ORBITAL Snivilisation (Internal)

At last dance music finally gets its "What's Going On". The brothers Hartnoll's third long player is that strange and unlikely hybrid: an instrumental album that appeals to the brain as much as the feet. As its title would seem to imply, this is Orbital's essay on the state of the human condition today, taking in such disparate themes as disability, education, religion and modern music. Well, I think that's what they're on about, but the beauty of the music is that it's so open-ended you can draw your own conclusions about what they're trying to say.

Take "Philosophy By Numbers", for example. Its medium-paced eerie electronic soundtrack is overlayed by samples such as "Would you like to study philosophy? It's about life, wisdom, purpose and of course wisdom itself" and a deranged Carol Vorderman-alike gushing on about qualifications in technology. Towards the end comes the inevitable (and literal) pay-off "Easy payment options are available. Why not phone us to find out more?"

"Crash and Carry" is Orbital's entrant for the soundtrack to the ramraiding flick "Shopping";"Quality Seconds" sums up the pointlessness of the New Wave revival with chronologically economic brevity; "Are We Here?", the first single, is fifteen minutes of jungle breakbeats and musings on the existence of God. There's more traditional Orbital fare aplenty as well, mostly concentrated on side four: "Kein Trink Wasser", the album's best track, begins like an amateur musician attempting to play highlights from Michael Nyman's soundtrack to "The Piano" and ends like a computer attempting to play Kraftwerk, and "Attached", revamped from this year's uninspiring "Peel Session" mini-album, is a long-legged, lazy limber-up to the finshing post and ends "Snivilisation" in fine style.

With this album, Orbital have got it devastatingly right: it contains vast quantities of their best music, itself more thoughtful and cerebral than classic thumpers from their past such as "Lush 3-1" and "Halcyon + On + On + On", added to samples that make you think "What's going on here? What are they trying to say?". Even the cover fits the concept perfectly. Whether it will elevate intelligent dance music out of the student/train-spotter/record shop/club ghetto it currently seems to occupy and wipe the horrible car-alarm stuff that pollutes the charts and pubs off the face of the earth remains to be seen. But if any album has the power to, "Snivilisation" is it. And I suspect Marvin would've approved.

ORBITAL In Sides (Internal)

Another year, another fantastic Orbital album: "In Sides" is the Hartnoll brothers’ fourth (very) long player. With six tracks spread over as many sides of vinyl, it sees them continuing the development process initiated with 1994’s only-slightly-less-magnificent "Snivilisation". Orbital are rising above puerile stylistic barriers such as ‘techno’, ‘dance’ or whatever else this music might be incorrectly pigeonholed as: in reality they’re striving to reinvent folk music for the 90s, to construct a form of wordless global communication intent on moving mind and body. The Independent on Sunday summed it up perfectly, pointing to "In Sides" as evidence that the art of hymn-writing was still alive and well in the late twentieth century.

Highlights are legion, but the bestest bits would have to "The Box", an edited version of the recent gargantuan twenty-six minute single, which sounds like the sinister soundtrack to an imaginary cult television series, as well as doing for the zither what the Aphex Twin’s "Digeridoo" did for, uh, hollowed out bits of tree. "Dwr Budr" (it means "Dirty Water" in Welsh, which is currently turning into something of a rock ‘n’ roll language) features their trademark distorted, cut up and messed-around-with female vocals, while "Adnan’s" is a thoroughly overhauled version of the skeletal track that appeared on last year’s "Help" charity compilation. Throughout there’s a glorious sense of sweeping, fragile melancholy, born out of despair at the state of the human condition - underlined by the kitsch images of 1950s consumerism that fill the inner sleeves - and unwavering support for the few with a genuine belief in and courage to change things for the better. As we’ve come to expect from Orbital, "In Sides" is a wondrous and emotive work that’s thought-provoking and floor-shaking in roughly equal measures.

ORBITAL Satan Live (Internal)

"Satan Live"’s official status in life is as a ‘double 12" single’, but as it contains over an hour of music it’s probably more instructive to treat it as a budget-priced Orbital live album. Represented here are six songs recorded ("without crowd noise", as the sleeve says) during 1996 in such diverse locations as Chelmsford, Boston and New York, and in the absence of either a legitimate Orbital compilation or live album it’s a pretty handy beast to have around.

Here are excerpts from pretty much all points of Orbital’s career, from the thudding, snarling, primitive nastiness of "Satan" (techno goes punk years before the Prodigy made such a hash of the idea) to the glorious hymns of "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head" and "Out There Somewhere". Neatly scuppering the theory that live renditions of such essentially programmed music are a waste of time, here these songs become even more symphonic, either stretching even further out past the limitations of their studio counterparts (some tracks drift past the 20 minute barrier with ease and no lack of invention) or rubbing contracted takes of old and new Orbital standards up against each other, just to see what happens. "Satan Live" (which originally snuck a few Christmases ago and has since re-emerged via the good offices of Diverse’s sale list) is a more than ample reminder of the magic of Orbital, whilst we await the proper follow-up to their fab "In Sides" triple album.

ORBITAL The Middle Of Nowhere (FFRR)

I really wanted to like this: Orbital have been one of the most consistently excellent dance acts of the last decade, moments of their 1993 eponymous work and 1996’s "In Sides" standing as monuments to exactly how terrific electronic music can get. Unfortunately repeated spins haven’t got me anywhere with "The Middle Of Nowhere": most of its eight tracks are burdened by unnecessary clattering and a crucial lack of hummable melody (a similar fate to that befalling the new Chemical Brothers single – is British dance music going through something of a collective malaise?) and moments such as that when the theme from "Newsround" crops up in "Spare Parts Express" don’t help in rendering proceedings any more cohesive.

