Thursday, November 6, 2014

Orbital: The Brown Album (Orbital 2)

Following about a year-and-a-half after their debut record, Phil and Paul Hartnoll took the momentum of their early work and applied a more developed, varied and complex palette of electronic sounds, samples, beats and other audio treasures to create the amazing 1993 release, generally known as the Brown Album, but titled Orbital 2 in the U.S.

Decidedly experimental sensibilities abound on this record, starting with the looped sample "Time Becomes" and the cool scratchy vinyl intonation of "Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day" that opens the expansive "Planet of the Shapes", which includes a tambura-like drone along other notable elements.

A definite favorite is "Lush 3-1" and its companion "Lush 3-2" that has a catchy and yet somewhat mournful melodic sensibility along with its varied percussive touches and upbeat rhythmic mix. On "3-2", an echoey female vocal provides a notable touch.

"Impact (The Earth is Burning)" is another lengthy (the first three tracks average about ten minutes) excursion into a highly-developed sonic package and has another favorite melodic theme on keyboards intertwined with what almost sounds like electronically-processed bagpipes.  There is also a driving bassline that blends flawlessly with the generated percussion and catchy and simple keyboard touches, as well.  A strange breathy vocal that utters something that may be wordless is also a recognizable part of the piece.  About 7 1/2 minutes in, a stuttering vocal sample puts the title in context as the man talks about "a cry for survival . . . for mankind and for us" indicating that there was an environmentalist message to the tune (something Orbital occasionally highlighted in its career, including on its mesmerizing "In Sides" album).

"Remind" has an acid-house feel to it after the trippy opening section and is a highly-hypnotic song as it develops through its eight-minute length, offering all manner of interesting sounds along with the driving percussion and rhythms.

The opening to "Walk Now . . ." has an eerie, ominous loop of sounds before the driving beats ensue and featuring something of an echoed two-note repetition that is another Orbital hallmark.  There are breaks using more interesting percussion and keyboard effects before the rhythms return to propel the piece along.  About three and a half minutes in a propulsive bassline enters to link with the percussion.

"Monday" has another memorable opening sample, sounding like something taken from a 60s soul record and a blend of keyboard sounds that give way to pure percussion and bass for a period before the sample returns.  The track changes subtly in its mix of elements, introducing new sounds periodically, such as a horn-like tone at 4:30 or so and which continues until the end completes a cycle with that opening sample.

One of Orbital's greatest songs is the majestic "Halcyon + On + On" which opens with a dreamy and soothing melange of warm electronic sound and piano-like tones.  A gorgeous, crystalline female voice wordlessly sings above another highly memorable bassline and guitar-like sounds and then the voice is joined by another female vocal for a short period before the bassline and percussion take over for a time.  Then the intertwined voices return and are manipulated with echo and other effects throughout the piece to create interesting variations.

Finally, these beautiful voices take the piece out and lead to "Input Out," another sampling of a voice uttering the words "input translation," while the sample is manipulated in a way somewhat reminiscent of the early experiments of Steve Reich from the mid-1960s, for those familiar with his work.

The Brown Album was a real advance in terms of structure, more varied uses of electronic and digital elements and in broadening the range of sound further from what was presented on The Green Album.  This process of growth set Orbital apart from just about any electronic act of the era, excepting perhaps stalwarts like Richard H. Kirk, The Orb and a very few others.

Subsequent albums chronicled this growth in exciting and innovative ways, including Snivilization, In Sides, The Altogether, and Middle of Nowhere.  Notably, Orbital was a rarity in the electronic scene, in that their live performances were well-received and put the band on a platform more like a rock act because of their special sonic qualities and presentation.

In many ways, The Brown Album was a marked step of growth and evolution for a band emerging from the heady days of the late 80s and early 90s heyday of electronica and creating a body of work built for the long haul--something few of Orbital's peers could claim.

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