I was hoping to use the upcoming Tangerine Dream show to draw parallels between the "space rock" music of the late 1960s and early 1970s -- the first haul of electronic music made when synthesizers were invented -- and Orbital, perhaps one of the best techno bands operating today. Tangerine Dream, however, isn't planning to travel down South Florida way to edumacate young'uns on the origins of trance after all. Someone went and blew up the World Trade Center, and now the Dream ain't comin'. Orbital, though, will be here as planned, so I'm gonna proceed with my lesson plan.
The comprehensive Website allmusic.com lists more than 50 Tangerine Dream albums emerging since its 1970 debut, Electronic Meditation. These German pioneers -- who were on the scene when New-Age and electronic music were first minted -- and their contemporaries, such as Kraftwerk, helped bridge the temporal expanse between early 20th-century Constructivist-Futurists and the electro-pop that took root in the 1980s.
Lesser-known electro-Teutonic bands like La Dusseldorf and Neu! are also getting another look-see with recent reissues. The first three Neu! albums (originally released in the early 1970s) all showcase the chugga-chugga guitar and motorik drumming that have been retained by Stereolab; needless to say, Neu! makes excellent driving music.
Neu!'s counterparts in Can, with a back catalog stretching all the way to 1969, are also indispensable for those seeking metronomic drumming, simplistically circular bass patterns, words indistinguishable from noises, exceptionally thin guitar, and melodies flowing Möbiuslike, with no definitive beginning or end.
Orbital is a naturally occurring extension of those pioneers, specializing in a smooth, ultramelodic sequencer-'n'-synth tapestry that Phil and Paul Hartnoll have been refining since they founded the group in 1989.
Like techno torchbearers, the brothers Hartnoll help advance the man-machine fusion and the eventual decay and chaos it brings, just like the original two-man electronic duo, Suicide. Conspiracy theorists may also want to draw connections between Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and DAF (Deutsche Amerikanische Freundschaft), who started the two-guys-behind-a-bank-of-equipment trend at the end of the 1970s in England and Germany respectively. The Chemical Brothers and the Crystal Method work off this same template today.
Two self-titled albums introduced the world to Orbital in 1992 and 1993, the same time I bought an EP called Halcyon, named after a drug to which the Hartnolls' mum was addicted for years. That record's high point was "Chime," a blissfully simple but utterly majestic monument to melody. In 1994 came Snivilisation, an impenetrable concept album that still summoned us to the dance floor with the gate-crashing crush of "Forever."
Though some naysayers call it a misstep, 1996's In Sides with its extended centerpiece, "The Box," was a suboceanic documentary. (Although, with fake harpsichords and other questionable ventures into Vollenweiderisms, it was certainly a departure.) Orbital pulled its rig up alongside the prog-rock of the 1970s (which achieved notoriety when it built to an unlistenable pitch with the symphonic kitsch of Rick Wakeman), and "The Girl with the Sun in Her Head," an enchanting, trippy mood-lifter, is still a tad on the pretentious side.
In 1999 Middle of Nowhere offered the same lush chords and resounding bass chasms along with cataclysmic, War of the Worlds cadences (thanks to the sampling of heavy-metal tracks). The new twin-disc Orbital album, The Altogether, is also full of raw moments. ("Tootled" is a simultaneous tribute to and steal from Tool, and "Oi!" samples dead punk legend Ian Dury.) Most memorable is "Doctor?" -- an overhaul of the Dr. Who theme. As British nouveau-folkie David Gray is Phil's brother-in-law, he was regrettably allowed to sing on the track "Illuminate," with predictably horrid results.
Disc Two has its share of novelty (bagpipes?) but becomes invasively enjoyable with the unforgettably jamming "Old Style," which thank goodness has nothing in common with the hideous beer on which I grew up (you know, the stuff G. Heilemann brewed up there in the Land of Sky Blue Waters).
Like anyone with a modicum of sense, I try to stay far away from the club scene of Miami Beach, but an Orbital show is too much to resist. Billboard Live!, the new beachfront venue that's hosting the concert, will stand proud among its South Beach peers, with obligatory dual dance floors, higher-than-thou fidelity sound, a trillion monitors and laser lights, a sweet outdoor terrace, and the space to pack a thousand bobbing heads.
Oh. It's worth noting that Orbital's music relies on a compositional sleight of hand called anapest, an unnatural halt in the meter at the end of each measure. Several behavioral kinesiologists have linked anapest to ADD and hyperactivity in children. Who knows what it does to us grownups? Bach and other classicists regularly used anapest as a way of making religious hymns that much more stirring. Whatever Orbital has been secretly afflicting my synapses with, it's working.
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