It was London's turn to bid farewell to the brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll, as Orbital began their valedictory tour before heading off to Glastonbury and then on to Japan. Over the past decade, Orbital have earned their audiences' affection, as their music won techno a previously unknown respect from the public. Inspired by Kraftwerk, they reminded us that electronic music could provide cohesive albums. At the same time, Orbital demonstrated how to take such music on the road, earning admiration from all corners by playing completely live rather than relying on backing tracks. Their Glastonbury headline sets in 1994 and 1995 are still regarded as festival highlights.
This was a well-to-do crowd for a dance gig, with smartly dressed veterans mixing with younger ravers. Despite the rival attraction of a late-finishing England football match, they arrived in time (just) to see the duo emerge, half an hour later than scheduled, with a simple: "Thank you! Thank you!" All other words were lost in a sound system geared toward throwing giant bass pulses across the venue. Not that anyone minded: they were happy to see those trademark head-mounted lights that became icons of rave culture.
Orbital embarked on a shamelessly crowd-pleasing set based mainly on their earlier albums, veering between the hazy warmth of blissful anthems and menacing techno stompers. Perhaps in the circumstances (England, of course, had lost), they could have opened with something that better fitted the mood: either the moody spy-flick homage "The Box", with its Third Man-style dulcimer, or the headbanging "Satan". When it came, though, they did get that track right as, to ironic cheers, images of Tony Blair and George Bush flashed up on the screens that stretched from floor to ceiling behind them.
Because of the late start, Orbital played a truncated set, an hour and a half passing far too quickly. Their new CD, Blue Album, was given short shrift, with only one track from it given an airing, the epic "One Perfect Surprise", based on a sighing female vocal that recreated, if not matched, the sunrise-in-a-field feeling evoked by Orbital's classic "Belfast". It was an admission that Orbital had run out of steam. They claim to have spent too long together in confined spaces, but you have to wonder if the claustrophobia is down to only physical space. Recent albums have not cut anyone's mustard. The only other track to make tonight's set from this side of the millennium was the brothers' cover of the Doctor Who theme.
From the outset, this duo's career has been unorthodox, and they have successfully avoided the trappings of DJ superstardom, so it was fitting that, instead of falling out Gallagher-style, the Hartnolls should simply announce the cessation of their joint career. Orbital's music has always reflected movements in the post-acid-house dance music scene, though only the genres with a lineage going back to the illegal parties around the M25 reflected in the group's name. While dance music is certainly not dead, the acid-house generation has finally bowed out gracefully.
Orbital play T in the Park, Balado, Scotland, on 11 July
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