Monday, April 23, 2001

My favourite albums of the 90s

6. "Orbital" by Orbital

This 'writing about music' lark - it's a doddle, innit? Just quote a few lyrics and say something fascinating about the band. But this is Orbital - there are no lyrics and as for the Hartnoll brothers, well, um, they like Dr Who. This album was released in 1991, but I certainly didn't buy it back then. I didn't buy into dance music at all. I lumped it all together - all that Snap, Black Box, Technotronic, 2Unlimited rubbish. Just as I had defiantly worn a "Disco Sucks" badge as a kid, so I resented this strange new music. House? Not in my house, mate. Orbital were named for the late 80s illegal raves off the M25, when I was more likely to be found holed up in my bedroom listening to some whining pale-faced, gelled misery.

My dance road to Damascus was a long bleak pedestrian tunnel at Bank Underground station, transformed into an exotic mysterious post-industrial landscape simply by adding Orbital on the Discman. I discovered that techno made great music to work to, if your work consists of pecking away at a computer keyboard. Orbital are the Mavis Beacon of pop - my keystrokes become more precise, more accurate, more rhythmic. Apart from the bits where I need to wave my hands in the air, of course. The music is, after all, constructed in this fashion, laboriously, painstakingly, at a computer terminal.

There are people who will tell you that Orbital's second album - confusingly also named "Orbital", but usually referred to as 'the brown one' - is their best album. These people are wrong. Orbital have never made a bad album, but they have never bettered their first, aka 'the yellow [or green] one'. It's got more tunes, more beats, and fewer silly spoken-word samples. There are moments of exquisite beauty - the motif that floats in ten-and-a-half minutes into "Desert Storm", and bits that rip the top of your head off - "High Rise" uses a shuddering elevator door as a rhythmic device, and a keyboard riff that gets higher and higher and higher, teasing out that rush, till your brain just can't take it any more. There's the machine that goes ping, the thing that goes bump in the night, and the constant ta-pocketa-ta-pocketa.

Then there's the album's stunning closing threesome - "Chime" and "Midnight" ['live', whatever that means for a techno band] - and "Belfast" which ranks alongside the Art Of Noise's "Moments In Love" and FSOL's "Papua New Guinea" as techno's most beautiful, fully-realised modern-day symphonies.

Orbital are perennial festival favourites. But the best way to listen to this music is on your own, hands flying over your keyboard; or on your Discman, soundtracking your morning commute.

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