Electronic music has long suffered the misconception that it is a cold, mechanical, and soulless style, a misconception no doubt fueled by coupling a lack of familiarity with the genre and our own entertainment industry’s portrayal of certain technologies. In the mid-late ’80s, “techno,” with its incessant barrage of sound, was as obtuse and abstract to the average Joe as some may view dubstep today. Even Kraftwerk’s ability to convey warmth and atmosphere through electronic instruments was nullified by their performance style of simply standing behind consoles like lifeless automatons. We all have far more mental images of the cold, calculated, non-humane behaviors of computers/robots like HAL9000, “Joshua”, or the T-1000 than we do the loveable antics of a Johnny-5 or Twiggy, so it’s no wonder that the thought of music created by machines might initially be viewed with skepticism, or even worse, written off. Brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll have made a career out of disproving and destroying many of these preconceived notions.
Starting with an ambient house template developed by artists like the Orb, the Hartnoll Brothers sought to expand the perceived limitations of electronic musicians and DJs. Most evident in their live performances, the brothers would often play live instruments and include elements of improvisation in their sets. They were often seen behind the consoles with flashlights attached to their heads, bobbing to the beat, shattering that invisible wall of detachment perpetuated by the likes of Kraftwerk. Adopting the name Orbital, after the M25 orbital motorway (a beltway to those of us in the States) that wraps around Greater London and was the main thoroughfare for would-be ravers to get from the city to the hinterland region north of London during 1988’s Summer of Love, the brothers recorded their first single, “Chime”, in 1987. An instrumental dance anthem initially released in 1989 and then again in 1990, “Chime” not only introduced the band to the world but also their desire to take electronic music out of the club and into rock arenas.
Although they maintained a firm belief that an electronic album could function as an artistic statement just as well as a rock album and not simply serve as a medium for collecting singles, Orbital’s first full-length seemed to counter that conviction. The group’s self-titled debut (aka The Green Album), though filled with mostly new material, lacked a cohesiveness to it, preventing its elevation above simply a collection of singles. Overcoming some of the pitfalls of adolescence, Orbital’s second album, also self-titled but often called The Brown Album to differentiate it from its predecessor, is a far more fully realized effort. Beautifully balancing the band’s ambient house sensibilities, perfectly crafted and developed over six years of singles, with a trance-like aesthetic, Orbital–both the band and the album–sounds years ahead of its time. In hindsight, Orbital 2 could even be described as the bridge Underworld took from their lackluster pop days of Under the Radar to become the band that recorded “Born Slippy” and “King of Snakes”.
Opening their second album with the same vocal sample that opened the duo’s first album–Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Lt. Worf speaking to a theory of time looping back on itself–was meant as a jab to the group’s audience, intentionally trying to confuse the buyer into thinking they purchased a misprinted or re-printed version of the band’s debut. It can also serve as somewhat of an aural pun on the album as a whole. However, unlike on Orbital, where the song titled “The Moebius” develops into a fully realized piece, on Orbital 2, the song, this time entitled “Time Becomes”, serves more as an example of an experimental technique known as phasing. A technique first used by Toni Fisher on her 1959 single “The Big Hurt” and subsequently popularized by composer Steve Reich, phasing is the process of playing two pieces, samples, sections, etc. at slightly different tempos. Orbital uses this technique twice on the album, effectively serving to bookend the musical portion of the record. “Time Becomes” begins with a clear, spoken phrase that becomes garbled and somewhat incomprehensible by the time its two minutes are up. Countering that is the album’s closing track, “Inside Out”, where the spoken phrases “input translation” and “output rotation” are first layered atop each other, and as the track continues, the two separate enough from each other to become barely understandable.
The musical portion of the album also begins with a slight tongue-in-cheek jab, this time aimed at the vinyl purists among the group’s fan base. As the second track, “Planet of the Shapes”, begins, the listener is treated to a little aural chicanery courtesy of the brothers Hartnoll. Purposefully adding the sounds of pops, cracks, static, and a record needle skipping to the song’s intro, the brothers wanted to tease those who bought the vinyl copy of The Brown Album into thinking that they had purchased an inferior product. Of course, less than 30 seconds in, the joke is revealed and an amazing rolling drum progression propels you forward for the next nine minutes.
The songs on The Brown Album have an integrity among themselves that unifies the album as a whole. This is heard first and foremost in the tendency of the songs to flow into one another, not so much as in a nicely beat-matched mix, but rather as one preparing the way for the next. The transcendent progression heard in the pitch-bending “Lush 3-1” and its follow-up, “Lush 3-2”, is a great example of this approach: two songs that could exist independently of each other but create a much larger, multifaceted piece when put together. The cascading effects, drum & bass, and proto-trance elements in “Impact (The Earth Is Burning)” help to make that song the epic centerpiece of the album, paving the way for tracks like “Monday” and “Walk Now…” (with its looped didgeridoo) to predict the sounds of the late ’90s electronica championed by the likes of Underworld and big beat gurus the Chemical Brothers.
As Orbital looked to the future on their second self-titled album, the most celebrated song on the album (and maybe even in the band’s entire canon), “Halcyon + on + on”, is actually a remixed version of an older single, “Halcyon”. Originally written as a response to the Hartnolls’ mother’s own struggles with an addiction to the sedative, “Halcyon” first appeared on the Radiccio EP and later as an independent single released in the U.S. The song also features a hauntingly beautiful vocal sample by Opus III singer Kirsty Hawkshaw from the song “It’s a Fine Day”. The remixed version on The Brown Album is slightly more upbeat and melodic and serves as firm proof of Orbital’s ability to make a gorgeous pop song within an ambient/trance-esque matrix.
Almost from the moment it was released, Orbital 2, aka The Brown Album, has been considered a landmark release in the field of electronic and dance music. Twenty years after its release, the songs and album as a whole sound as fresh as ever, never coming off as dated or worse, derivative. The authenticity and sincerity behind the Hartnoll brothers’ convictions are clearly on display, as they blend a rock delivery with a dance beat, orchestrating layers and textures over updated minimalist techniques and producing a warm and inspired album that transcends genres, labels, and so far, time.