Monday, October 15, 2007

Orbital, "Live at Glastonbury", Paul Hartnoll, "The Ideal Condition"

It's hard to believe that Orbital split up only three years back because it already feels like it was a long, long time ago. Their post-90's output (actually, their post-1996 or 1997 output) occasionally bordered on embarrassing, and was for the most part simply a portrait of a couple of ex-ravers trying to cheer themselves up and remind themselves of a time when techno was more fun and didn't have to be about depressing topics like religiously-themed alien abduction and saving the whales.

If nothing else, the DVD is a reminder of how much has changed in live video display technology over the past decade or so. Simple video loops and the occasional vibrating sine wave was the apex of high-tech in 1994. These nervous, spastic oscilloscope traces provided a sensible backdrop for the all too prevalent pre-millenial jitters of the time. Years later, live techno and spectacular video accompaniment went hand-in-hand. Their 2002 show, which was bathed in enormous quantities of light and colour, is a striking example of this.

Nevertheless, putting all splashiness aside, the 2002 and 2004 shows contain music that was completely out of sync with the times. It feels like it's been so long since Orbital broke up because in those final years, it was as if they had already gone missing. The bleeps, the drum loops, the goofy waving to the crowd (not to mention hearing the Belinda/Bon Jovi samples for the 100000th time) were all the work of a rave relic from a time long past. The cheery anthems of "The Altogether" couldn't sound more out of place when heard alongside the clicky, minimal techno and house that was coming into prominence at the time. Even when held up against electroclash, the short-lived semi-movement that supposedly brought dancing and fun back to European dance culture, Orbital's work in 2001-2 stands out as a curious time piece -- they represent the persistent hanging around of the old guard, a throwback to the dancing habits of the previous generation starring a once-legendary group churning out crowd pleasing hits to a crusty festival crowd, but nothing more.

I could stop there, but you probably know that there's more to it than that little exercise in myopic (albeit truthful) analysis. Focusing on any one year is to miss their career's overall plot arc. Adhering to this type of tunnel vision is not a fair analysis considering that this CD/DVD collection is a multi-part retrospective of a band whose widest fame was founded and perpetuated over a decade at this very festival. It ignores the pivotal role that Orbital played in making "live techno" something other than an oxymoron with a convenient punchline. It ignores how they were one of Glastonbury's most consistent draws during the past decade -- including the historical importance of their breakout 1994 gig (which almost singlehandedly dug techno from the never-read middle pages of the music weeklies and vaulting it onto the front cover) and how bringing the Orbital project to a permanent close in the same place exactly ten years later was the obvious and fitting conclusion to their amazing career. Fully appreciating the 2004 gig is only possible by viewing the performances from the intervening years.

The sequencing and track selections are exceptional. Considering the restrictions imposed during the compilation process (approx. equal time given to each of the five performances, keeping the total running time to a little over two hours, no repeated tracks), this is just about the best selection possible. "Walk Now" might seem like an unusual choice for opening the set, but it was important to capture a portion of the incredible 1994 show in sequence, and they wisely chose to feature a section with the unedited "Are We Here" and the gorgeous "Attached", which even then was rarely performed live despite being one of the best songs Orbital ever recorded. The next year, they played mainly the same tracks as they had in 1994, and in that vein, the 1995 selections capture the middle third of that set. "Impact" is included, naturally, since no live Orbital comp could possibly claim to be complete without it (probably the only track for which I would make that claim).

The selections from 1999 illustrate why that year was a transition period for Orbital. They began settling into the grandfatherly role that they'd happily entrench themselves in for the next five years. The live sets began reflecting that, turning into "greatest hits" galas rather than focusing on their newest material. "Halcyon" might have been a sure-fire crowd pleaser, but they'd been caning it live for years with hardly any variation. It had become representative of how much their show needed freshening up if they wanted to progress as a live band. But they didn't want that, and were content to continue relying on various combinations of tracks like "Halcyon", "Chime", "Satan" to pop the crowds. Whether that's a positive or a negative is largely a matter of personal taste, I suppose. Their sensational take on "Style/Bagpipe Style" shows how things might have turned out if they'd pushed a more challenging, kitchen sink approach. "Middle of Nowhere" turned out to be more influential than it had any right to be, once the likes of Apparat and Ellen Allien dusted off those grinning, pinball machine melodies.

