Over a decade ago, The Altogether confused Orbital’s legions of fans and seemed to paint the duo out of the rave scene completely. Indeed, though 2004’s The Blue Album was an improvement of sorts, it did little to stave off the fears that the Hartnoll brothers were falling out of touch, rehashing old ideas without moving forward. At the time, most were content to consider it a half-hearted last hurrah, an enjoyable record reminiscent of old times perhaps lacking the assertiveness and vigour of before. Times had changed after all: raves had moved from open fields to dingy basements; producers were beginning to spring up in London bedrooms everywhere; the widescreen festival attitude pioneered by the rave leviathans of the 1990s had all but disappeared.
This left Orbital adrift of the scene, a fate unbefitting the producers’ always decent but usually great canon of albums – perhaps the most consistent repertoire of any dance music producer before or since. Music, though, has always favoured a cyclical approach. In a ‘post-dubstep’ world, with a dearth of angsty guitars, more and more of today’s youth are plugging into more synthetic scenes, feeling their way into electronic music via crossover blogosphere darlings like SBTRKT or James Blake. Almost a decade since their departure, off the back of a five year hiatus and even the obligatory greatest hits tour, suddenly Orbital are relevant again – their maximalist ideals suit the times, and the euphoric duo are back to teach a new generation how to rave.
Unlike countless other nineties dance pioneers who have long since looked lost in the new world of IDM, Orbital have calmly returned to the fore with little fanfare, armed simply with a very composed set of songs. Though the brothers’ headliner status has been assured for donkeys’ years thanks to a huge and devoted fan-base, Wonky is both a brave collection and an unprecedented return to form. Showcasing fresh ideas and, more importantly, proving that the band hasn’t lost its appetite for evolution, it’s their most aggressively melodic album yet – perhaps as a result of working with super-producer, Flood, purveyor of shiny glitz and grit for many years. Surprisingly taut and composed, the record excellently mixes a little experimentation with classic sounding Orbital grooves. It’s an album, like many of their others, built on driving, precise builds and, despite dealing in the same identifiable sound trademarked some twenty years ago, the frequent nods to today’s niche scenes are considered and well-realised.
A concept album in as much as the songs apparently take the listener on a journey mapped out by the brothers, Wonky establishes a loose theme and direction early on. Opener “One Big Moment” begins with a typically glimmering sample, before giving way to the positively raucous space-beat of “Straight Sun,” perhaps the best Orbital song of the millennium. A few tracks echo earlier triumphs for Paul and Phil, most notably “Stringy Acid,” a forgivable throwback which perfectly realises the more uplifting Balaeric feel the band have shot for in the last few years. Here the duo do what they do best, incorporating the trends of the times into their own unique stadium arsenal. The record’s success would always be judged on such experimentation, most of which is brilliant. The frantic “New France” is Orbital’s take on tech-house, built on a wonderfully abstract vocal delivered from rent-a-goth Zola Jesus, which serves far more purpose than in her recent outings with M83 or Fucked Up. However, it is the other guest vocalist who steals the stage: Birmingham MC Lady Leshurr is allowed the freedom of lead single, “Wonky,” her Minaj-esque assault is unexpectedly a perfect companion for Wonky’s biggest hands-in-the-air moment. Although it sounds incredibly out of place, the sheer brazenness of it lights up the record’s final third.
There are still missteps to be found. The hilariously titled “Beelzedub” sees Orbital take on ‘bro-step.” Questionably spoon-feeding dubstep to a largely middle-aged raver audience, its overblown ridiculousness sounds crass and hackneyed, particularly in a crazed final third of break-beats. Perhaps it serves most as a not-so-gentle reminder that Orbital has done the frenzied bass thing before, and better. Despite certainly sounding more like the 1996 live single “Satan” than Skrillex, these flirtations are best avoided and risk aging badly, quickly. These aside, the pace and precision of many of the record’s builds and climaxes are no less than expected from a band at the top of the scene for as long as this writer’s been on the planet.
Wonky is a true LP, despite the disparity of styles on offer. The constraints of these new single-based, radio-friendly times appear to have unhindered the brothers. In fact you can sense these concise offerings could easily swell to the more familiar epics we are accustomed to in a live setting. The abstract ethereal melodies continue to whoosh around stadium-sized beats, and this collection deserves to be heard strung out in a field this summer. While a few tracks err a little on the side of cautionary revivalism, and the album certainly does work within itself, it also experiments enough to revitalise a career somewhat in the doldrums. Building on electronica’s advances and recent facelifts keeps the collection feeling relevant, but the brothers steadfastly link these changes back to their original 1990s rave sensibilities. More immediate and accessible than ever before, despite a dip in quality towards the climax, the brothers have proved their ear for a cocktail of recent trends is as sharply tuned as ever. This cherry picking from the scene, mixed with their own brand of euphoria, effortlessly coaxes huge moments from seemingly simple building blocks. These moments on Wonky further assure Orbital’s place at the top table of dance music for another decade, and perhaps for a new generation. Imperfect it may be, but as a concise and focussed return, its is an unequivocal triumph.