Why Orbital is Poo

By dean

Let's not beat around the bush here. Out of the multitudes of electronic acts out there, out of the countless dance acts out there, out of the prime few "say you don't love them and you get stares of pity" groups of musicians out there, ORBITAL are easily one of the most amusing. It's not often that there has been such a difference between Reputation and Actual Quality. There are reasons for this. Come on, take a gander

  1. If adult figures start to appreciate a band like ORBITAL, and can make remarks such as, "Golly, young one, that actually sounds like proper music," things are not on the upswing.
  2. It takes a lot of balls to write a song that doesn't modify itself between the 1:09 and 14:02 timer read-outs on your CD player.
  3. Strings in music does not automatically qualify one for the "Adventurous and Innovative" segment of the Musical Olympics (see BRACE; EM).
  4. While not always a prerequisite, it's sometimes decent to make a dance album actually make one want to, well, dance.
  5. Dulling all senses and all sense of track differentiation throughout just about every album of their career and then defending it all is like feeding a pack of orphans colourless gruel for years and then slapping the back of their heads when they don't appreciate how "good" it is for them -- and then feeding them fly-speckled manure.
  6. Recently getting hair again is not "exciting" nor is it worthy of Aristotelian debate.
  7. In concert, using the theme for A Clockwork Orange was a sign of performance brilliance.

'Tis true. Maybe not all is what it appears to be. You see, after being quite content with the above opinions over the years, it finally took a live outing of the band (not the homosexual kind) to make such remarks seem a tad immature. So yes, ORBITAL are a class act onstage. Even for a band that's about as thrilling on record as watching GAY DAD posters dry. Guess some of the most unlikeliest of bands can completely turn your head in if they're performing live. So where did the band go right?

For starters: ORBITAL in concert are a band of powerful patience -- knowing full well how to build up rhythmic crescents and suck you in to their melodic undertows. They may start with small eddies (i.e. the Stanley Kubrick intro), but without realizing it, minutes later you'll be prancing up and down to the waves of "Satan" (er, the song). Something about them just works on you. Something that never really rears its head out of your stereo. And when you're even dancing around to one of their weakest singles of their career ("Style"), you have no idea how it all happened in the first place.

Because of this, it remains strange -- even after encountering ORBITAL onstage -- why they still fail 9 attempts out of 10 on record. What marks such a huge gulf in talent and enjoyment from stereo speakers and concert monitors? It's not the decibel equation, because "Are We Here?" sounds just as tired and drab splintering your car windows as it does muted on night-time headphones. It's not the actual length of the songs either, as the live versions were often longer but infinitely more intense. It's not even the much-touted "light show" that accompanies the band...fairly ordinary, in a MANIC STREET PREACHERS "slogan" type of way...and the music still captures all the main attention anyhow. So where did the band go wrong?

Part of it has to be the actual production and mixing of their albums. No matter how inherently lovely the source songwriting can be ("Chime," "Halcyon," etc.), they still come off as tinny and limp groundhogs searching for an overhanging hole. This probably comes off as some audiophile posturing, but that's not the intention; all this is pointing to is that one literally has to push the limits of their stereo's bass setup to barely even get their finer moments to sound as interesting and beastly as they could. There's more, though. Part of the band's flawed record attempts also have to do with their Doesn't Buck The Cliché album methods: the singles are still the best tracks. There's no glory in relating how much you like the songs every rational fan in the world knows, but sometimes it's the honest truth. Some singles are singles for a good reason. Yet unlike other bands, where they can excel and shine outside of their own chart targets, ORBITAL seem prattling and confused; as if they invested all their energy and creativity for the "key" tracks and left the rest for monotonous transitional fodder. Surely this isn't the case in their eyes, or in the eyes of the large quotient of their increasingly-potty fan-base, but one can't help shake the feeling when comparing a damn fine song as the rolling "P.E.T.R.O.L." with a song like...can't even think of a name. Track 4 on Orbital...er, or that fifth track on Snivilisation...uh, or that second song on Orbital 2...you understand.

Maybe this is just heading for the idea that maybe the band just need more sinister maneuvers on record. Some of their more successful songs undoubtedly chime in with pretty simplicity, sure...but the band take on a whole new level when they show a more unnerving, subversive side to their actions. ORBITAL in concert are no longer po-faced classicists, but turn into slick impressionists -- where else could the somber agility of "The Box," the burning melody of "Belfast," and the deadly clangs of Kubrick all truly exist on the same blurred canvas? Once again, they come off as enjoyable -- and definitely better than almost any of the band's other diversions -- but this exposed deviousness is a completely new creature when the band has a crowd in front of them. There's a harder edge in there somewhere. A harder heartbeat.

Now, despite cramming in about 14 metaphors in one paragraph, let all of this be said another way: take an ORBITAL song off any of their records. Any of 'em. Go. Now compare that song to the pounding magnificence of their "Doctor Who"/"Chime" live closer (now if that's not a life-affirming moment for proud geeks everywhere, I don't know what is...). And think of the smiles and upraised hands. And think of how good you felt. One cannot believe it's even remotely the same band.

Again, the evidence for this can vaguely be traced, yet the reasons behind it all remain even more hazy. Bad production or stellar live flow sound like reasonable arguments, but it would still ease the mind to find out why the Hartnoll's almost always choose the duller path when locked into a studio environment. They've gotta know it. They've gotta finally put out an album worthy of their live superiority someday...at the slightest, sometime in our future it would be comforting if they at least realized their failed potential. It'd be healthy for all of us.

The moral of the story probably doesn't need to be stated: anybody got a bootleg? No? Well, the core moral is actually just as obvious: don't always underestimate a band until you've experienced them both on record and onstage. While ORBITAL on disc might make you want to grab for the CD remote or a Vivarin, the very same band in a live situation will have you reaching up to yank out your ear-plugs and actually -- thank the stars above -- dance.