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Orbital: Wonky

'boredom, indifference, embarrassment and even disgust', Codex Europa reviews Orbital's Wonky


In August 1993 I saw Orbital give a memorable show in a tent at the Deptford Free Festival. This was a year or two before they went definitively overground and their music slowly but surely began to become more diluted and populist, even while self-consciously and sometimes successfully flirting with experimentation as on the Snivilization album.

By the end of the 1990s I'd written them off and ceased to follow their work which was being rendered creatively and technically obsolete by far more radical techno, electronica and drum and bass producers. That said, at their best there was something very evocative about their work and I was hoping to be re-enchanted by Wonky. Sadly, with the exception of two tracks my reactions were boredom, indifference, embarrassment and even disgust.

Orbital go out of their way to hunt down and eliminate any residual sympathy or respect

I wasn't expecting Orbital to re-invent the wheel and I'm not the kind of critic who criticises an act for not producing something radically innovative after two decades. A decent, competent reprise of the old formulas would have been welcome. However, here Orbital go out of their way to hunt down and eliminate any residual sympathy or respect for their music.

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'One Big Moment' is an appropriately banal title that recalls the One Amazing Day slogan used by the New Labour regime to promote the ill-fated Millenium Dome. It has a patronising and irritating child-like theme that oozes suburban smugness from every pore. It sounds like they enjoyed themselves starting up the machines for the first time in years but it's questionable how much pleasure listeners will get from this.

oozes suburban smugness from every pore

In contrast, second track 'Straight Sun' is one of the two highlights of the album and also has a well-executed video. It unfolds from an evocative Orbital keyboard sequence of the type they used to do so well but with a tougher bass sound and a resolute and enjoyably geezerish swagger that's only slightly spoiled by turning a little kitsch towards the end.

'Never' is pretty but inessential. It's the perfect soundtrack for a veteran raver gone straight driving back to his wife and 2.4 kids from his corporate I.T. job. Unfortunately it's blandness is positively impressive compared to the horror that unfolds next, the Zola Jesus collaboration 'New France'.

Whatever potential the track might have had is obliterated by big-voiced indie wailing that makes Bonnie Tyler sound like Maria Callas. It would go down perfectly in a small town O' Neills on a Saturday night, although they'd probably never play anything as “alternative” as Orbital anyway, so it's hard to know who they expect this to work for. Along with the album's title track this is probably one of the worst things Orbital have ever done.

'Distractions' is far more subtle and atmospheric, although it would have been better without the wannabe ethereal but actually banal vocal parts. It has some interesting chord sequences and accelerates and gets darker toward the end, proving Orbital have not entirely lost the spectacular/frantic quality they used to have. Ultimately the track is frustrating because with a bit less restraint and a bit more taste it could have been so much better.

Orbital have not entirely lost the spectacular/frantic quality they used to have

The un-inspiringly-titled 'Stringy Acid' delivers more than its title promises. It's the closest the album comes to a “traditional” euphoric Orbital dance track and seems to have been based on an older demo that was never released. It has a definite Detroit feel and develops really well with drive and determination.

From here on it's not so much downhill all the way as full speed into the abyss. 'Beelzedub' is a worthy but vaguely embarrassing experiment with dubstep. This may have been worth a try but they don't seem entirely at ease with the style and it's hard to see it being taken seriously in dubstep circles. It acts nicely as a warm-up or should that be a warning for what follows: 'Wonky' itself, which is graced by the presence of Birmingham rapper Lady Leshurr and her hyped-up “lyrics” which manage to rhyme “bow, wow, wow” with “now,now,now.” The moral of this sad story is that the harder they try to be hyper-contemporary and street the more staid and middle-aged they sound.

After this we might well ask Where is it going? as the boys shuffle towards the exit without apparent embarrassment, leaving us with a final dose of sunny late-Orbital mediocrity designed to placate and soothe the aesthetically self-lobotomised masses. Clearly I'm not the target audience for this album, but surely by any objective standards its many low points are so shockingly bad that I can't be the only one who regrets hearing most of it.

Out now.

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