Orbital: "We couldn’t continue rocking all over the world, like Status Quo"
When an act as established as Orbital reform to produce new material, cynicism can obstruct the ability of fans and critics to judge the music on its own merits. Changes in direction of even the slightest degree can result in claims of bandwagon-jumping and a refusal to recognise that musicians have a right to develop and explore new terrain. Seasoned outfits must also contend with accusation of 'flogging a dead horse' should they choose to plough the same furrow
Neither of these possible fates have deterred Orbital, whose new offering, Wonky, manages to maintain their hallmark sound while branching off in new directions. Having been re-energised after a series of live performances beginning with 2009’s Big Chill festival, Paul and Phil Hartnoll have drawn on influences as diverse as dubstep and contemporary folk to craft their first release in eight years. For Phil, enough momentum had been building to allow the duo to get back in the studio. “We felt that we couldn’t continue rocking all over the world like Status Quo, doing the same tracks so we thought we would try another album." This desire to create new music is refreshing - many veteran acts, especially those with seminal anthems like Chime and Belfast to draw upon, tend to rest on their laurels. Not the Hartnolls. “We didn’t want to just become some sort of heritage band,” explains Paul. “We felt contemporary; we were in the moment rather than living an old moment. So we wanted to write some new music to reflect that.”
Inevitably, the prospect of Orbital’s dark anthem Satan being given the Skrillex treatment and rebranded Beelzedub will lead to cries of derision from some critics. Yet, Phil feels that as the track had been “developing into a different beast” in their live shows, it felt right to update it by infusing the song with some contemporary ideas. There is a real sense that the excitement and experimentation that characterises the duo’s live shows flows over into their work in the studio and they have fun with what they do, first and foremost.
Elsewhere, the title track on Wonky has the brothers collaborating with vocalist and rapper Lady Leshurr, who gives a pop-grime edge to a bass-driven track that broods and ascends in a manner reminiscent of the likes of Fake Blood. “I know nothing of the current rap scene. Generally, I don’t like it”, admits Paul, “but I wanted to find someone who was really sharp with their timing and angular...and female as well. It had to be a female. With the robustness of the bass it had to be a female cutting kind of voice. She was perfect for it.” It’s clear that the duo has not stopped absorbing fresh influences and they have harnessed these successfully to twist and skew a sound that Orbital has been honing for decades. “We did what we always do”, explains Paul. “You incorporate what you’re enjoying at any given time into what you do. You hear stuff and say ‘I like that, but I want to do it like this.' It’s like one big Chinese whisper doing music.” So, is contemporary folk music really among their key influences? “That’s his thing,” Phil concedes with a chuckle.
Despite flirting with new sounds and bringing in guest vocalists to broaden the scope of the album, it is still dominated by their trademark style. Across the piece, there are plenty of light, melodic phrases of the type listeners have come to expect, but the duo never seem to stray too far from their signature sound. “The joke is that it’s like your handwriting; you can’t actually change it even if you want to,” explains Paul. “The signature sound is what you love doing and also reflects your limitations as a musician. The reason I write melodies and harmonies in a certain way is because that’s what moves me or it shows the limitations of my skill on the piano, maybe. It’s a bit of both. You’ve got to please yourself. Your music is a creative expression of who you are, so it does come out with a signature sound. I wouldn’t try to change that.”
These appear to be wise word. The strongest tracks are those which find Orbital in their comfort zone: Stringy Acid is a brilliant throwback to the early days of dance music and could have feasibly provided a strong b-side to the likes of ‘Chime’. Where did it come from? “I’ve been meaning to do something with that track for 22 years”, admits Paul with a snigger. “It’s that old! I’ve had a recording of that on a D90 cassette and I’ve always said I have to do something with that. I’m really pleased with how it turned out in the end.”
With a series of gigs lined up, including some major festival appearances, the Hartnolls seem to be enjoying their work as much now as they did when they started out over 20 years ago. “For me, I’ve rediscovered why we were doing it in the first place”, says Phil. “I really enjoy the creative process and really enjoy twiddling knobs and pushing buttons. Making noises, really.” The final track on the album asks ‘Where is it Going?’ - a fitting question. “We always like to leave it on a question, like one of those dodgy horror movies”, says Paul with a chuckle.
“This is the end... or is it?”