chaos, while ‘Remind’ set things adrift with the Earth’s surface still smoldering, a descending frequency cutting loose to banging drums.

‘Walk Now…’ continued Orbital 2‘s progression, its didgeridoo suggesting an aboriginal Dreamtime, the hunt for prey afoot. ‘Monday’ made a break to industrial clocks, its contemplative melody conjuring the prospect of endless Mondays spent in cubicles — sci-fi jazz with a stiff drink.

But the album’s most astonishing moment came last with ‘Halcyon + On + On.’ It was dedicated by Paul and Phil to their mother, a tribute to her long battle with addiction to the prescribed halcion insomnia drug. It’s one of the most beautiful compositions ever written — its warm waves and uplifting groove moving through sadness and pain to joy and optimism.

In the context of the times, ‘Halcyon’ evoked an age of peace. The word “halcyon” is the ancient Greek name for kingfisher birds once believed to nest on calm seas. Like Future Sound of London‘s ‘Papua New Guinea,’ ‘Halcyon’ was part of an introspective tide in ’90s dance culture, a turning away from hedonism to consider larger questions about life and the mixed promise of new technology.

Orbital still remains a great synthesis in that quest. They were less accessible than bands like Underworld and the Chemical Brothers. Their ’90s output was more purely electronic. But at the center of their music was a deep emotionality, drawing on the Hartnolls’ anger about the environment and social injustice.

But they weren’t bleak bleepers. The way in which Orbital 2 weaved into the soul also gave individual expression to inchoate yearnings for global harmony. At the dawn of the Internet Age, it was electronic music that gave that impulse it’s highest form.

Orbital’s carefully chosen words were collective signposts to that world of extraordinary possibilities. Stepping through, the rest was pure, unadulturated magic.

1. Time Becomes
2. Planet of the Shapes
3. Lush 3-1
4. Lush 3-2
5. Impact (The earth is burning)
6. Remind
7. Walk Now…
8. Monday
9. Halcyon + On + On
10. Input Out

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