Things were simpler in the 1990s. Instead of mobile phones, we had tin cans on strings. Instead of cars, we just had those railroad carts with big levers like what you get in cartoons. There was just one TV channel, and all that showed was a permanent loop of Ginger Spice wearing different Union Jack dresses. Ah, the olden days. Orbital’s anniversary collection ‘30 Something’ takes us back to that time, with half of its track-list dedicated to their first two ‘green’ and ‘brown’ albums. Let’s pop on some rose-tinted – well, some green and brown-tinted – spectacles and investigate.
The ‘30 Something Years Later’ mixes are live favourites recognisable anyone who regularly hugs the front rail at Orbital gigs. Their bang-on classics ‘Halcyon’ and ‘Belfast’ are botoxed with chunky euphoric chords that blend surprisingly well with the smoky originals. ‘Satan’ sounds positively furious. ‘Chime’ and ‘The Box’ undergo less radical changes, although the latter will always have a new context now it’s been used in Mike Myers comedy ‘The Pentaverate’. Steven Hawking does his inspirational guest ‘rap’ on ‘Where’s It Going’, which is all kinds of ace. What’s missing is the cheeky Belinda Carlisle and Bon Jovi mash-up of ‘Halcyon’, but I guess it wasn’t worth paying the lawyers for that.
The bulk of the album is given over to guest remixers. Jon Hopkins’ strung-out take on ‘Halcyon On & On’ is one of the few tracks to have reduced me to tears on a dancefloor. Piano as delicate as an angel’s nose hairs lands gracefully on suspended ambience before being hoovered up by Hopkins’ trademark reimagining of Perfecto-style trance house. Headphones advised. Logic1000 does a decent job with the same track as she lets a snappy house rhythm chug on without being too in thrall to its source.
‘Impact’ enjoys a typically light touch from Jon Tejada, turning its “cry for survival” into something a little less life-or-death over eight good-natured minutes. The version by FUSE London veteran Rich NxT is also melodic, playing around with acid themes alongside a yo-yo bassline. Cheeky.
The Dusky Remix of ‘Are We Here’ sees Goldfrapp’s vocals swirling over exquisitely airy electro, in contrast to Shanti Celeste’s more workaday remix. The Floex version of ‘The Girl With The Sun In Her Head’ suffers in comparison to the original, its floaty half-steps nothing compared to the emotional precision of the ‘In Sides’ version. Lone’s remix of the same track is way more successful. It flits loosely from LTJ Bukem skittishness to fully Balearic 808 State vibes. Its super chilled final two minutes is a highlight: a sunset captured on vinyl.
After the Orbital boys remixed Joris Voorn’s ‘Never’ single, Voorn returns the favour with a new take on ‘The Box’. His airy and very 1990s progressive house remix is pretty solid, enlivened by some welcome sinister box creaks.
Their 1991 stormer ‘Belfast’ is the most celebrated on this album. Forever raver ANNA delivers two versions. The first is a warehouse banger, concrete crumbling from the walls from the weight of its bass drum. It’s like coming round from a mushroom trip then landing, Quantum Leap-style, into the middle of ‘Born Slippy’. Her second version is all ambience, closing this collection with washes of elegance. Its ‘O Euchari’ vocal sample melts into clouds of warmth; everything ‘Belfast’ is meant to be. In contrast, the version by Finnish DJ Yotto takes a broad-shouldered approach with power-pop techno, loading the energy into pneumatic snares and with possibly the most satisfying build-and-release on the album.
And then we have David Holmes’s version of ‘Belfast’. This is significant. Holmes was instrumental in the song’s development over 30 years ago, its title being a nod to an early Orbital show put on by Holmes at Belfast’s Art College. His remix is a straight-laced house stomper, nothing crayoned particularly outside of the lines, but from start to finish it has all the heft of one of electronic music’s greatest producers.
Finally there are the new tracks. ‘Acid Horse’ is a bit daft, taking their ABC sample from ‘Omen’ (“I’ve seen the future!”) and throwing it into a very 1989 whirlwind of slamming drums and parping synths. ‘Smiley’ is superb, a cheery rave track using samples of a World In Action episode about acid house alongside ancient audio footage of Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll explaining how he was beaten up by police at a house party. Charming.
After Orbital’s headline-grabbing appearance at Glastonbury in 1994, I seem to remember the NME hailing them as ‘best rock band of all time’, replacing (…checks notes…) U2. The 1990s was a simpler time, but perhaps a more binary and stupid time. By bringing along some phenomenal producers (hat doff, Lone) on this archive dive, this collection leans on Orbital’s strengths without sounding too stuck in the past.
Words by Fat Roland, who writes about electronic music at fatroland.co.uk.