To think the early 90's were, now, two decades ago, as opposed to the original one, is quite horrifying. Horrifying in the sense that in today's World, where the synthesizer is pretty much the easy-route method for many a wannabe millionaire singer, and the filler for everyone's radio-friendly three-minute pop excuse, there was once a time when one's and oh's were truly the revolutionary and celebratory sound for a new age. We had already been enveloped into a new dimension, let alone an age, in the 70's and early 80's with a sprung of artists and musicians taking us to places a humble guitar could not. And it wasn't until the late 80's did that far-flung trip into a new dimension revert its way back onto our little blue planet, to where cities glowed at night and discos were the axis of which this music revolved around. By the time the final decade of the century came, the UK electronic scene was already in full motion. Sprung to life by the revolutionary 4/4 construct of house music, and rivaled futuristic optimism that was techno - both of which born in the heart of America some five years previous - the UK was the pinnacle melting pot for repetitious, but addictive and emotionally-draining electronic music, to have its stature truly tested.
In 1991, two years after their first ever song - recorded on an old cassette desk - made its way into the UK Top 20 (a familiar, and welcoming, sight for electronic enthusiasts at the time), brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll, released their debut self-titled album under the name Orbital; an equally-celebratory mix of Chicago and Detroit influence - house and techno meeting as one in a sea of disco-glittering, strobe-lighted energy - summing up the moment electronic music had/would forever be embedded into British culture. To self-title their 1993 follow-up in the same way as their debut, but with a numeric value latched on at the end - alternatively labelled as the Brown Album to differentiate from its green counterpart, would suggest a continuation of that same energy, and maybe a hopeful longing for the party to never stop. But the duo's second album was more than just a continuation. And more importantly, it was more than just an excuse to prolong the party. In reality...it was as much a redefining of the genre's moment of genius, as it was the cementing of the band's status for what would follow. So upon passing the two-minute phase distortion of Time Becomes - and you realize the Hartnoll brothers were only joking in making you believe this was the exact same album as their debut in the fact it begins with the same sample extract, Planet Of The Shapes makes no hesitation to thump and pulsate its way amid the groove and energetic thruster of the dance-floor. What starts as a dusty off-shoot of synths and graveled bass beats, soon transpires and grows into a 60s-like psychedelic flung of symphonic electronics, 70's cosmic textures and 80's thumping synthesizer signatures. And given the way the song leads into what is a dramatic unveiling of mechanical-like friction between sounds - all sprawled across this great cosmic arena - there's nothing lost in how rhythmically at heart the main component of beats, are here.
But the true majesty and crowning moment in Orbital's rise to genius is the 10-minute two-part ecstasy that is Lush. 3-1, pulsating into life with plush techno pitches is soon joined by a deep lacing of rhythmic house drums and a siren-like wail that carries right across the spectrum of sound. But it's the louder, more emotional calls of these horn-like sounds that brings the rawest and most astonishing detail of emotion to this track. Like a great shining light - or maybe just a giant electric light working to maximum capacity - the track becomes lost in its own energy, pulsating through the track like a collective source in all its present-day euphoria and futuristic ambition. And in 3-2, the heart-beating throb of bass we're introduced to become the driving catalyst for the music to embark on a more spectral swing of emotional overlaying with the sounds emanating outwards. The distant call of female vocals and the vibrant swing of electronics create a dizzying atmosphere, but one that only ends up intensifying the directness and hard-hitting effectiveness Orbital's use of synthesizers has.
And hard-hitting is what follower Impact (The Earth Is Burning) intends to keep maintained. Though more melancholic and apocalyptic in its context, there's no escaping how magnetizing and bold the sounds of synths and drums go about elevating the scenario of the piece. The track flickers from outward-bound melody to internal mentality, and that switch does justice for the duo's palette of club-centred instruments and livid drumbeats that pound away in hefty bursts of bass. The song's sequential, consequential approach on how every single one of these sounds react to each other creates a volatile, but still overly ecstatic atmosphere. And despite the track's on-the-edge status, the drive and emotion fueling it only entices us to keep listening. Remind then, could be the eventual explosion and aftermath of what has, evidently, been building up because of this. While the track does modest and seemingly in control with itself, the audacious ferocity of synthesizers and clattered drums gives off an unexpected, but continually mesmerizing rhythm. And it's the way the song engages with this spectrum of emotion - from happiness to anger; joy to despair - is what sets it apart, emotionally, from most tracks here. And as the song gradually reaches its end - when the sounds become ever-the-more meshed and less individual, the clarity and defining of what emotions lie before us, becomes in itself a mystery.
But with tracks like Walk Now... which by Orbital's standards is one of the more simpler compositions - here, its muddy, billowing of didgeridoo sounds becoming its main drive - the duo still manage to find a neat centre-point for where the individual sounds in the track can navigate around, to their own respectful tones, pitches, and rules of engagement. There's nothing distracting or disarrayed with how these numerous electronic sounds appear, and the lack of unfathomable opaqueness in its layering, gives the track an almighty physique and stature to how it delivers itself. Monday likewise, is a return to the contemporary earthly extroversion of the dance-floor, and with its lofty synths and looping piano tones, the encompassing feeling of human emotion is exemplified just as highly as it is treat with an affectionate low with its bass-rooted trotting of drums thereafter. Nothing, however, comes close to summing up Orbital's musical translation of human euphoria in its most enriching and purest of form, in the same way Halcyon + On + On does. The track, a remix of an earlier variant, begins with an uncanny, unfamiliar usage of more analogue glazes of warming synthesizers, and vocals that take to painting the bright sunlit tone of the piece as opposed to simply adding harmony to it. Alongside the more familiar fronting of drum beats and flickers of percussion, Orbital's sound grabs its listener from the ecstasy of the physical floor beneath them, and straight into this dream-inducing, weightless glow of electronics it nestles in. And despite the palette of tones remaining constant, the continual rhythm and drive of drumbeats gives the atmosphere a heartfelt journeying scope, and the track's nine-minute exploratory length is ultimately, and evidently, just.
When I look at the type of electronic music - or rather, the implementation of electronic music - in today's commercial market, I'm inclined to feel something of a longed want to return to the 90's, when synthesizers were a means to escape the harsh unjust laws of reality, as opposed to a reminder of them. But despite the political and socio-cultural changes that often leave me saddened and disgruntled - concerning its more uprooted commercial side - we do at least have a fond and eternal memory of a time when synthesized sounds had us at our feet and tugged at our emotions. Orbital's second album is a pinnacle turning point in electronic music, when a [still, at the time] fairly young genre was breaking away from its naive state of experimentation, and finally triangulating sounds that would undergo a true unifying idealism in society, as equally as it guided us to a state of euphoria and engagement as far a field from the natural boundaries of our humble little World, as you could get. A year after its release, Orbital would headline Glastonbury in what - many have agreed - would become one of the greatest outdoor concerts of all time. And it was thanks, in large parts, to Orbital 2 that the Manchester duo would find a way to translate their need for a higher form of euphoria, into something that is as much compelling in its intensity, as it is engaging in its own self-identifying realization as a human-made composite of sound.