The Hartnoll brothers definitively still have the magic
Orbital really ought to be national icons and treasures. They wouldn’t want it, their fans wouldn’t want it, I wouldn’t want it. But what they’ve achieved in 30 plus years is staggering. In the back end of the 1980s / early 90s dance music was still a primordial soup of creativity – those early years were very much like the big bang, scenes and styles were there, but everything was colliding with one another and new forms were being shaped. Breakbeat, acid house, techno, gabba, trance in it’s orginal form – they all centred around raves in fields where these styles clashed together – those collisions produced new and different variations – perhaps most famously Jungle which gradually materialised from a sequence of genetic musical mutations. So many of the tracks that dance music would eventually travel down were laid in those early years of the 1990s – and by the middle of that decade whilst Britpop made the headlines it was really dance music in the UK that was changing the world – drum n bass, techno, house, acid jazz, trip hop, with super clubs in every major city. Orbital were vital figures in that early nebula of creativity, and pivotal to the mainstream breakthrough – it isn’t hyperbole to say they deserve a category all of their own. The Hartnoll brothers sit at the very centre of dance music culture, but also exist entirely separately – try describing Orbital to a stranger who’s never heard them: Is it Acid House? Well yes. Is it Techno? For sure. Is it breakbeat? Of course . Is it Jungle? Well quite a bit these days. Is it electronica? Definitely. Is it ambient? At times. But what any Orbital fan would say to that stranger is simply – you HAVE to see them live, if you reach the end of your span of time on this planet without seeing them you’ll be worse for it. Seeing Orbital live changes everything.
All that is said advisedly, because seeing them live definitely did change everything for a bewildered 17 year old in a field in Glastonbury in 1994. I was only dimly aware of the churning creativity bursting through in UK dance music, having been a few years too young to be involved in the rave scene, and frankly more interested in hip hop and heavy metal anyway. I arrived at the NME Stage not knowing what to expect, the 2 pals I was with had decided we should watch this band “Orbital”, because they’d bought some “micro dots” from a travelling salesman passing by our tent, and they wanted to watch something trippy and dancey: the name Orbital sounded a little bit like The Orb, and we’d heard of them. I was far too timid to try a “micro dot” so arrived lubricated by nothing more than a couple of cans of weak beer. As it turned out the hawker was a snake oil salesman and the microdots had about as much acid in them as baking soda and my pals remained resolutely sober. But none of that mattered as what was played on the stage that night was more entrancing than any mind altering substance. Two guys in the dim distance wearing electricians headlights, playing Impact (The Earth is Burning) to a completely enraptured crowd. In a moment dance was no longer the “cheesy” music of the charts or the scary “drug music” that the tabloids were writing screaming headlines about – it was this incredible, creatively free genre that required no mind altering substances to change your view of the world.
That brings us to 29 years later and Manchester Albert Hall in 2023. Like so many others who were caught by their spell in the 1990s I was hooked then and have been a steadfast fan ever since – in the early days they were one of the bands 3DJ and I absolutely agreed about – seeing them multiple times. Most memorably taking a road trip to London in 2004 to see what was meant to be their last ever gig before they hung up the lights for good – a few months later we started Funkdub and it turned out the Hartnoll’s couldn’t quit after all. But the thing about Orbital is every new live show has a subtly different flavour. The shows in 1994 leaned into Jungle inflections and off kilter electronica. In 2004 their sets were very definitely breakbeat orientated and in 2009 they were all about the lush synths and the classics. The Hartnolls have the unique ability to absorb what’s happening in music and the world make it their own. It had been over a decade since i’d seen them, so with a new album and tour it was definitely time to revisit the perennial favourites. But to characterise Orbital as nostalgia is to miss the point – their current set of course features classic tracks that transport anyone back in time like Proust’s infamous madeleine, but they anchor their shows in the moment, they anchor their audience in the moment. They don’t, however, anchor the audience’s feet.
