Orbital Biography

This UK duo did much to deliver the possibilities of improvisation to live electronic music over the course of the 90s and the early 00s. Unlike many other techno acts their stage performances did not rely on DAT or backing tapes. They also used more varied samples than is the norm, including sources as diverse as the Butthole Surfers on ‘Satan’ and Crass on ‘Choice’.

Comprising brothers Paul Hartnoll (19 May 1968, Dartford, Kent, England) and Phil Hartnoll (b. Phillip Hartnoll, 9 January 1964, Dartford, Kent, England), the Orbital name was first suggested by their friend Chris Daly of the Tufty Club. With several ‘M25’ rave parties happening so close to their homes in Dunton Green, they named themselves after the London’s ‘orbital’ motorway, which encircles the capital and became known as the ‘Magic Roundabout’ to ravers at the time. Before the band began its active life in 1987, Paul had played with an outfit by the name of Noddy And The Satellites as well as doing labouring odd jobs, while his brother had been a bricklayer and barman.

Orbital made their live debut in the summer of 1989 at the Grasshopper, Westerham, Kent, joining the ffrr Records imprint shortly afterwards. They opened their account for the label with the UK Top 20 single ‘Chime’ in March 1990 (the track had already been released the previous December in a limited pressing on the Oh Zone imprint), setting a pattern for a sequence of dramatic, one-word titles (‘Omen’, ‘Satan’, ‘Mutations’, ‘Radiccio’, ‘Halcyon’). Their remixing chores included work on releases by artists as diverse as the Shamen, Queen Latifah, Meat Beat Manifesto and EMF. Their first two albums, both untitled, were subsequently referred to as the ‘Green Album’ and the ‘Brown Album’. Both showcased the duo’s ability to sustain a musical dynamic over a full-length album, a rare ability within their field, which saw them bracketed alongside artists such as Underworld and the Orb.

In June 1994, Orbital appeared as headliners at the Glastonbury Festival and contributed to the Shopping soundtrack. The appearance at Glastonbury was a significant success, proving to sceptics that dance music could be exciting to watch live. An enduring image was that of the Hartnolls, shrouded in darkness, with only the twin torches attached to their temples like car headlights piercing the gloom. The same year they also released Snivilisation, a largely instrumental political concept album that was successful on both a musical and thematic level and broke into the UK Top 5. Meanwhile, their live work earned them an award for Best Live Show at the New Musical Express’ BRAT Awards as they made a triumphant return to Glastonbury in 1995. In the same year, they completed a remix of Madonna’s ‘Bedtime Stories’ and donated the track ‘Adnan’ to the Help album project for the War Child charity to aid Bosnian refugees.

If previous albums had always hinted at a cinematic bent, 1996’s ‘The Box’ was a fully-fledged film soundtrack - comprising four distinct movements with vocal versions by lyricist Grant Fulton and Alison Goldfrapp (later to record as Goldfrapp). The film itself was Orbital’s own exploration of science-fiction adventurism, ironically filmed in the highly terrestrial environs of Milton Keynes. It was followed by the release of Orbital’s fourth studio album. The exquisitely dense rhythms on the six tracks that comprised In Sides emphasized the duo’s critically acclaimed accommodation of the experimental with the accessible. It included tracks such as ‘The Girl With The Sun In Her Head’, recorded using solar power as a reaffirmation of their environmental standing.

Having first experimented with the use of film soundtracks on Snivilisation, the Hartnolls reworked the theme of The Saint for the movie remake of the cult 60s television programme. Despite starring Val Kilmer, the movie was not a great critical or commercial success but the single gave Orbital a UK number 3 hit in 1997. They also appeared at the UK festivals Tribal Gathering, Phoenix and in the USA on the Lollapalooza tour. After completing further soundtrack work, the Hartnolls released a new studio album in April 1999. The Middle Of Nowhere marked a return to a more ‘danceable’ sound and was warmly received by both dance and rock writers. The duo’s sixth studio set, The Altogether (2001), drew on a diverse range of influences from the dance and pop worlds (including guest vocals from their brother-in-law David Gray), but failed to match the majestic coherence of their best work.

After completing work on the soundtrack to Octane, the Hartnolls announced the next Orbital album would be their final recording. The stately Blue Album duly arrived in summer 2004 and was supported by the duo’s final live shows. Phil Hartnoll went on to record with Nick Smith under the Long Range moniker while his brother released a solo album in 2007.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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