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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Orbital goes wonky after two years of gigs


By ARNI KRISTJANSSON
Special to The Japan Times

Orbital doesn't seem to have changed much since the 1990s — but their audience has. At last weekend's Metamorphose event in Chiba, pant sizes among the crowd were noticeably less baggy than they were 20 years ago — and there were a few more gray-haired heads bobbing to the beat.

News photo
Chimed in: Brothers Paul (left) and Phil Hartnoll have released a new album, "Wonky," as Orbital. The pair say they learned from what worked for them after two years of touring and have adjusted their sound to better suit what they'd like to play live.

But everyone in attendance went wild when the duo played "Chime," both the generation who were around when the track was released in 1989 and, well, their children.

"What you get now is people our age bringing their kids along," says Phil Hartnoll (48), who along with his brother, Paul Hartnoll (43), make up Orbital. Phil then tells a story about how he got a message from a young fan via Facebook who had a great time with her father at one of their concerts.

"There's that shared moment between the father and the daughter through music, and for me that's a lovely little perfect moment that those people have had — a shared experience through our music," Phil says. "It can't get much better than that."

The pair's live set hasn't changed so much in that it's still unmistakably Orbital, but the addition of a massive LED visual element and some modern tweaks to their previous hits makes the whole thing feel like a 2.0-style update. This current tour is in support of their latest album, "Wonky," their first new album in eight years. Orbital was a key player in the '90s rave scene that came out of England. After seven studio albums (and one soundtrack) they disbanded in 2004. Paul tried his hand at several solo projects before teaming up with Phil again in 2009. They have been touring regularly ever since, serving up an updated version of their brand of techno.

"We've had a makeover," Paul says. "There are two sides to this album. We played live for two years and, coming out after five years and playing our old tracks, we kind of revamped it a bit. We did two years of that and then went back into the studio and said, 'Let's write an album of stuff that we want to play live,' based on what we had learned from playing live."

"Wonky" is a mix of early '90s breakbeats and carefully arranged melancholic chord progressions, with the occasional flourish of a current music trend. For instance, the track "Beelzedub" is a dubstep-inspired rework of their long-time live favorite "Satan." The song "Straight Sun" has a healthy dose of electro house. Title track "Wonky" is indicative of a blend of old and new, starting with breakdance beats from the early '80s and developing into a full-blown electro-house-inspired anthem featuring vocals from female MC Lady Leshurr.

"I've really been enjoying the '80s revival because I used to love '80s electronic music," Paul says. "It's funny, you hear young people doing it now and they kind of get it wrong. But that's what's good about it, they take what they want from it and do it in their own way and that gives it a fresh twist. Then we listen to that, put it back into our mix and give it our own twist from an older perspective."

Orbital's appearance in Japan was the first in a series of festival appearances across Europe, and the brothers say it was a great place to start.

"Even with an utter language barrier, there's kind of a shared humor," Paul says. "The humor is kind of dark, like British humor. You can get on with a lot of Japanese people even if you can't talk to them. It's sometimes easier than with a bunch of American people where the humor is quite different."

The music video for "Wonky" is a prime example of Orbital's brand of humor, featuring a man being plagued by a gang of singing cats.

"('Wonky') is like a mad funhouse. It's wrong ... it's, 'I'm a bit too drunk, let me out.' " Paul says. "I quite like that kind of aspect, it's kind of cartoonlike."

The Hartnolls don't just see humor in their own music, both brothers list a number of bands they see as having successfully added a dose of humor to their work.

"I grew up on Kraftwerk and they're the funniest band around," Paul says. "Some people don't get that, but they're so tongue-in-cheek, so dry and humorous. Even people like Yellow Magic Orchestra, they're kind of funny as well. They didn't take themselves seriously, but the music is quite serious — just like Kraftwerk. It's good music, but they're confident enough in their musical ability to allow for a bit of humor. Yello are another band, they were hilarious, really grandiose."

"Sparks ..." Phil suggests.

"Sparks! There you go. How many more do you want?"

"Wonky" is on sale now.

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