Along with Leftfield and Underworld, Orbital were (and still are) masters of the dance universe. An act that not only made mind-blowing progressive dance-techno fusion, but who could properly do it live on stage, helped immeasurably by their improvisatory flair, and of course that distinctive torch on headgear look.
Paul and Phil Hartnoll are brothers from Sevenoaks, who have lived in Brighton for many years now. Taking their name from London’s orbital M25 motorway, an essential cog in the south east party-rave network of the late 80s, they first came to notice with the era-defining ‘Chime’, a track recorded on their dad’s cassette deck. Initially released on Jazzy M’s Oh Zone label, following the buzz generated via Jazzy M’s record shop in Sevenoaks, where eager buyers (almost all men) would pile into the shop to hear the latest dance releases, and pick and choose what they wanted there and then. ‘Chime’ immediately got a reaction and it wasn’t long before Pete Tong’s label FFRR stepped in. They re-released ‘Chime’, it made the Top 40, and Orbital were called upon to do Top of the Pops, while Paul was still working in a pizza restaurant. That seminal appearance, where they both wore anti-poll tax t-shirts, was the moment when Orbital the band suddenly became emblematic of the nascent rave/dance scene. A scene that was not only hedonistic and escapist, but which brought politics and an anti-establishment attitude to life in Britain. It was truly a time of change.
It’s been an incredible journey ever since, Orbital riding the highs of the dance music explosion, releasing classics such as ‘Belfast’, ‘Impact’, ‘Halcyon’ and ‘Satan’, and appearing on the Pyramid Stage of Glastonbury Festival in 1995, a defining moment when dance went mainstream.
In the 90s Orbital also released ‘proper’ studio albums, such as Snivilisation, Insides and The Middle of Nowhere. However, in 2004, with their fortunes and that of dance music in general waning, the brothers split up, before reforming in 2008, and splitting up again in 2014, announcing that they were, “Hanging up their iconic torch-glasses and parting ways for the final time,” despite releasing the excellent Wonky album in 2012. Yet, in early 2017 Orbital had risen again, and in a particularly favourable environment it seems, post-EU referendum, and with rave culture and post-punk back at the forefront of people’s minds.
They aren’t the first band in history to do a volte-face; human relationships are ever fluid, and changeable. “As always happens,” says Paul, “you get fed up with working with your brother. It’s hard enough working with anyone, I should imagine, for 30 years, let alone your own brother. You have some time away, and then you think ‘it was better doing that’, having your brand, the thing that you have done for nearly 30 years is always going to be more fun. It’s a bigger creative weapon to wield, as it were. So, what’s the problem with this? Falling out with my brother is the only problem. If we can sort that out we’ve got this fabulous creative forum to go and be wild in. What’s not to like?”
At the end of May, it all started to properly come together. A live appearance on the Beeb via their BBC Biggest Weekend set in Belfast helped to expose the band to a new fanbase, as well as remind older watchers how much Orbital contributed to the dance music world of the 90s in particular. “Yeah, that was great. That was a good way to start your year off, your first festival. Great coverage from the BBC!” They’ve also just announced a new album, Monsters Exist, plus a slew of festivals and shows around the globe, including one at Brighton Racecourse, 29th June, their first show in their hometown since 2012.
Does Monsters Exist refer to bad people, I wonder? “I would say it’s a two-fold album, really,” says Paul. “It’s a cautionary warning, although I’m not trying to preach to people. I know who my monsters are, everyone’s got their own monsters. It’s a divided Brexit country at the moment. One person’s monster is someone else’s hero. Never have we been so divided over something. The fact is I wanted to remain (in the EU), and my monsters are Nigel Farage and people like that. But to some people, he’s a hero.
“Part of me, being an old Crass, anarcho-punk fan, was to make a record that points these people out. But then I remembered post-punk and getting on to when rave music first happened. It was more going back to the hippy ideals, the 60s and counter culture. Not stand around shouting about what we don’t like, and have a big shouty debate. That divides people. Yeah, monsters exist, but come over here and do something nice. Don’t be monsterish. Don’t become one of them. That’s my message, really.”
The beautifully produced piece of cinematic techno ‘Tiny Foldable Cities’ was the first track to be released, and professor Brian Cox also makes an appearance on the album, on the final track ‘There Will Come A Time’. It’s another reminder that Orbital don’t just deal with beats, melodies and rhythms to get you moving on the dancefloor, but also in politics, and intelligent messaging. It’s this hedonistic-meets-serious musical fusion that has seen devotional fans really looking forward to the next stage of their career.
“A cautionary tale for the end of the world,” says Paul about ‘There Will Come A Time’. “One of the things when I was growing up was listening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I found I listened to that rather than Dark Side of the Moon. It’s a kind of return to that; music and Brian talking; a more sombre and gothic version of Brian Cox than you would get on the BBC. I wanted Brian, and his gravitas, saying something about the state of the nation or the world. It’s a global kind of thing, spoken from a position of knowledge and that’s what that represents, the rave generation’s David Attenborough.”