Orbital: Wonky (2CD, ACP, April 2012)

So, here’s the thing: I have a history with Orbital. 1996’s In Sides appeared early on in my conversion to electronic music, and I was blown away by it. My favourite track was the astonishing 24-minute closing double track Out There Somewhere[1], in which simple little loops are introduced and slowly built up into an intricately layered thing which is at once an epic exercise in counterpoint and a deeply involving journey. I quickly discovered, and quickly adored, their back catalogue, too (and the green and brown albums take turns as my favourites, too). And I’m one of the many festival-goers for whom Orbital is the Glastonbury band, a somewhat emotional Sunday night ritual. It is a sadness, then, that their later albums are so dull by comparison. Their early work had a delicacy and a precision, the sounds were painstakingly worked and every one was there for a reason; their later work was flabby, bombastic and even, Bog help us, wacky. Maybe the technology made it too easy, the richness that they’d had to slave over in the early nineties now available at a press of a button, leading to a big mess of fat squelchy noises, full of sound and utterly forgettable. For me, there was only one truly great track after In Sides: One Perfect Sunrise was the last tune on what was meant to be their last album, and somehow they recaptured everything which had made me love them eight years ago, a perfectly judged sweetness and a euphoria-drenched evocation of all those “I’m up to my ankles in mud, and it’s beautiful, and for just this one moment everything is right with the world” festival memories.

All of which is a long and rambling way of saying that I approached Wonky, their comeback album, with considerable trepidation — and that I am certainly not able to judge it dispassionately. What can I say, then? It’s not terrible. It’s better than most of their later work. The bombast is still there, but not to an irksome extent. The wackiness is mostly kept in check. It’s actually quite good fun in places. (I am distrustful of big-name vocalists on dance records — and, yes, I’m thinking of the Chemical Brothers here, but the Hartnolls have been guilty too… don’t forget that The Altogether had David Gray, of all people, on one track[2] — but I nevertheless really like Lady Leshurr’s contribution to the title track here.) If I sound ambivalent, well, I am. My feelings towards Wonky are basically summarized by a slight shrug.[3] I think revivals can be judged on a success if they either find new fans or offer something new to old ones. Maybe this will be a hit with the kids — really, how would I know? — but I’d be a little surprised. One thing I know for sure is that there’s no way I can imagine myself, in a few months time, choosing to listen to this over any of the green album, the brown album, Snivilisation, or, of course, In Sides.

[1] I still consider Out There Somewhere the real end of In Sides, and I try to forget about the unwelcome appendage of The Saint on the re-release.
[2] It’s called Illuminate. I tried to go back and listen to it as research for this post, but I had to stop it exactly four words into the vocal. Sorry.
[3] Ditto doubly for the 5-track Live In Australia which came with the edition I bought, all 5 tracks being unobjectionable but utterly unexciting. If I want to listen to live Orbital, I’m going to go for Live At Glastonbury, and not only because I can squeal “I was there!” for over half of it.[4]
[4] Oh, and, yes, we’re doing footnotes today, possibly in an attempt to counteract the over-emotional nature of this post.

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