On Second Thought
Orbital - Brown Album






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Orbital’s Brown Album is often cited as evidence for the band’s critical standing, as well as the lynchpin for the perception that the group was a flowing organically textured electronic act. Quite how the Hartnoll brothers landed themselves in this position of adulation is a source of incredulity, given the standard of their recorded music. Of all the many electronic acts immortalised on vinyl, Orbital always seemed the most sensible, the dullest and the least deserving of the oxygen of interest.

Kicking off the album with “Time Becomes” immediately reveals both a lack of imagination and understanding about album dynamics, considering the usually effective options of either cutting to the quick and getting the music started or, you know, building tension before plummeting into a strong song. Instead, we have a mini-physics lesson. Consisting of little but a spoken word sample of a Klingon telling the listener what a Mobius Strip is (“where time becomes a loop”), which is then looped, creating an aural example of a Mobius Strip in action. It’s debatable whether nearly two minutes was required to get the point and, as an album intro and a representation of an idea as potentially involving as infinity, it’s incredibly lacking in scope, vision or intensity. Even their choice for source material is impressively average, choosing lines from Star Trek (and not even the old camp TV series, but the second-rate franchise effort of the Next Generation) and, later on, the famous “stopped clock” quote from Withnail & I (“Planet of the Shapes”). These are entry-level Pop Culture 101 references. But, of course, it’s symptomatic of the minute surface depth of personality and effort that Orbital have invested in their music.

Totally lacking any perceivable human touch and expressing nothing resembling an emotion (no aggression, no charm, no rage, no humour) Brown Album is unsurprisingly an uneventful, very average and ultimately boring ride. Which is fine and dandy if the Hartnoll’s were looking for something to sum up our dull existence in this modern Metropolis industrial hell that we call Western Civilisation. Or if they needed a soundtrack for functional persona-less sexual intercourse in a Ben Affleck sci-fi flick. Even desperate claims that their music is most effective as an auditory blank canvas for listeners to impose their thoughts upon and get lost in fall short. This tack can also be applied to the sound of scrubbing a urinal, clocks ticking or the trundle of cars tyres on shitty tarmac; why not choose the cheaper option? And, anyway, this intent can be dismissed by looking at their song titles, which obviously nudge listener’s minds toward particular trains of thought (“Impact (The Earth Is Burning)”). Unable to audibly invest heart or soul into the music, they attached mini concepts (see later green issues and, yawn, alien abduction themes) to the songs. Their music wasn’t designed purposefully to be devoid of personality, the music is just plain ol’ vapid.

They came into the album coasting on the rightful praise for “Chime” and “Belfast” (Green Album was a hodgepodge collection at best), which in those halcyon early days sat at almost opposite ends of the mainstream’s techno spectrum, well before the massive proliferation of electronic styles revealed them as cut from a one patterned cloth. There is a stiffness and lack of any organic or intuitive feel to the songs on Brown Album and a more than nagging suspicion that each added element to the mix of sounds is nothing more than an inflexible adding of numbered chunks. For example, their use of space on “Halcyon + on + on” is merely lack of content; synth strings and lonely piano notes are not proof of soul, heart or profundity.

Declarations of “density” and “texture” haunt reviews Orbital, but in reality their rhythms are clunky, bumpy, cumbersome and, most damning of all, sexless. Their heavy-handed attempts at flow and tempo (see the de-adrenalined acid of “Remind”) feel like they were put together by thumbless Gorillas. The beats don’t build or morph either. Unchanging loops and dry drum patterns are slid together in a clunky obvious way that clearly has no interest in trying to stoke the dancefloor nor attempting rhythmical invention. As such, you can keep your watch by the stilted blueprints of the brothers. Rhythms are added heavily in layers, which play for a few bars before the next loop is added. The songs cycle through this flow diagram of basic Amiga music software adding, removing chunks of sound. Taking pinches of sounds from rawer acid, their eructative squelches lacked force, ludic energy or even mnemonic tunefulness. This cookie cutter approach to techno can sometimes see static beats used to ground the melodic fluttering but here that isn’t even the case, as the melody never flies anyway.

The whole album, and indeed their whole pelvis-less sound, screams out for another input, which is probably why their live shows worked much better; the communal vibe, the visuals and a shifting sound helping to lift the basic tracks out of their drab clothes. The music, on record, lacks the mindless physicality of rave, the clean clever sound of Artificial Intelligence era electronica, the ‘rock’ riffs of big beat or the smoothness of Detroit. Orbital reach neither the head, the heart nor the hips, they are techno’s very own Menswear. Strangely (or perhaps appropriately), the group, with this and subsequent albums, became Fisher Price’s My First Electronic Act for many former indie kids that were too impatient for ambient and too used to shaking their fringes rather than their asses to head for something too heavy or with an emphasis on movement.

Even at the time of its release Brown Album had no resonance with evolving electronic culture or tribalism and its lack of complexity, balls, heart or brain made Orbital easily assimilated into the mainstream as the token techno act. The press image of the very visible baldy boffin brothers surely gave them a head start in the PR game over faceless artists more concerned with being movers, shakers and evolutionists (or as the t-shirts of the day read ‘faceless techno bollocks’). Around them their ‘contemporaries’ (Cabaret Voltaire, The Orb, Inner City, Future Sound Of London and Meat Beat Manifesto) were defining and pushing the culture by laying the seeds for interesting, new music that still sounds fresh today.

Back in 1992 there was an exciting new world opening up to listeners with a rush of new sounds, structures and ways of listening; where others combined melody with a real sense of darkness, joy, futurism or even just something weird as fuck and invented other worlds you could touch with your headphones, Orbital just kept it bland. The Hartnoll’s musical sciolism revealed as clearly as it ever could be; Orbital were electricians not musicians.



By: Scott McKeating
Published on: 2004-08-03
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