Named after London's ring road, where those rave parties happened back in the day, Orbital were part of a triumvirate of Nineties acts rooted in dance music. Along with Leftfield and the Chemical Brothers, they made music you could listen to as easily as dance, and won fans in the world outside the party scene. (One of which was me.) Yet it seemed vital the way each managed to stay rooted in dance while bringing in things from outside. (I mean, I like the Prodigy as much as the next man, but they essentially swapped being a dance act for being a rock band.)
However, Orbital seemed unique even in that triumvirate. Both Leftield and the Chemical Brothers moved further into rock modes and song structures, often working with guest vocalists like speed dating to stay fresh. Orbital had precisely one guest vocalist, Alison Goldfrapp, who would more commonly chant or babble nonsense words than sing.
And instead of song structures tracks would stretch into phases and movements. Mark Riley once remarked that Television were like a string quartet who just happened to use rock instruments. Bass and drums wouldn't just provide a backdrop for some guitar fretboard stretching, every instrument would contribute to a string of overlapping, interlocking lines. Similarly, Orbital were like a string quartet with electronic instruments. Even though there was only two of them. More than anyone else, they were dance music's grown-up children.
When popular music tries to take on a greater sophistication, it often ends up falling between stools. Those longer numbers aren't really as intricate as a string quartet, while they're no longer as appealing to dance to. Orbital's greatest triumph may lie in that never happening to them, in having enough reach to grasp at both ends. In about every sense, they seemed to know which button to press. From the peeling bells of their first release, 'Chime', they seemed able to conjure up sounds which hit you at quite a primal level. And, as fitted their raving roots, the feeling they went for was euphoria. A track like 'Way Out' has the sense of Christmas carols, without the cheesiness, while 'The Girl With The Sun In Her Hair' uses a human heartbeat for it's bass line. Those who claim electronic music to be merely cold and cerebral have simply never listened to Orbital.
Instead of vocalists they featured samples, often lengthy and from unusual sources. 'Forever', for example, featured the closing speech from Lindsey Anderson's 'Britannia Hospital'. These often suggested at social and environmental issues, but were oblique more than didactic. They worked like the blurry photos in the booklet to 'The Middle of Nowhere'. The photos themselves were often simple snapshots, but the combination of the blurry filters and the emphasis thrown on them transformed them - into something allusive and mysterious.
Yet the Nineties were now some time ago, and (as doesn't occur to me until afterwards) I haven't heard a single Orbital release since that far-flung decade. Will their edge still be cutting? Unusually for the dance genre they have a reputation for wanting to play live, rather than just employ backing tapes and projections, and certainly much of the stuff I know gets reworked and rearranged here. Yet, in what seems significant, there's a noticeable move away from off-the-wall samples into more regular dancey vocals. They're as good as ever at inducing audience frenzy. But it lacks something of the lucid frenzy of old, the audacious invention.
What they were about, if reduced to a soundbite, was dance plus. It's like that plus has been eroded over time. They're still good. They're still very, very good. If this was all you knew of them, you'd probably have raved about this gig. (In about every sense.) But I'm not sure they're still great.
Interestingly, when I saw the recent Chemical Brothers concert film 'Don't Think' I thought something similar. (Leftfield haven't had a release since the Nineties, so we can't triangulate the crossfire.) Somewhere along the way, before most of us were born, popular music got given the task of reflecting and epitomising it's era. This style of dance-plus managed to do that for the Nineties superbly. But perhaps then's gain is now's loss, and what we are left with is the style rather than the substance.
In the unlikely event you haven't heard anything by them before, here'ssome YouTube vids they selected themselves. While this is the classic 'Chime' from Brighton...