Orbital are an English electronic dance music duo from Sevenoaks, Kent consisting of brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll. Their career initially ran from 1989 until 2004, but in 2009 they announced that they would be reforming and headlining The Big Chill, in addition to a number of other live shows in 2009. The band's name was taken from Greater London's orbital motorway, the M25, which was central to the early rave scene and party network in the South East during the early days of acid house. In addition, the cover art on three of their albums features stylised atomic orbitals. Orbital were both critically and commercially successful, and known particularly for their element of live improvisation during shows, a rarity among techno acts. They were initially influenced by early electro and punk rock.
In 1989 Orbital recorded "Chime" on their father's cassette deck, which they released on Oh Zone Records in December 1989, and then re-released on FFRR Records a few months later. The track became a rave anthem, reaching number 17 in the UK charts and earning them an appearance on Top of the Pops, during which they wore anti-Poll Tax t-shirts. According to Paul Hartnoll, the track was recorded "under the stairs" of their parents' house in "a knocked-through stair cupboard that my dad set up as a home office". The track received its first live airing at a disco in a local Sevenoaks venue called the Grasshopper. Next was a gig at the Town and Country 2 in Islington, performing for the first time under the name Orbital. A few singles and EPs followed, and their first self-titled album, a collection of tracks recorded at various times, was released in late 1991.
In late 1992, the Radiccio EP barely reached the UK top 40, but it included one of their most popular songs, "Halcyon". This song featured a sample of Kirsty Hawkshaw from "It's a Fine Day" (a chart hit for Opus III earlier that year), and B-side "The Naked and the Dead" was similarly based on a line from Scott Walker's rendition of Jacques Brel's song "Next". "Halcyon" was dedicated to the Hartnolls' mother, who was addicted to the tranquiliser Halcion (Triazolam) for many years.
The duo's popularity grew rapidly with the release of their second self-titled album, in 1993. The album featured complex arrangements and textures, and opens with the two-minute track "Time Becomes", consisting of nothing more than two slightly detuned, looped samples of a line from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Time Squared spoken by actor Michael Dorn "...where time becomes a loop" being played simultaneously through the left and right channels, respectively (until one cycle of phase difference has happened). This same sample was used at the beginning of "the Mobius", the opening track in the previous album. This audio pun was intended to make listeners believe that they had bought a mis-pressed album (Orbital 1 packaged as Orbital 2). The album reached #28 on the UK album charts, staying in the chart for 15 weeks. "Halcyon" was remixed for the album, as "Halcyon + On + On". Versions of this song played live by the band have incorporated diverse samples, including "You Give Love a Bad Name" by the band Bon Jovi, "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" by Belinda Carlisle, and most recently "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" by the band The Darkness.
The first two albums are commonly known as "The Green Album" and "The Brown Album", after the colours of their covers.
Orbital won a NME award for Vibes Best Dance Act early in 1994, but it was their headline appearance at the Glastonbury Festival on 25 June 1994 that brought them most attention. Q magazine classed it as one of the top 50 gigs of all time, and in 2002 included Orbital in their list of "50 Bands to See Before You Die".
Crucially, 1994 was the first year to feature intensive TV broadcasting from Glastonbury meaning that Orbital's set reached a huge audience. Speaking to The Guardian in 2013 about the gig, Paul Hartnol commented: "I didn't know how much of an impact it would have. Being young myself, I just thought, 'It's about time – of course we should have acid house at Glastonbury'. It used to annoy me. I just used to think it should be happening." In the same article Michael Eavis noted that the Orbital gig marked dance music's appearance on the mainstream agenda. "What was previously underground made it on to one of the big stages, and there was no going back from there. As the police and the council made me very well aware, the buzz had been around the raves and the market sound systems and in the travellers' fields for years. But it needed a showcase to make it legal."
Orbital gave an improvisational element to live electronic music as the brothers mixed and sequenced their tracks on the fly, wearing their trademark head-mounted torches behind banks of equipment. Orbital were one of the few electronic acts invited to play at Woodstock '94.
The third album, Snivilisation, was released in August 1994. Alison Goldfrapp provided vocals on a couple of the tracks, including the single "Are We Here?". This track also included a sample from "Man at C&A" by The Specials. Among the remixes of "Are We Here?" was "Criminal Justice Bill?" — four minutes of silence, a reference to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which was in part intended to clamp down on the rave scene which had given birth to Orbital. The other track with Goldfrapp vocals, "Sad But True", was remixed for the Times Fly EP, the band's only release in 1995.
The single "The Box" was released in April 1996, reaching number 11 in the UK, and its parent album In Sides, released in May 1996, became their second Top Five album. In Sides has since come to be one of their most critically well-regarded works. As with the previous album, there was a vague theme of ecological disaster and dissatisfaction with society.
The following year, the duo contributed to film soundtracks (The Saint, Event Horizon) and enjoyed the biggest singles of their career, with a live version of "Satan" and their reworking of the aforementioned The Saint theme both reaching number three in the UK. The In Sides track "Out There Somewhere (Part 2)" was also included in the long-awaited game series relaunch of Test Drive 4.