"The Altogether" might have been a weak album, but its two best moments, "Frenetic" and "Funny Break" sparkle in this extended, proggy form, rubbing shoulders next to "The Girl With the Sun In Her Head" and "Belfast" (arguably Orbital's finest moment). Along with the hypnotizing light show, this four track segment is a grower that very nearly steals the whole CD/DVD set, with only the 1994 selections rivaling it for emotional heft, variety, and dancefloor bliss.

The 2004 set was a semi-big deal in musical circles, for it was billed as Orbital's final gig (in actual fact, they played one final gig a few days later on John Peel's show, which in turn was one of the last shows that *he* ever did). It was important enough for the BBC to broadcast it live on the web, resulting in one of the sunniest moments in yours trulys' otherwise drab summer of 2004, thanks to a pile of beers and Orbital blasting through the amplifier. The "Dr. Who"/"Chime" setcapper could be seen from a mile away but there was really no other acceptable way to bring their career to a close than with their most famous song and three or four fake endings. Fischerspooner were paid a zillion dollars by record execs who hoped they could create moments like this. The fact that they couldn't pull it off (and to be fair, nobody else could or is currently threatening to) shows how singular Orbital truly were. They went from playing raves and small club dates to being Glastonbury headliners and NME gossip fodder in a matter of months (1994 was definitely the year for that type of mercurial success in the UK, although Blur and Oasis accomplished it on a much higher level). They helped drag techno onto critics lists and became pop stars all the same, even gaining a mild following in the US and headlining a great Lollapalooza that nobody remembers. Their music could ring triumphant in the key of E or exude paranoia and despair -- and both sides of the coin resulted in some of the most recognizable tracks of their career. Any remaining doubters must turn to this CD/DVD to see how they did it.

Afterward, there's an opportunity for lifting any lingering sadness over Orbital's absence from the music world. Thankfully, the story continues with Paul Hartnoll's "The Ideal Condition" On initial listens, it appeared to pick up roughly where Orbital left off, i.e. with bleepy melodic techno with a strong pop flavour that includes vocals and actual choruses. Once I peer deeper (the benefit of a few months of hindsight definitely helps), these similarities feel more superficial, and are mainly chalked up to the eye for variety shared by the "Blue Album" and "The Ideal Condition". Both albums mesh several styles successfully, but Hartnoll never attempts any "Impact"-style thumpers like "One Perfect Sunrise", and thankfully stays well clear of the inane goofiness of "Acid Pants".

Instead, "The Ideal Condition" picks up where the first minute of "Middle of Nowhere" left off. During that glorious opening of "Way Out", it was looking like Orbital had constructed something even more grandiose than "In Sides" -- a weepy techno album stuffed with epic symphonic touches. "Haven't We Met Before", the strings-only album closer "Dust Motes", and the jaunty, Mozartian "Unsteady Waltz" display the compositional flair that "Way Out" hinted at only fleetingly. "Simple Sounds" recalls the bleepy, classic sound of Orbital at their best, but adds some bonus retro chic in the form of chirpy flute solos that would have been at home on early 70's Kraftwerk albums. Best of all, "Please" arrives insta-ready for festival performances and radio play. It's swooning chorus intones "you know you've got me", and who can resist a song that tells you that you can't resist it? Who would have expected this from Robert Smith -- yes, that Robert Smith -- at this point in his career? "Please" is the type of playful, cheeky song that he's tried to capture ever since "Lovecats", and since "Lovecats" is basically intolerable these days, I propose that we erase it from the minds of mankind and put "Please" in its spot.

All in all, it's the strongest effort by a Hartnoll since "Middle of Nowhere", and maybe even including "Middle of Nowhere" (which had a fairly boring middle third, a problem that doesn't plague "The Ideal Condition" with its sleek 45 minute run time).

No comments: