I had very mixed feelings about watching veteran British progressive techno duo Orbital again at the Beat-Herder festival a couple of weeks ago. Not in any kind of worries about artistic integrity sense, but in a quite palpable churning-of-the-emotions kind of way.
The nearest analogy I can summon is to ask you to imagine that you spent a deliriously happy decade with the love of your life but then had a sad but amicable parting of the ways. Eight years later, when you’d moved on and settled down, your first and brightest love suddenly came back into your life. And wanted to party again.
That pretty much sums up how I felt about Phil and Paul Hartnoll’s return. I can clearly remember the day we parted company. It was on June 24 2004, when they played their final proper indoor gig on the British Isles, at Brixton Academy. The time was right for both of us; they’d had a good 15 years since recording the first version of their sublime Chime, and I was 34, married with a son who’d just turned one and a daughter about five months away from being born. We’d had a good innings, and some brilliant times. I was melancholy at the thought of there being no more live Orbital gigs, but as I stood in the ground zero of wrecked humanity that is King’s Cross station just after dawn, waiting for the gates to open and allow me on to a train back north to my family, I thought that yes, perhaps it really was time for both of us to move on.
I can’t quite remember our first meeting as well as our last. It was the early Nineties, somewhere in the North East, probably, the fag end of a house party. There was a tape of a music show on the TV, and I sat entranced by the speeded-up car boot sale that formed the visual backdrop to Orbital’s beautiful single Lush.
I first saw them live at Glastonbury in 1994, the famous, epoch-making gig that united, briefly, the warring tribes of cheesy quavers and indie-kids. It was named as one of the best 50 live shows ever by Q magazine. I remember vividly the nodding head-torches of the brothers Hartnoll, huge video screens showing a pair of giant animated hands curling and uncurling for ever.
There followed a decade of intense Orbital watching. The gigs over the next ten years have tended to meld into one huge party in my head, seemingly populated by the same lively, friendly, up-for-it crowd. I can remember a girl howling like a wolf at Newcastle, recall wandering around, lost and abandoned, as the audience dispersed after one Glastonbury gig where Orbital played the World Stage. I remember taking a mate who was into harder, purer techno to watch them at another festival, Leeds perhaps, and him puzzling over and just not getting the Bon Jovi sample they always used at the beginning of live versions of Halcyon.
When I got married in 2002, Orbital were there. In spirit, anyway. My best man Kev, who had been my constant companion throughout most of my Orbital gigs, wrote to their record label and secured a CD of their greatest hits album that had come out that year. I still have it, of course, unlike most of the dinner service and towels. On the back it says “To Dave, with love, Paul Hartnoll and Phil Hartnoll.”
Three years previously, when Orbital’s album the Middle of Nowhere came out, we later learned that we’d bought it on the same day and played it practically at the same time. At the point where the first track, Way Out, segues into the second, Spare Parts Express, there’s a discordant, brilliant, unbelievable sawing bridge. I was washing up in my flat in Preston while giving the CD a first play. I remember running from the kitchen to the living room, hands dripping with suds, and kneeling in front of the speakers, marveling at the sudden memory this amazing sound had plucked from my mind, from a gig a couple of months earlier. Kev had apparently done exactly the same.
Good memories, but in their time. In their place. Until that sudden bitter-sweet moment when the rumblings on the internet turned into official truth and Orbital announced they were back this for a series of live gigs in the summer of 2009. I felt in equal parts betrayed and elated, but as it turned out I managed to kind of ignore them, contenting myself with my CD collection and not really wanting to go and see them live, just in case they turned out to be a couple of blokes who were just trading on past glories. Just in case the magic had gone.
But then, at Beat-Herder, the magic came flooding back. Not just through pure nostalgia, but with mounting excitement. Orbital have a new album out, Wonky. It is phenomenal. It is classic Orbital, in the sense that it is new and fresh and thrilling and sends the hairs on the back of your neck standing to attention. And the live show at Beat-Herder… the new stuff is immense, the old stuff has been held up, brushed down and given a lick of paint. And it rocks big time. Sampling the Carpenters’ Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft in the middle of Are We Here? That’s your genius, right there.
Phil and Paul Hartnoll, welcome back into my life. It’s like you’ve never been away. It is, in fact, as though time has indeed become a loop.