Orbital - In Sides
or 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.
Where were Orbital in 1996? That was the year that big beat exploded in the US, cemented by the premiere of the AMP TV show on MTV and breakthrough singles by The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy, whose “Setting Sun” and “Firestarter” videos could be seen playing in heavy rotation next to, say, Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me” or Metallica’s “King Nothing”. MTV was not so kind to Orbital—although their stunning video for “The Box” was played a couple of times, their breakthrough to the US was significantly smaller in scale than that of The Chemical Brothers or The Prodigy, or in the next year, Daft Punk and Fatboy Slim. That’s because while everyone else was concerned with block rockin’ beats and going out of their head, Orbital had been busy with their masterpiece of elegance and frailty. In Sides shimmers like no other album in history, delicate but staggering, in a way so transcendental that it makes the rest of the AMP generation seem clumsy and foolish by comparison. And there was no way in hell they were going to be rewarded with too much commercial success for that.
Orbital started out in the early 90s, more or less, as a straight dance act. Their first album (known as either Orbital 1 or The Green Album) contained a number of fabulous dance songs, but not too much more—the songs were relatively lightweight and the album worked only as a singles collection of sorts. Out of this period, however, came two unmistakable highlights that proved Orbital’s potential to be something far, far greater.
The first of the two was “Chime.” Their 1989 debut single, it was infamously recorded on extraordinarily cheap equipment at a cost of less than 100 pounds, but managed to hit the UK top 20 all the same, and become one of the defining singles of the era. Quite possibly the most euphoric dance song since New Order’s “Temptation,” “Chime” was absolutely stunning, with a chugging beat that suggested but did not insist upon dancefloor participation, a fairly ingenious sample lifted from Joey Beltram’s “Energy Flash,” and what is, simply, the greatest hook in all of electronic music. The techno equivalent of George Harrison’s “Day Tripper” riff, whose influence can be heard on future dance classics ranging from Underworld’s “Rez” to Darude’s “Sandstorm,” the “Chime” hook is like the ringtone to the cell phone of the gods, with a gorgeous shimmering effect (key word, if you hadn’t noticed) that could be heard all throughout Orbital’s future work.
However, “Belfast” was even better, and would be a much better touchstone for later Orbital, most notably In Sides. “Belfast” maintains a fairly steady, catchy beat, but is in no way a dance song. Even ignoring the end section with the gradually decreasing BPM, I don’t think I could dance to this song if I wanted to, halfway through I’d probably slow to a stop and just start crying. Electronic music might’ve tried to be emotional before this, but comparing this song to most early dance classics would be like, continuing the Beatles metaphor, comparing “A Day in the Life” to “Please Please Me”. Rockists complaining about the lack of humanity in electronic music need to listen to this song right now—the emotional gravity of “Belfast” can not possibly be properly expressed.
From there, Orbital’s albums just kept on getting better, through their great but heavily overrated so-called “defining moment” Brown album, a.k.a. Orbital 2 (with the great but heavily overrated so-called “defining single” “Halcyon + On + On”) and the quirky, misunderstood, far underrated Snivilisation (with In Sides-predicting lead single “Are We Here?,” one of the best 15-minute three-movement electronic symphonies about evolutionary theory to ever hit the UK top 30). Unlike with “Chime” and “Belfast” on Orbital 1, with these albums, the highlights kept getting toned down until eventually on In Sides, there were no obvious highs and lows.
In Sides starts with “The Girl With the Sun in Her Head,” a protest song (about the death of friend Sally Harding) with no words, recorded using only solar power. Can you tell that the song is about Sally Harding without reading the liner notes? No. Can you hear the power of the sun at play in “The Girl With the Sun in Her Head?” Yes. It is a gorgeous, triumphant head to In Sides that guarantees with its gentle, paintbrush strokes of heavenly electronics that Orbital have not taken the easy way out with this album. Just like Snivilisation’s “Forever” was bound to confound listeners expecting Orbital’s “jungle album,” “The Girl With the Sun in Her Head” clearly stated that Orbital had not succumbed to the increasingly powerful big beat juggernaut.
Not to say that In Sides is all soft, however. “P.E.T.R.O.L.” is as hard as Orbital gets, with a hook that puts you in the middle of the Indy 500 and beats so frenetic that it’s no surprise the song was included on the soundtrack to Pi, possibly the most paranoid movie of the 90s. The tension created from this blowout of a song is carried over into what is probably the album’s centerpiece, “The Box.” Thankfully (oh god, so thankfully) pared down from its unbelievably excessive and undeniably putrid 28-minute single version, “The Box” is nonetheless stretched out over two tracks, the second part being the single from In Sides.
Having a single pulled from In Sides was inevitable, and “The Box, Pt. 2” is a fairly worthy choice. The video for “The Box” even made the rounds a bit in late ’96, a brilliant video which properly complements the fear and confusion of the song (MONSTERS EXIST appearing on the TV in the display window being one of the most startling images ever to make daytime MTV). But ultimately, pulling an individual single from this album made as much sense as pulling “I Believe in You” from Spirit of Eden, and the U.S. success of “The Box” was limited. It makes for a wonderful centerpiece to In Sides, however, and complemented by the silently creepy “Pt. 1,” remains one of Orbital’s most memorable moments.
There, through “Dwr Bdwr,” the In Sides track most closely resembling early Orbital (especially “Halcyon + On + On,” with its hovering, wordless female vocals) and the buildup track “Adnan-S,” and we get to the album’s grande finale, “Out There Somehwere?.” The song attempts to musically explain the mystery and grandeur of the universe in 25 minutes or less, and comes scarily close to doing so. The song (more of a piece than a song, actually) leaves In Sides open-ended, celebrating the possibilities of the world, whereas the album’s opener was a funeral for a friend.
Although In Sides was not the mainstream breakthrough that some of Orbital’s peers achieved in 1996 and 1997, it did not go unnoticed. In Sides broke through in a different way, being covered in alternative publications as well as dance publications, becoming many a rock fan’s introduction to electronic music. And although it is still Orbital 2 that is somehow claimed to be Orbital’s masterpiece, it is unlikely that it will hold up a quarter as well as In Sides will in the future—In Sides is a timeless classic, miles above the curve in 1996.