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Orbital – Snivilisation (1994)

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Where do I even begin with this one? Orbital is one of those bands that insists on having a unique identity on each of their albums. If I understand this one’s context correctly, Snivilisation is the weird album – the one you’d insert into your brand new multimedia PC with Windows 3.1 to show off your cool new CD player when you weren’t playing Myst or Spaceship Warlock. It’s also more subdued and contemplative on average than the last one. So we’ve got a somewhat ambient, but also occasionally very silly recording, with a random punk rock song dividing it into halves that aren’t all that different from one another. There’s not much in the way of metaphors I can apply here, so the best approach is to try and figure out what makes Snivilisation snivel.

As a general rule, Orbital isn’t especially dense or overwhelming, but this is one of their sparser albums, more focused on maximizing the payout from its constituent parts than introducing new ones into songs. Samples here are especially relevant; if you ask me, Snivilisation has an optimistic, technophiliac sheen to it that’s admittedly most prominent during its sillier tracks. Case in point – “Philosophy by Numbers” is essentially a commercial for some unknown continuing education service on top of a dissonant drone, but it fights for space in its mix with screeching trumpets and increasingly complex tonal percussion before fading out. Why not find it to find out more? Orbital’s snark is more restrained in other tracks, but it’s certainly a different emphasis than, for instance, the deep and rich melodic development of In Sides.

For all of this, Snivilisation still has the Orbital trademarks and relies heavily on them. Its songs are still based in the ambient/techno approach that made the band famous. One thing that particularly pops out (even in a discography that generally emphasizes it) is the emphasis on vocals. The samples are an obvious case, but outside of a plethora of EPs I’ve not listened to, this appears to be their first recording with apparently non-sampled and obviously word-flavored vocals (“Sad But True”). I can’t actually make them out, and I’d guess they’re more for effect than anything. In this case, I’d say it’s more useful as an example of how to incorporate human singing into this sort of electronic music without obviously¬†switching to a more conventional pop approach.

There’s still some analysis I need to do to really get everything Orbital’s attempting here, but I’m certain that Snivilisation is one of the stranger and more whimsical EDM recordings of its era. If you need your EDM to be strange and whimsical, you’ve come to the right place.

Highlights: “Forever”, “Sad But True”, “Kein Trink Wasser”, “Attached”

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Orbital – In Sides (1996)

folder.jpgIf my insides looked like this, I’d probably be dead. Listening to In Sides, fortunately, is less of a disemboweling and dying of the guts than it is an accessible ’90s EDM album with some ambient leanings. If you like long form songwriting, minimalism, vocal textures, and sonic variety, you’ll probably find something to like here. The challenge in In Sides is, as far as I’m concerned, more of a writing/journalistic one – how coherent are these songs, especially in relation to each other? How does this fit in with the rest of the British mid-90s scene?

On to it, then – with no tracks below 6 minutes (and two that are chopped in half in such a way that listening to only one side of each doesn’t quite work), Orbital’s goals and potential pitfalls are very clear. The tracks here rely on repetition to build ambience, but Orbital needs to keep evolving and developing the ideas on each track throughout their duration. Failure to iterate is stagnation, and stagnation is essentially death. The good news is that Orbital excels at this. It’s immediately obvious that most of the tracks here swap out their synth patches constantly. Most of the musicians that manage to maintain their cohesion while doing this stick to a few tried and true song formulas, but Orbital goes beyond this – each track here matches its unique aesthetic with fresh forms. As a primarily instrumental band, Orbital doesn’t have the luxury of having obvious verses and choruses, so that’s likely responsible for some of the decisions here.

It’s also worth mentioning that In Sides manages to exercise its songwriting freedom with surprisingly basic building blocks. Years of underground metal reviews have admittedly desensitized me to this, but the level of expertise on display here makes this worth a mention. In Sides is consonant, melodic, and generally quite soothing (though “P.E.T.R.O.L”is a noticeable outlier), full of chord progressions that you’ve probably heard a million times before. Furthermore, the mix is generally spacious and not crammed to the gills with samples and sequences; it’s worth mentioning that Orbital’s ability to vary this up is part of why I emphasize their songwriting prowess. The formula here isn’t hard to imitate, at least on a broad level, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were hundreds, if not thousands of similar-sounding techno/EDM recordings that predate this one. It’s the execution that matters, and even if those previous recordings were well executed or even works of genius, their triumphs do not diminish this one.

Orbital’s success here is ultimately best described with an old cliche – it’s more difficult than you might expect to make truly memorable and moving music out of simple parts.

Highlights: “The Girl With The Sun In Her Head”, “The Box”, “Adnan’s”