Orbital

wonky

Orbital are a British electronic dance music duo from England consisting of brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll. Their career initially ran from 1989 until 2004, but in 2009 they announced that they would be reforming and headlining The Big Chill, (an annual festival of alternative, dance, and chill-out music, and comedy, held in the grounds of Eastnor Castle during early August) in addition to a number of other live shows in 2009.

The band’s name was taken from Greater London’s orbital motorway, the M25, which was central to the early rave scene and party network in the South East during the early days of acid house. One of the biggest names in British electronica during the 1990s, Orbital were both critically and commercially successful, and known particularly for their element of live improvisation during shows, a rarity among techno acts. They were initially influenced by early electro and punk rock.

In 1989 Orbital recorded ‘Chime’ on their father’s cassette deck. The track became a rave anthem in the UK charts, earning them an appearance on ‘Top of the Pops,’ during which they wore anti-Poll Tax t-shirts. A few singles and EPs followed, and their first self-titled album, a collection of tracks recorded at various times, was released in late 1991. In late 1992, the ‘Radiccio’ EP barely reached the UK top 40, but it included one of their most popular songs, ‘Halcyon.’ This song featured a sample of Kirsty Hawkshaw from ‘It’s a Fine Day’ (a chart hit for Opus III earlier that year), and B-side ‘The Naked and the Dead’ was similarly based on a line from Scott Walker’s rendition of Jacques Brel’s song ‘Next.’ ‘Halcyon’ was dedicated to the Hartnolls’ mother, who was addicted to the tranquiliser Halcion (Triazolam) for many years.

The duo’s popularity grew rapidly with the release of their second self-titled album, in 1993. The album featured complex arrangements and textures, and opens with the two-minute track ‘Time Becomes,’ consisting of nothing more than two slightly detuned, looped samples of a Michael Dorn line from ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,’ ‘…where time becomes a loop’ being played simultaneously through the left and right channels, respectively (until one cycle of phase difference has happened). This same sample was used at the beginning of “the Mobius”, the opening track in the previous album. This audio pun was intended to make listeners believe that they had bought a mis-pressed album (‘Orbital 1’ packaged as ‘Orbital 2’). ‘Halcyon’ was remixed for the album, as ‘Halcyon + On + On.’ Versions of this song played live by the band have incorporated diverse samples, including ‘You Give Love a Bad Name’ by the band Bon Jovi, ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth’ by Belinda Carlisle, and most recently ‘I Believe in a Thing Called Love’ by the band The Darkness. The first two albums are commonly known as ‘The Green Album’ and ‘The Brown Album,’ after the colors of their covers.

Orbital won a NME award for Vibes Best Dance Act early in 1994, but it was their headline appearance at that year’s Glastonbury Festival that brought them most attention. Orbital gave an improvisational element to live electronic music as the brothers mixed and sequenced their tracks on the fly, wearing their trademark head-mounted lights behind banks of equipment. Orbital were one of the few electronic acts invited to play at Woodstock ’94. The third album, Snivilisation, was released in 1994. Alison Goldfrapp provided vocals on a couple of the tracks, including the single ‘Are We Here?’ This track also included a sample from ‘Man at C&A’ by The Specials. Among the remixes of ‘Are We Here?’ was ‘Criminal Justice Bill?’ — four minutes of silence, a reference to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which was in part intended to clamp down on the rave scene which had given birth to Orbital. The other track with Goldfrapp vocals, ‘Sad But True,’ was remixed for the ‘Times Fly’ EP, the band’s only release in 1995. The single ‘The Box’ was released in 1996, and its parent album, ‘In Sides,’ has since come to be one of their most critically well-regarded works. As with the previous album, there was a vague theme of ecological disaster and dissatisfaction with society. The following year, the duo contributed to film soundtracks, including ‘The Saint’ and ‘Event Horizon.’

In 1998, they returned to the studio to work on their fifth album ‘The Middle of Nowhere.’ This was released in 1999 and was a return to a more upbeat style, with Alison Goldfrapp returning on vocals, and included the single ‘Style’ featuring the stylophone (a miniature analog stylus-operated synthesizer). In 2000 the single ‘Beached’ was released from the soundtrack to the film ‘The Beach,’ mixing the brothers’ musical style with a melody by Angelo Badalamenti and the words of Leonardo DiCaprio from the film. ‘The Altogether,’ released in 2001, featured guest vocals by the Hartnolls’ brother-in-law David Gray, a sampled Ian Dury, and a version of the ‘Doctor Who’ theme.

Orbital split up in 2004. Paul continued to record music under his own name, including tracks for the 2005 game ‘Wipeout Pure’ for the PSP. He released his first full length solo album, entitled ‘The Ideal Condition’ in June 2007. Phil formed a new electronica duo, Long Range, with Nick Smith. Their debut album, ‘Madness and Me,’ was released on their own label, Long Range Recordings, also in 2007.

Orbital sometimes incorporated political and environmental commentary into their music. The track ‘Forever’ on ‘Snivilisation’ samples a speech by Graham Crowden from the 1982 Lindsay Anderson film ‘Britannia Hospital,’ in which he lambasts humankind; and the track ‘You Lot’ on the ‘Blue Album,’ features a confrontational, partially vocoded anti-genetic engineering sample from Christopher Eccleston, originally from the TV two-part series ‘The Second Coming’ written by Russell T Davies. The track ‘The Girl With The Sun In Her Head’ from ‘In Sides’ was recorded in a studio powered only by Greenpeace’s mobile solar power generator, CYRUS.

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