The electronic duo are back with beats, synths and an army of vocal guests on an album that’s rarely far from a musically inspired moment
For over three decades Orbital have made their mark with rave-inspired grooves and an unwillingness to take themselves too seriously – even angular, intense tunes like P.E.T.R.O.L. were always too excitable to be menacing – and on their 10th album they take this sensibility in many directions, to mixed results.
Are You Alive? makes a strong argument for the duo’s enduring appeal, with syncopated drum machine grooves and distinctive lyrics from Penelope Isles (“picked your heart up, given it a little clean / now you’re acting like you’re on the cover of a magazine”) transitioning to a pumping house coda, stylish, wistful and euphoric all at once. The New Abnormal is more self-consciously retro, as sampled chord stabs mingle with a crunchy breakbeat and mewling lead, mid-’90s electronica as comfort food and all the better for it.
However, on Optical Delusion one has to take the rough with the smooth. Opening track Orbital Ringa Ringa (The Old Pandemic Folk Song), as the title implies, is an attempt to reinvent Ring A Ring O’ Roses for the covid era, an unremarkable novelty and an unworthy album opener. Dirty Rat can best be described as political electroclash, with Sleaford Mods’ political invective running roughshod over the distorted instrumentation in a way that feels more artless each time the sentences are repeated, while You Are The Frequency with The Little Pest is just baffling throughout.
This isn’t to suggest that all deviation from the classic Orbital sound is doomed to fail. Home’s bubbly bass and unnerving double-tracked vocals are entrancing as Anna B Savage critiques modern life’s excess (“we could tear it all down / brick by brick, town by town / and leave skeletal buildings / to be eaten by green”). The contrast is sublime on Requiem For The Pre-Apocalypse between its bassy jungle sections and the dreamy synths that dominate the middle of the track, and funnily enough the second collaboration with The Little Pest is a significant improvement. What A Surprise takes the form of glitchy EDM trap, vocal samples stuttering arrhythmically over a razor-sharp beat with synth lines that glow like neon, and the effect is exhilarating.
Optical Delusion is messy, and it certainly doesn’t display the focus of the Hartnoll brothers’ career highlights, but you’re never more than five minutes away from a musically inspired moment.