Orbital – ’30 Something’ album review: a postmodern best-of for the kings of techno

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Orbital's greatest hits get updated for the 2020s, and a new generation of ravers.

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Orbital – two brothers from Sevenoaks in Kent, who started making electronic dance music together in the late 80s – have developed a reputation over the last 30 years as one of the most enduring and revered groups in the techno scene.

From the beginning of my odyssey into electronic music back when I was 15, Orbital have been a constant presence, and one of the biggest influences on my own music. Tastes move on over time, and we rarely crave the same stuff now that we did back in our teens… yet I still believe Orbital may well be one of the best electronic bands out there. When it comes to crucial musical elements such as melody and structure, very few have done it better – Orbital know how to come up with a hook, and how to progress it. They are every bit at home writing four-minute pop songs with vocalists as they are ten-minute epics and concept albums. They incorporate a strong moral core into their music – albums like Snivilisation and Monsters Exist were intended as a commentary on the politics of the day, while In Sides was inspired by environmental concerns – however they do not take themselves too seriously; a trap that many ‘political’ bands fall into.

Crucially, the brothers were inspired by a much broader range of music than the average rave band – sure, they’d heard Kraftwerk and the Radiophonic Workshop like everyone else, but their cited influences also include Scott Walker, Severed Heads, Clay Pipe Music, folk bands and even punk bands such as Crass. Not only have they introduced me to so many other great musicians because of this, but such a wide range of influences undoubtedly broadened their appeal, and made their music much more ambitious than that of the average dance outfit. Orbital shatter the conception that dance music has to be unintelligent filler for the dance floor and not the mind, while their albums have been compared to that of Pink Floyd in their scope… I know, I have to stop gushing too much. I just love this band and owe them a lot.

But I’m not here to convince you to check out all of Orbital’s albums, that’s a rundown for another time. I’m here to convince you to start with 30 Something, a brand new retrospective that celebrates some of the best-loved Orbital tracks, while reinventing them for a new generation with modern tastes.

The Hartnoll brothers have already done ‘best-of’ albums made up of existing songs before, so for their 30th anniversary (actually a couple of years ago but the COVID pandemic pushed things back – hence the jokey title), they’ve taken a different approach – they’ve re-recorded a few of their tracks, Taylor Swift style, to reflect how they now sound in their acclaimed live sets. Personal highlights from this part of the compilation include the 30 Something Years Later remixes of Belfast (retaining the original beauty but with added groove and spice), and ‘The Box’ (as heard in the opening credits of recent Mike Myers comedy The Pentaverate). There’s even a mix of Where Is It Going? with the late Stephen Hawking on vocals, as performed by the band at the 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony.

Most of the remaining compilation is made up of remixes by outside DJs and dance producers, many of whom are highly regarded in their field – Dusky, Floex, Logic1000, Joris Voorn, Jon Hopkins, David Holmes, Lone – lots of names from both the underground and the mainstream. All the remixes are bound to go down well in a modern DJ set – but what really impresses about these remixes is their variety: some are pretty conventional updates of Orbital classics, while others completely deconstruct them to the point of being unrecognisable without hints. This balance is exactly how things should be; the remixers, while still respecting the original craft, are allowed to let loose and have fun with the source material, rather than every remix just being a nostalgic virus of familiar sounds with new beats pasted on top.

My only regret with this compilation is that, bar Where Is It Going?, all of these remixes focus on Orbital’s pre-1996 output. This may be their better-loved material, it may be the material the remixers themselves chose… but this means the compilation becomes less a comprehensive celebration of 30 years than a celebration of the first seven. As someone who’s quite defensive of Orbital’s later albums, which get a lot of flak and ignorance, I would have loved them to get the appreciation I think they deserve. Instead, we get, for example, four remixes of ‘Belfast’ (five if you count the lovely bonus ANNA Ambient mix on the digital download), two of which, by ANNA and Yotto, are very similar in their uptempo approach.

That being said, for two and a half hours, this compilation really should feel like more of a drag than it does – remix comps can naturally feel hit-and-miss, but there are very few remixes here that didn’t engage me on some level. Maybe the source material is just that good…

If I had to pick my top 5 outside remixes from the set, I’d probably plump for (in no particular order):

  • Are We Here? (Dusky Remix)
  • The Girl With The Sun In Her Head (Floex Remix)
  • The Box (Joris Voorn Remix)
  • Belfast (ANNA Ambient Remix)
  • The Girl With The Sun In Her Head (Lone Remix)

The true highlight of this compilation, though, not just for newcomers but long-term fans, is the inclusion of TWO EXCLUSIVE NEW TRACKS. Well, they’re not entirely new – both Smiley and Acid Horse are based on demos from the band’s early days, back when the Hartnoll brothers would participate in illegal raves within the M25 as the acid house movement hit its stride. The latter harks back to some of the material on Orbital’s first album, yet thanks to modern production sounds fresh and fun, while the same can be said for the ecstatic rush of Smiley, which samples an episode of ITV’s documentary series World In Action where the Hartnolls were interviewed about excessive police force at one illegal rave. It’s a good history lesson and intro to rave culture, but more importantly, is in and of itself a good tune. The video is also very well-done, and all in all these two pieces get you excited for the future of Orbital – which seems to be two brothers budding together, overcoming their differences, and making euphoric music for the heart, mind and feet. That’s the way it’s been for 30 something years… long may it continue. Here’s to the next 30 something!

30 Something┬áis out now via Orbital Recordings. Check out latest single ‘Smiley’ below:

 

 

 

 

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An asinine second-year Music student with lard for a brain and no original thoughts or ideas. Likes to pester the Edge committee by going on about obscure albums he claims are way better than much of today's indoctrinating musical filth. His favourite websites are Youtube, TVARK and Guido Fawkes.

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