Sunday, May 27, 2012

Wonky restores Orbital's status as gods of UK rave scene

The Blue Album was supposed to be their grand send off.

After a considerable drop off from their early career, British electronica duo Orbital went out on a high note in 2004 with their eponymous blue album. It boasted one of their biggest hits, "One Perfect Sunrise." The time was ripe for brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll to stroll off into the sunset.

But as many artists before them have learned, it can be so hard to say goodbye.

Wonky is Orbital's first studio record in eight years, and it was dropped upon us unexpectedly. It hasn't been getting much press, perhaps due to the fact that they didn't bother to release the thing outside of the UK. But no matter. In a world of electronica ruled by Skrillex and James Blake, the return of Orbital is most certainly a welcome sight.

This is the group that brought us the genius melodies of songs like "Monday" and "Impact" from Orbital 2. This is the group who crafted In Sides, an album where every song seemed to have its own theme -- from the euphoria of "The Girl with the Sun in her Head" all the way to the wide eyed wonder of "The Box." This is the group who once stood alone as the top electronic music act in the world. Do they still have it?

The answer is a resounding yes. Wonky does everything a good Orbital record should do: it shines and shimmers, it bloops and garbles, it buzzes and rages, and at times it even shows it knows how to throw down. Best of all, it cuts out the fat and goes straight for the meat. Compared to earlier tracks like "Are We Here?" and both parts of "Out There Somewhere," the offerings on Wonky might seem like miniscule USA Today sized portions. But even the most diehard Orbital purists should hard pressed to complain about this disc; Wonky recaptures Orbital at the height of their rave sound in a way few thought was possible.

In general, the album follows Orbital's trademark formula. Most songs start out with a quiet melody. As the song goes along, various layers are weaved in and out that complement one another in various ways.

The opener, "One Big Moment," begins rather inauspiciously. The warm fuzzy beat sounds as though Orbital's bombastic dance music machine is just warming up, as though they just flicked the switch after a prolonged hibernation.

"Straight Sun" is a great reminder of Orbital's rave roots, while New France" vibrantly shimmers and rattles until the introduction of Zola Jesus's powerful vocal. Either track is strong enough to light a dancefloor ablaze.

"Distractions" is one of the most complex and fascinating tracks on the entire record. There's a strong dub influence here, with a groovy vocal sample section that lays the foundation for what's going on.. There's also space age beeping and blooping, a track that sounds like the soundtrack to a hypnotic undersea dance party, and a dastardly headbanging breakdown.The song's climax is perhaps the most brilliant moment on the record, as each of these layers are seamlessly weaved in and out of the overall patchwork.

"Stringy Acid" sounds like an astrological ancient Persian dancefloor anthem, or perhaps the soundtrack to a dreamland dungeon from a 1990's J-RPG. The acidic "Beelzedub" is much harsher and more sinister;  recallling the glory of tracks like "P.E.T.R.O.L." or "Satan."

The title track, conversely, is one of the most uncharacteristic Orbital songs in their entire repertoire. Even when they've had guest vocalists in the past, the brothers Hartnoll have always been the main focus. Beautiful as they were, Kristy Hankshaw's vocals on Orbital's smash "Halcyon On + On" were only a mere complement to the hip shaking rhythm they had already established.

But "Wonky" is an eyebrow raising detour from that formula. The beats, which sound like the meow mix theme, aren't that compelling. And Lady Leshurr's work here borders on the ridiculous. She sounds like a hopped up Nicki Minaj. For once, Orbital is not the main focus in their own song. And folks, the starlet they picked to upstage them is no Kristy Hankshaw.

The album ends well with "Where is it Going?" It sounds perfectly like a closing track, clearly signifying the album's close while sending a message to the listener that Orbital's work is far from done. Who knows what their next step will be?

If you missed Orbital and admired the UK rave sound of their early 90s work, then you should be delighted with the results on Wonky. The sound and production is great, and the duo mixes it up with enough variety to make every track interesting and unique. In Sides it may not be, but you'd be hard pressed to ask for more from the brothers Hartnoll

Score: 88/100

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