One of the great survivors of the British dance music boom, brothers Paul and Phil Hartnell have had their differences, their relationship breakdowns and splits, but at the end of the day they know that it is only working under the name Orbital that they can truly thrive.
This, their ninth studio album, is their first since 2012’s Wonky, and their first since they decided to bury the hatchet and work together again, with Paul as always steering the musical ship. Predictably, they avoid unchartered waters, deciding that, in time honoured fashion, if it ain’t broke, there’s no need to fix it.
That’s not to say that what you hear is a typically Orbital-esque sound. For sure, the key elements that made them synonymous with early rave and ecstasy-fuelled dance are still there: burbling analogue and digital synths, pounding beats, multiple uplifts and breakdowns, passages of ambience inter-mingled with full-on dancefloor beats. All allied to a consistent narrative of looming ecological disaster and political turmoil. Along with those two other masters of progressive techno-dance music, Leftfield and Underworld, there was (and still is) a thoughtful, and well-crafted musicality within, that spoke to both the hedonist, and the warrior within us.
In-so-far as a largely wordless album can have a theme, Monsters Exist cannot help but be influenced by the prevailing political currents – you know the story: an EU referendum, a divided nation etc – and is replete with cautionary warnings, and of unspoken monsters. For Paul Hartnoll it is the likes of Nigel Farage, and the selfish, destructive behaviour in ordinary folk that are but two ‘monsters’. ‘The Raid’ features some old spoken word samples that, allied to a Massive Attack-style gloom beat, speaks of a world both poisonous, and sick.
“There is a growing need to use the space allocated to us properly, humanely. How will all these people live? This will be the moral question of the next 20 years”. The album’s closer, the rippling, haunting ambience of ‘There Will Come A Time’, features Brian Cox telling us in five billion years the sun will cease to shine, and in the meantime we will all die, but that our own atoms will become part of the living future. Do we understand well enough that life is precious and fleeting? asks Cox. Are we up for the task of protecting our planet? These are the BIG questions, posed in inimitable Orbital fashion within the work of a long-player.
However, despite the doom and gloom, you might as well enjoy the aural pleasure of Orbital at the same time. On the shifting pace and mood, and the bold, brash, dense techno of the title track. On ‘Hoo Hoo Ha Ha’, replete with equally shifting melody, a four to the floor hard house beat, stabbing keys, and a trumpet, giving this a carnival-esque flavour.
Also, on ‘P.H.U.K’, where bouncy house bass combine with jumpy bleeps and beats before it switches to atmospheric ambience, recalling passages of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’, which resurfaces on the trance induction of ‘Buried Deep Within’. They may be anarchic-punk idealists at heart, with a fondness for Crass and the like, but the Hartnolls have always been about high production values. Allied to a rare dance musicality and social-political consciousness, Orbital are both intelligent and humane.
Death and rebirth. Orbital have experienced both. They were a very good thing. And still are.