The shame is that there are times when "The Middle Of Nowhere" is very, very good: the single "Style" introduces the concept of bagpipes to techno (it would’ve had stylophones as well – hence the title - but apparently Rolf Harris got cold feet) whilst simultaneously sounding more than a little like New Order’s "Your Silent Face", which is no bad thing. Then there’s the matching twinset of "Nothing Left 1" and "Nothing Left 2", which take up the entirety of the third side, and are strongly reminiscent of classic Orbital belters of old such as "Lush" and "Halcyon". But mostly "The Middle Of Nowhere" sounds like a confused, and confusing, mess to my ears, all the more frustrating as other Orbital fans of my acquaintance really rate it.

ORBITAL Work 1989-2002 (FFRR)

Alongside the somewhat less durable 808 State, Orbital can stake a claim to being the godfathers of British dance music, and this retrospective provides ample justification. Cannily compiled from hard to obtain single versions and alternate mixes, it's a valuable document both for the newcomer and the committed Orbital enthusiast.

At their considerable best Orbital fashion gigantic but minutely-detailed vistas of soulful electronic sound, gorgeous loops of music that swell, mutate and subside like organic lifeforms. Look no further than "Halcyon", "Impact", "Lush 3.1" and their gently spiralling Abbess Hildegard Of Bingen collaboration "Belfast" for evidence. Orbital's music doesn't posses the high-hat thrashing big-beat hysteria of, for example, The Chemical Brothers or Fat Boy Slim, and you won't find any Aphex Twin-style cacophonous, jarring experimentation here either. Their style is far smoother and more melodic than either, almost like a highly polished, immaculately veneered version of the Chicago house and Detroit techno from which all modern dance music draws inspiration. And, in a curious reversal of the DJ Shadow effect, it's the 'proper' songs with lyrics and vocalists that disappoint here: Orbital's music is so glacially, perfectly modern that lumping old-fashioned concepts like verse and chorus on top of it seems clumsily agricultural.

But what makes "Work 1989-2002" fascinating for the completist is also its downfall. The plethora of 7" versions and edits collated here will plug gaps in even the most complete Orbital collection, but also means that many of the songs are presented in strangely stunted versions. "Are We Here?" and "The Box", previously allowed to roam unfettered over great swathes of vinyl, are reduced almost to radio jingle status by the editing scissors. Similarly, both the impact of "Impact" and the lushness of "Lush 3-1" can't help being diminished by being rehoused outside the glorious 40 minute continuous sweep of music that opens the brothers' second eponymous album. The collaborative false starts preserved here also cause the attention to wander. David Gray does his usual warbling about nothing routine during "Illuminate", whilst Kirk Hammett's chugging HM guitar, added to "Satan" to create "Satan Spawn" for the soundtrack to the film "Spawn", rather over-eggs the pudding somewhat, with the original version already being the heaviest in Orbital's catalogue. Solitary completely new composition "Frenetic" isn't all that, either, it not being too difficult to trace its genealogy back to Golden Girls' Hartnoll-produced "Kinetic" single. And why no sign of the 1995 single-only release "Times Fly"?

So "Work 1989-2002" is fabulous but, almost by necessity, flawed. Best to treat it as a trayful of delicious entrees, an easily digestible primer before sampling the high-octane full-strength material contained on the studio albums.

ORBITAL / THE JAPANESE POPSTARS Manchester Academy 5 April 2012

It’s difficult to tell in the near-darkness whether The Japanese Popstars are in fact either Japanese or pop stars or even both. They do, however, look like two blokes playing a mixing desk and a couple of Macs, and make a kind of dance music that, although superficially similar to, say, Orbital or The Chemical Brothers, lacks their finesse or sense of dynamics, save for a few, brief, coruscating moments when they magic up a pretty passable impression of the headliners.

Orbital do a pretty passable impression of the headliners too. Perhaps inevitably, half the setlist is drawn from their first album in eight years, “Wonky”, released just three days earlier and as yet unheard by me, nor will it be on the pleasant but unmemorable evidence presented tonight. Fortunately, the setlist is smattered with classics from the duo’s formative years. They walk on stage to a compressed version of the phase-shifting tapeloopery of “Time Becomes”, and a curiously deconstructed version of “Halcyon + On + On” is played early on. Bizarrely, they mash it up with Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” and Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love A Bad Name”, rolling the whole up into some terrible mid-80s acid flashback, clearly something that’s cheaper and far less litigious to do in concert than on record. Yet the same idea works wonders at the other end of the main set, when a rather disparate “Are We Here?” is spiked with the Carpenters’ Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft (The Recognized Anthem Of World Contact Day)”; it’s witty, but is also perfectly judged in the context of the song. The Emily Van Evera sample that announces “Belfast” deservedly causes widespread euphoria, the brothers bringing down the pace of the tune as per the end of the studio version only to crank it back up again, and there’s a gargantuan encore “Chime” that appears to last approximately forever, but the night’s highlight for me is a bitty but brilliant “Impact (The Earth Is Burning)”. A curate’s gig, then, with some great moments standing out in a sea of not quites. It’s also stupidly, bone-rattlingly, throat-shakingly loud, surely just a few decibels down from physical assault, especially disappointing considering that during my last few visits to the Academy the sound levels have been gravitating towards sensible.