When Orbital‘s Hartnoll brothers announced their retirement in 2004 with the release of Blue Album, many probably felt it was time. By this point, Orbital had been releasing material that had abandoned ingenuity and instead found themselves spinning their wheels and recycling ideas and approaches, as evidenced by their 2001 release The Altogether. With 2004’s Blue Album, they aimed to deliver a back-to-basics electronic album, reminiscent of earlier, more classic Orbital releases (specifically the Green and Brown albums). Aside from the chromatic similarities between album titles and despite a few bright spots, Orbital’s final album failed to rise to the level of the band’s earlier material, furthering gossip that the brothers’ wellspring had run dry.
There are two things that I have found to be almost ubiquitous when it comes to discussing Wonky, the newest album from Orbitalfirst, that many find the title to be blah, and second, that it has been eight years since the last Orbital album. That latter fact is imprinted like it’s a talking point that should actually mean something. Who cares that it’s been eight years? We should be far more concerned with what the time away has done to the Hartnoll brothers and their music.
To be fair, it’s only been eight years in between original, full-length releases. Since the brothers announced their reformation in 2009 with a series of performances and tours, they have begun mirroring their earlier career. Trickling out singles and creating a video diary following the making of their new album, Orbital’s return has been carefully and methodically planned. With the creation of Wonky, Orbital have managed to succeed in 2012 where they failed in 2004, making an album that reaches back to the band’s earliest days while at the same time being firmly rooted in the present. If Blue Album was the brothers planting crops in the same field year after year with less and less success, Wonky is the result of proper crop rotation.
The album opens with a nod to the group’s first two albums, multiple, overlapping vocal tracks in a manner akin to their earlier phasing experiments with Lt. Worf’s dialogue. With a sparse yet infectious piano riff as a hook, One Big Moment is a hazy, fuzzed-out, dreamy dance track that reaches back to early Orbital. The dance-y nature continues with Straight Sun, a hard-hitting house number with glitchy nuances, and Never, a deceptive number; beginning soft with notes dotted along a sampled vocal pattern, a wave of synth builds underneath, eventually reaching crescendo with a Guetta-filtered-through-Hartnoll climax. It isn’t as canned or predictable as Guetta’s beats have become, but the pattern is similar.
New France is the first track to feature a guest appearance. Zola Jesus’s vocalizations barely count as actual contributions, as they could have easily been sampled. Zola aside, the track is hot and provides a good bridge back to the spacey, ethereal aspect of Orbital’s personality, namely Distractions and Stringy Acid. The former track floats in that acid-fried realm that singles like Halcyon call home, where the latter single, based on an old song they found on some early tapes, bubbles with giddiness, catering more to the party than the after-party.
The most contemporary sound here rests with Beezledub, an update of their song Satan that begins with some simple dubstep elements before it morphs midway into a tweaked out drum ‘n’ bass ditty with an amazingly infectious hook. The hard-hitting, aggressive nature of the song carries over into the album’s title track. Toning down the drum ‘n’ bass attack, the song is carried on an old-school, techno club beat and propelled through the spastic rapping contributions of MC Lady Leshurr, the United Kingdom’s Nicki Minaj. The album’s final song, Where Is It Going, begins almost as a connect point to the album’s beginning before segueing into a Basement Jaxx number midway through. Following the breakdown, the track returns to form and closes out by mirroring the song’s beginning.
Sonically and musically, the contents of this album could be a metaphor for not only the best aspects of Orbital and their lengthy career but also for the best elements of the electronic idiom. Is this the best album of Orbital’s career? Certainly not. But it is their best album in the past 15 years. The first decade of the 2000s was not necessarily good to Orbital, but the second decade looks to be making up for it.
Essential Tracks: “One Big Moment”, “Distractions”, and “Beezledub”