Thursday, 19 January 2012

Review: Orbital - Middle Of Nowhere

I fucking love this album. I fucking love Orbital, who made at least three albums that would probably all make it into an all-time Top 10 list if I didn't feel so guilty and let some other guys into the limelight. The Brown Album speaks for itself, and Snivilisation is another album I love to death, but in a violation of conventional wisdom I've always preferred Middle Of Nowhere to In Sides. In Sides is often seen as the best of Orbital's albums: it's the most ambient, the most cinematic, it has the longest tracks and it coincided with their peak of mid-90s "electronica" popularity. Middle Of Nowhere took three years to follow it, during which time the Hartnoll brothers suffered from terrible writer's block. Style actually resulted from Paul going into the studio with a kid's stylophone and simply seeing what sounds he could get from the toy, making percussion sounds from the "click" when he unplugged it, as a way of battling through the band's lack of ideas. In the end, the album was seen as a step backwards because it was a return to upbeat, danceable material after the sombre, politically-minded introspection of In Sides, and consequently disappointed many a critic. Most people heard the thumping breakbeats and punchy keyboard riffs and dismissed this as a more straight-up, cheerful party-time record.

But you know what? They were wrong. Middle Of Nowhere is actually one of the darkest Orbital records, and a supremely underrated album. There's a recurring theme of negativity and nothingness on almost every track - just look at the repeated usage and punning of the words "No" and "Nothing" in the lyrics and track titles. "Why can't anyone hear me?" cries a distorted vocal on Spare Parts Express, "No good, nothing changes. Nothing" mourns a malfunctioning robot sentience on I Don't Know You People, while on the bleakly beautiful Otono (Autumn), vocalist Pooka breathes "I want nothing at all". Frankly, I do not know how anyone who has actually paid attention to this album can call it happy or trivial, and yet people seem to take one listen to it, hear the crunching robot-funk of Nothing Left and the pseudo-big beat madness of ...You People and draw their conclusions from there.

I also do not understand how people have said this was nothing new from Orbital, again a conclusion that seems entirely drawn from the presence of some loud bass thumps. If you think this album sounds anything like The Brown Album you are an absolute fucking idiot. The glorious opener Way Out -> (Orbital certainly knew how to open a fuckin' album) features sampled operatic vocals and live trumpets that sound almost spaghetti western, a vibe that had never been done on an Orbital track before. It leads seamlessly into the sprawling Spare Parts Express, another exercise in writer's block where the duo threw in everything they had lying in the studio into one ever-changing electronic journey that morphs multiple times before reprising gloriously at the end. I have all of Orbital's albums and I've listened to them all countless times and they had NEVER fucking done this before that track. There are more vocals here than on any previous Orbital album, used in different kinds of tracks to what we'd heard before.

But anyway. I shouldn't have to answer decade old complaints from idiot critics on behalf of the band. Yeah, this is one of the most danceable Orbital albums. Nothing Left is the one Orbital track I've managed to seamlessly slot into a DJ set, while many a big beat DJ got mileage out of You People. The acid vortex headfuck halfway through Nothing Left 2 does bring back memories of Impact (The Earth Is Burning). But if this is a dance record, it's still a supremely clever and off the wall one. I actually think the writer's block they battled through and the subsequent unusual creative strategies probably resulted in the most unique Orbital album, which is why this one is still seen in some respects as the odd one out in their discography, the most neglected chapter in the narrative. Green is basically a techno album, and not a particularly good one, while Brown is a superb widescreen expansion of UK rave music at the time. Snivilisation and In Sides are undeniably out-there, but now I'm older, wiser and better-listened I can hear a huge amount of Kraftwerk in those records. But Middle Of Nowhere? It's sort of a collision of everything Orbital had previously done, but with more of the vocal collabs and inventive sampling that defined their post-millenial output, and some thumping beats that nobody had expected to hear from them again.

In retrospect, this was probably the beginning of the end for Orbital, not because it's in any way a bad album but because they never really recovered from the struggle of making it. In many ways this album is a triumph of two musicians forcing themselves to work through crippling writer's block, but it was clear they were running out of new ideas, that the spontaneous spark of their earlier work was gone and they weren't cut out for the hard graft or complacent repetition of the late-career period. The Altogether was a disaster, and I basically believe that's because they were forcing themselves to make music. Blue was a good swan-song, but it was deliberately devoid of new ideas, and I personally don't like any of their post-reformation material.

Anyway, I love this album to bits. I've heard it countless times since I first bought it in a HMV in Middlesbrough when I was 17 and going to an open day for the University Of Teeside. I remember it was a particular favourite to play when I'd stayed up all night to correct a broken sleeping pattern. I would take the dog for a walk at 6am in a delirious sleep-deprived world of weak winter sun, and the opening sweep of Way Out ->; was intoxicating, dizzying, the beginning of a wonderful musical journey. Now it's 5.35am, I've come back drunk from a shit abortive night out I didn't want to go on and I'm ready to sleep, and I had no plans to play the full thing but I got so sucked in I've listened to it start to finish and I love it as much as I ever did as a sore-eyed teenager. The only problem is that the player has gone straight through into the beginning of Snivilisation, and I'm worried I'll still be laid here awake listening in another hour. Good lord, I fucking love Orbital.

Genre: ERROR.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 10/10


  1. Fabulous review. This was the last time they were truly great, no doubt about that.

  2. Never been an Orbital fan but I bought it on cassette when it was released because I loved "Style" (and its video). Before that, I think I'd only heard Are We Here? on some electronic music programme on MTV. The Middle Of Nowhere was totally different from what I expected, but I loved it back then, mostly for its darkness (which I also just can't understand how people didn't hear). A couple of weeks ago I bought it again, on CD this time in a secondhand shop - and it still sounds great. Not really fitting into any genre, the tracks haven't aged at all, can still feel the album's darkness, cohesion and also some raw, punkish attitude. Great record, great review!