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Optical Delusion

Album Review: Orbital – Optical Delusion
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It’s hard to believe, but Optical Delusion is the Hartnoll brothers 10th album in a career that spans more than 30 years… albeit with a few breaks to recharge their iconic torch glasses. This isn’t the 30th anniversary album planned by the techno duo (COVID-19 got in the way of that) but instead is a more collaborative affair, working with artists new and old.

The album also reflects Phil and Paul Hartnoll’s sociopolitical and geopolitical stance, especially in the choice of collaborators. It’s clear, for example, which side of the political divide they align to when the first single from the album was their work with Sleaford Mods; ‘Dirty Rat’. Meanwhile, ‘Ringa Ringa’ (with The Mediaeval Baebes) takes the old plague-inspired nursery rhyme and fast forwards it to COVID-19. The Mediaeval Baebes and Sleaford Mods aside, Anna B. Savage, Dina Ipavic, Penelope Isles, The Little Pest, and Coppé also feature… that’s more featured artists than the rest of Orbital’s previous albums combined.

Strangely, although it was ‘Dirty Rat’ that both drew me in and was the sneak preview of the album, it’s probably the weakest track, both for Orbital and Sleaford Mods. It’s a heavy-handed rant with a relatively simple backbeat from a band known for their lyrics meeting one known for their complex polyrhythms. It’s also a political polemic that sticks out a little far in an otherwise more nuanced album. It works… but there are stronger tracks and both Orbital and Sleaford Mods are better than this. That being said, it’s one heck of an angry rant, with lines like ‘the resin-coated dead egg of nowhere’ shining a light of intense frustration on those parts of the UK in deep decline.

Staying with the ‘featuring…’ tracks, one of the best is ‘Home’ featuring Anna B Savage, an English singer-songwriter who is herself worth following (think Nick Drake meets PJ Harvey). ‘Day One’ with Dina Ipavic is also good and arguably the least Orbital-like track on the album, with ‘Are You Alive? (feat. Penelope Isles)’ appealing half and half to both hyperpop and die-hard Orbital fans.

However, it’s when Orbital step back to what they know best is when this album shifts into higher gear. Crunked up instrumental tracks like ‘The New Abnormal’ and ‘Requiem for the Pre-Apocalypse’ are classic Orbital; intelligent electronica chord progressions with fast, yet ageless drum ‘n’ bass, played with enough dynamic range to sound relatively easy on the ears, yet powerful enough to be expected to be played at clubby levels, and one hell of a break too. It’s almost nostalgic for the clubbing experience of the 1990s, but still fresh in that distinctly Orbital style.

The album closes with ‘Moon Princess’ featuring legendary Japanese electronica artist Coppé, an ethereal number that could have easily been something out of Blade Runner or Akira, yet entirely classic Orbital.

The worry here is I’ve used the term ‘classic Orbital’ a lot; it could easily be an album of the Hartnoll brothers ‘phoning it in’ and making something samey bordering on the stagnant, like they forgot to reset the synth and sequencers. It’s a potential problem with electronica; there’s only so much a band can sequence before it sounds like it’s sampling its back catalogue. On the other hand, radically changing style often means disenfranchising your core. The narrow path between these two is hard to follow, but I think Orbital have achieved it. The more you listen to the album as a whole, the more you are drawn into their world, and it has changed. The collaborations might not all work, but they add an atmosphere of experimentation and exploration that perhaps began with 2018’s Monsters Exist. I didn’t find that album as explorative as Orbital Delusion, so there is more going on here.

OK, Optical Delusion is no In Sides, but my experience of that album is hugely shaped by hearing ‘P.E.T.R.O.L.’ a gazillion times while playing WipEout on the PlayStation for months on end in the mid-1990s. And, given the subject matter of this issue, Optical Delusion sounds damn fine on double xLP, too. It’s got some bangin’ tunes and will be on the platter for some time!

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