Orbital would go on to aid the Mortal Kombat film soundtrack in reaching Platinum selling status during 1995, with an extended mix of "Halcyon", which can be heard during the final scene of the film.
In 1998, they returned to the studio to work on their fifth album The Middle of Nowhere. This was released in 1999, becoming their third top five album, and was a return to a more upbeat style, with Alison Goldfrapp returning on vocals, and included the single "Style" featuring the stylophone. In 2000 the single "Beached" was released from the soundtrack to the film The Beach, mixing the brothers' musical style with a melody by Angelo Badalamenti and the words of Leonardo DiCaprio from the film.
The Altogether, released in 2001, featured guest vocals by the Hartnolls' brother-in-law David Gray, a sampled Ian Dury, and a version of the Doctor Who theme. It was to be their last album for FFRR, and had a mixed critical reception. The following year, Work 1989-2002 collected various singles from "Chime" onwards.
Orbital split up in 2004. They played a final series of gigs in June and July 2004 at the Glastonbury Festival, the T in the Park Festival in Scotland, the Oxegen festival in Ireland, and the Wire Festival in Japan, concluding with a live Peel Session gig at Maida Vale Studios in London on 28 July 2004. The release of their seventh and last original album, Blue Album, coincided with this final wave of shows. The album featured Sparks (on "Acid Pants") and Lisa Gerrard (on the final single, "One Perfect Sunrise").
Following the breakup
Paul Hartnoll continued to record music under his own name, including tracks for the 2005 game Wipeout Pure for the PSP. He released his first full length solo album, entitled The Ideal Condition on the ACP record label in June 2007.
Phil Hartnoll formed a new electronica duo, Long Range, with Nick Smith. Their debut album, Madness and Me, was released on their own label, Long Range Recordings, in August 2007. Orbital released a two-CD/DVD compilation Orbital: Live at Glastonbury 1994-2004 in June 2007, containing over two hours of music recorded at their various performances at the festival.
Comeback and new album
On 21 November 2008, Orbital announced they would be reforming to play a gig together called "20 years after Chime" at The Big Chill Festival 2009. They preceded this show with a headline performance at RockNess 2009 in June.
On 26 January 2009, their official website Loopz announced confirmed dates for their 20th anniversary tour. "The Orbital reformation gathers momentum with headline shows now confirmed for Manchester and London this September." The concerts met with positive reviews. The band's first performance after the breakup took place in June 2009 at Selector Festival in Cracow, Poland. On 17 April 2009, it was announced that Orbital would be playing at The Electric Picnic in September 2009.
On 16 June 2009, Orbital released a 2-CD collection of their favorite tracks. The collection, 20, covered the 20 years since "Chime" and contained 20 tracks. A single, "Don't Stop Me" / "The Gun is Good" was issued in 2010 on 12" and digital download. At the Glastonbury Festival on 27 June 2010 to close their set, Matt Smith, who played the Eleventh Doctor, came on stage and performed with Orbital using the sample of the Doctor Who theme tune.
On 16 February 2011, Orbital posted a video diary on YouTube, via Loopz. The video diary reported their progress on the recording of their new album, along with remixes of existing material for their DJ sets. Subsequent diary updates have been published. In October 2011, Orbital announced a six gig UK tour (including a date at the Royal Albert Hall) and new album in April 2012. "Never", a track from the forthcoming album, was offered as a free download. The album titled Wonky was released on 2 April 2012, and featured collaborations with singer Zola Jesus and MC Lady Leshurr.
In February 2012, an Orbital live set for Mixmag was announced called "In the Lab", available on YouTube. On 1 March 2012, Electric Picnic listed Orbital as one of the festival's main acts. They will return to play at Stradbally for the second time. In June 2012, it was announced that Orbital will be a headliner act at Seattle's ninth annual Decibel Festival in late September.
Orbital performed at the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
On 8 October 2012, Orbital released their soundtrack to the 2012 re-make of Pusher, featuring vocals from Toni Halliday.
Orbital sometimes incorporate political and environmental commentary into their music. The track "Forever" on Snivilisation samples a speech by Graham Crowden from the 1982 Lindsay Anderson film Britannia Hospital, in which he lambasts humankind; and the track "You Lot" on the Blue Album, features a confrontational, partially vocoded anti-genetic engineering sample from Christopher Eccleston, originally from the TV two-part series The Second Coming written by Russell T Davies.
The track "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head" from In Sides was recorded in a studio powered only by Greenpeace's mobile solar power generator, CYRUS.
- Orbital (1991)
- Orbital 2 (1993)
- Snivilisation (1994)
- In Sides (1996)
- The Middle of Nowhere (1999)
- The Altogether (2001)
- Octane (OST) (2003)
- Blue Album (2004)
- Wonky (2012)
- Pusher soundtrack (2012)
- – official site (run by Orbital, Loopz and Mondo Management)
- – blog run by Loopz (contains news/video/audio which cannot feature on the official site)
- at AllMusic
- discography at Discogs
- at Last.fm
- discography at MusicBrainz
- at DMOZ
- at Rate Your Music
- – profile at Synthtopia (band bio, discography, and album reviews)