Saturday, 7 April 2012

REVIEW: Orbital - Wonky

It's generally agreed that the overall quality of dance music peaked with the rave scene of the early 90's before becoming watered down for chart success then splitting into many different sub-genres. While new dance acts are perhaps finding it hard to come up with music that is great AND original, it seems that the best sounds are in fact still coming from those who defined electronic music in the 90s: the Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy still know how to stun live audiences while still producing fine new records, and now we welcome the return of perhaps the greatest electronic wizards since Kraftwerk. Orbital parted company in 2004, only to reunite in 2009 for some ecstatically received live performances which proved the dance music world was a poorer place without such true visionaries.

Phil and Paul Hartnoll felt that their return didn't feel right without new material, so they began work on what has now naturally evolved into 'Wonky', their first album in eight years and their best work in well over a decade. The familiar sounds are still there, but upgraded and proudly nestling alongside fresh influences that acknowledge the things that have been going on in their absence. Opening with an array of odd spoken word samples, 'One Big Moment' revisits the retro drum machines and happy roboid melodies of 1999's 'Stylo', as lots of wonderful patterns fall together nicely while the amazing 'Straight Sun' is like a thicker, rebooted relative of 'The Box' and stands as one of the most infectious tunes the duo have ever made, complete with beats that are going to send audiences mental. 

'Never' has a peacefully euphoric quality that seems to become more and more jubilant as the song builds, and afterwards 'New France' uses an almost post-punk bassline, more excellent percussion and striking hardsynths to bring the very best out of a breathy guest vocal from Zola Jesus. 'Distractions' begins with sad Kraftwerk-esque synths before the introduction of bizarre cut-up vocals and a slow bass-heavy beat, but perhaps could have been made a few minutes shorter. Elsewhere 'Stringy Acid' stands somewhere in between three dancefloor classics: Rhythim Is Rhythim's 'Strings Of Life', 808 State's 'Pacific' and the Hartnolls' own 'Chime', the latter lending the song its unmistakeable electro snares as the track builds into a perfectly authentic acid house anthem so retro-sounding it's as if the Hacienda was never torn down. 

If such moments tend to be steeped in welcome nostalgia, then 'Beelzedub' brings things up to date with its banging dubstep rhythm and filthy bass, almost like a beefed-up 'Satan' with added firepower, elements of drum and bass and a wealth of fierce sounds which are a joy to experience when turned up loud through a good pair of headphones. Hefty stuff indeed. The very wonky title track is utter madness that a lot of people (including myself) would have preferred minus the ill-fitting guest vocals from Lady Leshurr, although i'm sure there are some who will think otherwise. After such insanity the brief spacious intro to 'Where Is It Going' leads into an album highlight bursting with many Orbital trademarks, concluding the record brilliantly as every sound clicks into place comfortably. 

Eight years ago when the Hartnoll brothers released 'The Blue Album' and called it quits, most thought that Orbital really couldn't have had any more great music in them. 'Wonky' proves that the extended break has done them a world of good, as many of these tracks comprise of their most vital moments yet. Rejuvenated and refuelled, the duo resurrect many of the familiar sounds that made them electronic icons while also embracing enough modern elements for this album not to sound outdated. There are one or two minor complaints but even so, it is certainly one of the best dance records in recent years and when it's at its best, the often exhilarating music can easily stand alongside Orbital's finest work. 8.3

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