The show starts at 9pm on the button, after a richly appreciated support slot from UK based Japanese DJ and producer Manami. They open up the set with “Smiley”, one of the brand new tracks from 2022’s “30 Something” compilation (not a standard “best of” collection, new tracks, retooled versions of classics, and remixes from contemporary producers). “Smiley” of course spins all the way back to that era of the Criminal Justice Bill and police raids at parties in Kent, and also of the groundbreaking creativity of the music. The track takes in the acid and jungle sounds of that time, but simultaneously sounds daisy fresh today. The Albert hall is a truly picturesque venue, with the stained glass windows and the mezzanine level it always has a killer atmosphere. On thursday it was busy – honestly just a little too busy – the gig was sold out, and pretty palpably oversold, because everyone had turned up and as a result it was a tighter squeeze than any show I can recall. Fortunately Orbital fans are almost uniformly good souls – the most substantial chunk of the demographic were 40 somethings, with plenty older than that too, hearteningly the brothers ability to constantly stay relevant meant there was a decent portion of under 40s in as well. So whilst the sheer mass of people was not ideal, by the time they moved into “Ringa Ringa” from the just released album “Optical Delusion” things were starting to settle; when they launched into recent classic “Where Is it Going” the real dancing could start. And the dancing barely let up from there.
The set takes in “Dirty Rat”, with Jason Williams of the Sleafords projected on the screen, the muscular power making more sense as a live proposition, moreover it makes absolutely explicit the strong political message that runs throughout the visuals and the songs. Their music has always been resolutely part of counterculture, but the political messaging was often delphic and only present if you dug under the surface. But in these desperate times the audience were left in no doubt about the disdain for the current ruling party and the precarious state of the climate. The visuals adding extra extra bite to the music, and the music bit hard with an ultra extended version of “Satan”, morphing into the more recent drum & bass version “Beelzedub, that in turn was mixed into the junglist “Requiem For The Pre-Apocalypse” from the new record. As it was in 1994 when they absorbed it in “Are We Here?” jungle is having a moment again – and 15 minutes of stepping music in an Orbital set was a real treat.
The whole middle section of the set continued in this vein, splicing tracks from “Optical Delusion” with classic cuts. The new tracks stand up very well and mark out the new territory they’re mining to great effect. At one stage there was the briefest of flashes of EDM music. Now that is a terrible insult – but not when you remember that “EDM” couldn’t have existed without the sonic revolutionaries, and the reason why so much of that music is so upsetting to the ears of old school fans is because it takes the thrilling life affirming elements of dance and turns it into soul sucking flat pack furniture. Crucially Orbital have never forgotten in their own music that grit, grunt, heart and soul are never to be sacrificed for the bland. It is a fair comment to say that the band have never matched the imperial 90s run of “Brown Album”, “Snivilisation”, “In Sides” and “Middle Of Nowhere”, but then *no-one* has ever matched that. But their power as a live act remains undimmed and the records in the last two decades are full of tracks that still stand up, and the new album is one of the best of the recent run.
The set closes out with three crowd pleasers “Belfast”, “Chime” and “Impact”, which deliver euphoria and dancing in equal measure. By this point an hour and forty minutes have passed in a flash and the set is done. There is no chance that the audience are going to let them go, and soon they return with a real treat for the original fans. The opening of the encore is the full two part version of “Out There Somewhere”, the closing track from the “In Sides” album, one I hadn’t heard live before and given a dub infused breakbeat makeover. The new version again illustrates the ability to moor a song that’s a quarter of a century old in the present moment, the dubby bass that was a sub-text in 1996, is now the text in 2023 – it is, quite simply, incredible. The evening closes with the ever reliable Lush and neither the band nor the audience want it to end. Was this show a bit over crowded? Yes. Was the bass a little muddy at times? Yes. Did any of that matter? No. Are Orbital one of the finest live acts this country has ever produced who can still deliver a spine tingling, futurist and life affirming set after thirty years? Yes and absolutely yes.
- Orbital Linktree (including links to the new album and tickets for the remaining dates of the tour)
- Setlist from the show
- Recently posted archive gig from 1994 (very similar to the sets I saw them play at Glastonbury and Bangor that year, audio only but incredible)
- Really great full set from Kendall Calling 2019 (full of tracks from the Monsters Exist record and a different flavour again)
- Twitter thread about Orbital & breakbeat