IMAGE: Cover to Orbital’s
Brown Album (1993)
Orbital 2 is a sophomore release for the ages. With expectations riding high off of their already revolutionary self-titled LP, Orbital set to work on a sequel in the winter of 1993. The fruit of their labors during these months, Orbital 2 (also known as the Brown Album), constitutes an astounding accomplishment — a timeless masterpiece still virtually unmatched within the genre. On this album, the brothers Hartnoll achieved an almost perfect balance between the ambient sound they had developed on the previous record and a new strain of hyper-futuristic trance. It cemented Orbital’s place as pioneers within trance and ambient techno and prepared the way for artists like Aphex Twin, who toured with them following the album’s release.
The songs on Orbital 2 are constructed methodically, according to a set pattern of mutation that persists more or less throughout the album. This grants the album its uncanny integrity. Each track typically proceeds in a cumulative fashion, establishing a central motif around which successive layers are then added. As new elements enter in, others recede into the background or fade entirely, only to reappear in fresh combinations later in the song. Every part simulates the whole to which it belongs, similar in this way to a fractal. Orbital weave together these constituent parts in a manner that almost approximates a lemniscate infinity — an arching ebb and flow along a laser grid whose contours have been swollen by constant digital effluxion.
“Monday” exemplifies this tendency perfectly. The track opens with its simplest component, a piano loop. A basic rhythm section is added, followed by a bass drum pulse and a phosphorescent synth staccato. After some additional sonic stratification, Orbital then alter the song’s dynamic by arraying these parts against one another. The various juxtapositions they explore in the course of the song’s unfolding offer a range of different moods. While for the most part “Monday” evokes the bright atmosphere of a machine utopia, it slides into tragic chords about midway through the song, which are then arpeggiated into the slow industrial back-and-forth of the drums. Following a second asymptotic swell, the song comes full circle, returning to the same piano loop with which it began.
Just as each song is capable of exhibiting a number of moods, so also did Orbital refuse to restrict themselves to any single mood for the Brown Album. The record spans a vast emotional field, from the ultra-ambient to the downright menacing and inhuman. Its two most famous pieces fall more along the former end of this spectrum. “Lush 3-1” begins with the dancing play of cybernetics, which is then joined by the crystalline monotone of a synth, pitch-bent along its celestial path. This progression is then looped and subsequently modified in the later sections of the song. Orbital 2’s most celebrated track, the immortal “Halcyon + On + On,” is probably the most singularly brilliant and influential piece of ambient techno after the Orb’s “A Huge, Ever-Growing Pulsating Brain that Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld,” from 1990. Like its predecessor, “Halcyon” is gorgeous — simply stunning, iconic. It stretches on (+ On + On) for light-years, into the heavens beyond.
But don’t get me wrong: Orbital 2 also brings the sinister. “Remind” washes over the listener with a cold stream of digits, an orange and swirling binary. This empties out into the huge and distant blackness of space, the lonely sobs of the first Earth satellite. Somewhere in its dumb metallic brain a circuit has shorted; it comprehends its own outward push toward the starry abyss just as it finds itself chained to its orbit by the gravity of the Earth. The next track, “Walk On…” features a looped didgeridoo. But the instrument quickly loses its earthly moorings and becomes more like the steady hum of spaceship engines — pulsing, maddening. The drumbeat on this track, campier than any of the others on the album, only amplifies this effect. To this is added a manic synth line, backed by a bass sequence that can only be described as “straight evil.”
From the first few seconds of the album, Orbital 2 promises and portends “a tear in the fabric of space and time, where time becomes a loop,” sampling the voice of Michael Dorn. It delivers. The looped aphorism in “Planet of the Shapes,” that “even a stopped clock is right twice a day,” is thus that much more true for Orbital’s Brown Album. It’s a record that has scarcely aged a day since its initial release, which you can just hit play and be instantly transported to the outer rim of space.