(Photo by Kenny McCracken 2018)
Music, and pop music in particular, is one of the few professions that tends to not receive the same level of professional respect for practitioners who have been honing their craft for long periods of time. For instance, through the lens of pop culture, a group that has been at their profession for almost 3 decades, and who still perform, could probably be classified as a “nostalgia act,” regardless of how good their current body of work is. It’s through this lens that I’m trying to reconcile my own personal past with the 2018 experience of seeing Orbital live for the first time.
Now, I am a card-carrying member of Generation X. I discovered acid house in the early 90’s and from there immersed myself in underground electronic music culture. It’s not surprising that Orbital has played a central role in my early experience with “intelligent“ dance music. Among their peers as pioneers in the somewhat navel-gazing world of IDM, Orbital stood out as a group that could mine this sonic territory of complexity, without ever getting so wonky that you couldn’t actually dance to their music. This puts them in the rarefied space of artists who could simultaneously present music that was complex and engaging, while still having the ability to attract large crowds at music festivals. Their ability to ride this line made them a notable exception in a sub-genre that is notorious for its snobbery, elitism, and overall “misunderstood boy genius club“ perspective on music.
Just look at how the Pixies, and many other seminal 90s bands, have been trotted out during festival season to earn a few extra bucks for the nostalgia of their back catalog.
Compared other acts who are from this era who continue to release music and perform (The Orb, The Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin, etc.), Orbital has very few recent performances to hold up as a point of reference. While a number of the acts from the same era are still going, to a large degree they are treated as “throwback” acts. Just look at how the Pixies, and many other seminal 90s bands, have been trotted out during festival season to earn a few extra bucks for the nostalgia of their back catalog. There’s a lot of love and reverence for the music, but it hardly seems relevant today. With this context in mind, I was curious when I found out the the Brothers Hartnoll were going back on the road.
When it was announced that Orbital would be playing shows in the U.S. to support their new record, “Monsters Exist,” I was surprised. They rarely play the U.S., and it’s been over 6 years since they’ve released any new music, so this seemed like a rare opportunity to seen an act that that Q Magazine once called one of the “Top 50 bands to see before you die.” Going into the show, my expectations were fairly low. Not that I didn’t think they would put on a good show, but the reality is that a lot of the acts from this time simply don’t hold the same kind of energetic performances that they did when they first hit the scene. I’m very happy to report that this was far from the case with Orbital.
From the kick-off of the show, it was obvious that this was going to be a pure sensory onslaught, in the best possible way. The lighting and video set-up for Orbital’s live performance seems custom made for a festival-size stage, and the theater where they were performing is design to hold maybe 2500 people. This fact, combined with the amazing sound system, made for one of the most intriguing electronic music performances I’ve seen in years
The opening opening of the show were 3 tracks from the band’s latest record, “Intro (Professor Brian Cox),” “Monsters Exist,” the title track from their latest release, and “There Will Come a Time,” all song off their new record which was released this year. This really set the tone for the evening, which found the band playing at least 6 tracks off their new record (in additional to the tracks listed above), including “Hoo Hoo Ha Ha,” “P.H.U.K.,” “Tiny Foldable Cities,” and “The End Is Nigh.”
…the prospect of sitting through that many tracks of new material at a live show is right up there with clawing one’s eyes out…
Now, with most bands who’ve been at this as long as they have, the prospect of sitting through that many tracks of new material at a live show is right up there with clawing one’s eyes out, but that was not the case in this situation. In fact, Orbital’s new record is absolutely fantastic, and will most definitely be on my Top 10 albums of 2018! Now, how this translates into a live show with so many classics is something to unpack.
When your back-catalog includes rave anthems like “Belfast,” “Halcyon” and “Satan,” the prospect of sequencing new material, of threading new material into this almost sacred body of work, must be daunting. But, as it turns out, it was almost perfect. In an almost DJ-like set, they seamlessly mixed from 30-year old track, into new material, with the grace and ease of the most seasoned selector. Now, take this amazing group of tunes, and overlay one of the most amazing video and light shows you can imagine, and you can see how this gig might easily be one of the best live shows of the year. And for me, hands-down, it was.
Overheard by a young lady in the audience during their performance of “Belfast,” “Tonight I felt loved by God at an Orbital show in downtown Los Angeles.” I think that sums it up for me too.
Here is the entire night’s playlist:
- Intro (Professor Brian Cox)
- Monsters Exist
- There Will Come a Time (Orbital Dance Mix)
- Impact (The Earth Is Burning)
- Tiny Foldable Cities
- Hoo Hoo Ha Ha
- Halcyon + On + On / Heaven Is a Place on Earth (Belinda Carlisle cover)
- Vision OnE
- Where Is It Going?
- The End Is Nigh
- Doctor? (Ron Grainer cover)
- Lush 3