Orbital, the British duo of brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll, have crafted a vast catalog of ambitious yet accessible electronic music, informed by a wide range of genres such as ambient, electro, punk, and film scores. They became one of the biggest names in techno during the mid-'90s by solving the irreconcilable differences previously inherent in the genre: to stay true to the dance underground and, at the same time, force entry into the rock arena, where an album functions as an artistic statement -- not a collection of singles -- and a band's prowess is demonstrated by the actual performance of live music. Beginning their career with the 1990 British Top 20 hit "Chime," the duo released a string of critically praised albums, including the 1993 landmark Orbital 2 and 1996's In Sides. The LPs sold well with rock fans as well as electronic listeners, thanks to Orbital's busy tour schedule, as well as their music's frequent inclusion in film soundtracks. As the duo's own music became more cinematic-sounding, they scored films such as Event Horizon and Octane. The duo disbanded in 2004, only to reform in 2009 and release full-length Wonky and soundtrack Pusher in 2012. Following a second breakup in 2014, they returned once again in 2017, releasing Monsters Exist the following year.
The brothers Hartnoll -- Phil (born January 9, 1964) and Paul (born May 19, 1968) -- grew up in Dartford, Kent, listening to early-'80s punk and electro. During the mid-'80s, Phil worked as a bricklayer while Paul played with a local band called Noddy & the Satellites. They began recording together in 1987 with a four-track, keyboards, and a drum machine, and sent their first composition, "Chime" (recorded and mastered onto a cassette tape for a total production cost of £2.50), into Jazzy M's pioneering house mix show Jackin' Zone. By 1989, "Chime" was released as a single, the first on Jazzy M's label, Oh-Zone Records. The following year, ffrr Records re-released the single and signed a contract with the duo -- christened Orbital in honor of the M25, the circular London expressway which speeded thousands of club kids to the hinterlands for raves during the blissed-out Summer of Love. "Chime" hit number 17 on the British charts in March 1990 and led to an appearance on the TV chart show Top of the Pops, where the Hartnolls stared at the audience from behind their synth banks. "Omen" barely missed the Top 40 in September, but "Satan" made number 31 early in 1991, with a sample lifted from the Butthole Surfers.
Orbital's untitled first LP, released in September 1991, consisted of all-new material -- that is, if live versions of "Chime" and the fourth single "Midnight" are considered new works. Unlike the Hartnolls' later albums, though, the debut was more of a collection of songs than a true full-length work, its cut-and-paste attitude typical of many techno LPs of the time. During 1992, Orbital continued their chart success with two EPs. The Mutations remix work -- with contributions from Meat Beat Manifesto, Moby, and Joey Beltram -- hit number 24 in February. Orbital returned Meat Beat's favor later that year by remixing "Edge of No Control," and later reworked songs by Queen Latifah, the Shamen, and EMF as well. The second EP, Radiccio, reached the Top 40 in September. It marked the Hartnolls' debut for Internal Records in England, though ffrr retained control of the duo's American contract, beginning with a U.S. release of the debut album in 1992.
The duo entered 1993 ready to free techno from its club restraints, beginning in June with a second LP. Also untitled, but nicknamed the "brown" album as an alternative to the "green" debut, it unified the disjointed feel of its predecessor and hit number 28 on the British charts. The Hartnolls continued the electronic revolution that fall during their first American tour. Phil and Paul had first played live at a pub in Kent in 1989 -- before the release of "Chime" -- and had continued to make concert performance a cornerstone of their appeal during 1991-1993, though the U.S. had remained unaware of the fact. On a tour with Moby and Aphex Twin, Orbital proved to Americans that techno shows could actually be diverting for the undrugged multitudes. With no reliance on DATs (the savior of most live techno acts), Phil and Paul allowed an element of improvisation into the previously sterile field, making their live shows actually sound live. The concerts were just as entertaining to watch as well, with the Hartnolls' constant presence behind the banks -- a pair of flashlights attached to each head, bobbing in time to the music -- underscoring the impressive light shows and visuals. The early-1994 release of the Peel Sessions EP, recorded live at the BBC's Maida Vale Studios, cemented onto wax what concertgoers already knew. That summer proved to be the pinnacle of Orbital's performance ascent; an appearance at Woodstock 2 and a headlining spot at the Glastonbury Festival (both to rave reviews) confirmed the duo's status as one of the premier live acts in the field of popular music, period.
The U.S.-only Diversions EP -- released in March 1994 as a supplement to the second LP -- selected tracks from both the Peel Sessions and the album's single, "Lush." Following in August 1994, Snivilisation became Orbital's first named LP. The duo had not left political/social comment completely behind on the previous album -- "Halcyon + On + On" was in fact a response to the drug used for seven years by the Hartnolls' own mother -- but Snivilisation pushed Orbital into the much more active world of political protest. It focused on the Criminal Justice Bill of 1994, which gave police greater legal action both to break up raves and prosecute the promoters and participants. The wide variety of styles signaled that this was Orbital's most accomplished work. Snivilisation also became the duo's biggest hit to date, reaching number four in Great Britain's album charts.
During 1995, the brothers concerned themselves with touring, headlining the Glastonbury Festival in addition to the dance extravaganza Tribal Gathering. In May 1996, Orbital set out on quite a different tour altogether; the duo played traditional, seated venues -- including the prestigious Royal Albert Hall -- and appeared on-stage earlier in the night, much like typical rock bands. Two months later, Phil and Paul released "The Box," a 28-minute single of orchestral proportions. The resulting In Sides, became one of their most acclaimed albums, with many excellent reviews in publications that had never covered electronic music. The group scored their biggest U.K. hits with a three-part single of live re-recordings of "Satan" as well as their cover of the theme to The Saint, taken from the soundtrack to the film of the same title. It was over three years before the release of Orbital's next album, 1999's Middle of Nowhere, their third consecutive U.K. Top Five-charting album. An aggressive, experimental album titled The Altogether emerged in 2001, and one year later Orbital celebrated over a decade together with the release of the retrospective Work 1989-2002. With the release of 2004's Blue Album, however, the Hartnolls announced that they were disbanding Orbital. After the split, Paul began recording music under his own name, including material for the Wipeout Pure PSP game and a solo album (The Ideal Condition), while Phil formed another duo, Long Range, with Nick Smith.
Unsurprisingly, that wasn't the end of their partnership. Five years after the Blue Album, the Hartnolls announced their live reunion for 2009's Big Chill Festival, as well as a 20th anniversary tour. The collection 20 followed in due course, as did a comeback single, 2010's "Don't Stop Me." In 2012, their eighth full-length, Wonky, appeared, with a throwback sound inspired partly by its producer, Flood, and partly by Orbital's sound back in the early '90s. The album also nodded to contemporary styles such as dubstep, and included guest vocals by Zola Jesus and Lady Leshurr. Later in the year, they provided the score for the Luis Prieto-directed film Pusher. Orbital broke up again in 2014; Phil focused on DJ'ing, while Paul released a self-titled album as 8:58, as well as a collaboration with Vince Clarke titled 2Square.
Orbital reunited once again in 2017, issuing "Kinetic 2017" (an update of an earlier single by side project Golden Girls) and playing a handful of U.K. tour dates in June and July. Another single, "Copenhagen," appeared in August, and the duo ended the year with sold-out performances in Manchester and London. Monsters Exist, Orbital's ninth non-soundtrack studio album, appeared in 2018. ~ John Bush
- Sevenoaks, Kent, England