Review: Orbital – Optical Delusion

Artwork for Orbital's 2023 album Optical Delusion

Orbital evoke the spirit of techno’s anti-establishment origins.

It exists only on grainy video transfers now, but there was a time when techno was a way of life as much as hearing beats and bleeps, part of the 20th century’s counterculture which the authorities ultimately sought to destroy.

Veterans of a scene which grew out of acid house but was propagated by illegal raves and adopted by the post-hippie and punk communities, Orbital were part of the noise fueling a movement which was suffocated by the 1994 Criminal Justice Act.

Since then using electronic music as a medium for protest has largely stopped, but the resurgence of law-breaking parties during lockdown gave some fresh stimulus to the veteran Hartnoll brothers’ process.

Optical Delusion is Orbital’s tenth album, its title a misquote of Albert Einstein during which he was trying to deconstruct an individual’s experience as somehow isolated from the rest of humanity’s. Heavy stuff perhaps, but these are heavy times.

Created in the weird intra-brutalist period the duo has described as, ‘during lockdown but fully recorded in the uncertain After Times’, what emerges is an attempt not to map the chaos, but to steer it through the prism of a thousand fictional sci-fi apocalypses imagined when there were only three TV channels.

Not that there isn’t a slap round the face for those living in the political fantasy world of Brexit and its evil, corrosive half-life. For them, Dirty Rat has Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson spitting his familiar un-bars over dirty bass, their cognitive dissonance exposed by, ‘blaming everyone in hospital/blaming everyone at the bottom of the English Channel’.

It’s a track that draws a direct line back between the rave movement’s founders, and punk, a reminder that both used cheap equipment, independent labels and unlicensed spaces to successfully connect with bored and frustrated teenagers, just fifteen years apart.

Blanking things is a gift bestowed on us by modern times, history re-written at the click of an algorithm, so Ringa Ringa (The Old Pandemic Folk Song), with its Black Death-era refrain chanted by The Mediaeval Baebes, is a timely reminder of the tragedy of our recent past.

Lighter than this sounds, the beeping arpeggios are recognisably Orbital’s work and, despite the ghostly ideals, it’s ready to be dancefloor-enjoyed using the public freedoms we once took for granted.

Other collaborators help frame what is a sonic vision that could’ve without thought become maudlin. The seemingly ubiquitous Anna B. Savage guests on Home, her operatic pitch interweaved seamlessly as it pleads for a chance to leave an inhospitable megacity, whilst studio mates Penelope Isles give Are You Alive a softer, less mechanical pitch.

Not done, the anonymous Little Pest appears in heavily disguised mode on You Are the Frequency and What A Surprise, the latter a bassy, industrial shot of vintage robotica.

In many ways this is Orbital’s most inventive outing in decades, but there’s still a thread which veteran fans can follow backwards, most obviously on The New Abnormal, where the retro-current beats are distant relations of Chime or Belfast.

Yesterday though is still just that, and although Requiem For The Pre Apocalypse philosophically looks at the way things were before paranoia became everyone’s default setting, its acid splodges, amen break and heavenly sounding melodies are blurred, line broken, messed up sounds of the never certain again now.

We’re a long way from holding hands watching the sun come up in a field somewhere, but a lot closer to feeling authority’s boot on our throat.

Optical Delusion is both Orbital’s warning and manifesto. Have the last dance on them.

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