“Polyrhythms, unusual sounds from didgeridoos to sitars, bizarre song structures, people singing backwards… It’s prog with loops and breakbeats”: Orbital’s Orbital 2 (The Brown Album)

Orbital - Orbital 2 (The Brown Album)
(Image credit: FFRR)

It’s a record that features a 22-minute, 52-second multisectioned anthem praised for its “epic nature and cathartic climax” – exactly the words Wikipedia uses to describe Supper’s Ready by Genesis, just two seconds longer.

The album is full of polyrhythms, packed with unusual sounds from didgeridoos to sitars, bizarre song structures, even people singing backwards. It was one of the most influential albums of its decade. And lots of people took drugs and sat around in fields listening to brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll performing it. 1971? 1974? Nope… 1993.

Naming themselves Orbital after the M25, the arterial route that formed a backbone for most of the raves of the late 80s, the Hartnoll brothers emerged as left-field dance music pioneers from the ashes of acid house.

By the time they came to record their second long player, called Orbital II but known universally as The Brown Album, they had discovered a lush, atmospheric and orchestral sound.

Kicking off with a sample from Star Trek that diverges across the stereo field at different speeds before reuniting two minutes later we are plunged into Planet Of The Shapes, where bassline, breaks, orchestral stabs and sitar drones are blended in landscapes of cross rhythms. Where the beats drop, this is pure Gong.

Lush 3-1 sets up a complex theme (complete with flute lead!) which is then explored in the 23-minute anthem that unfolds seamlessly through Lush 3-2, Impact (The Earth Is Burning) and Remind.

At the heart of the album in every sense, these three tracks really have more in common with Genesis’ Duke’s Travels/Duke’s End rather than Supper’s Ready. It became the core of the band’s famous live sets for many years and thus provides another tick: the Orbital live shows are often likened to the progathons of the 70s.

Walk Now... and Monday mix floor-friendly breakbeats with a melodic complexity that has as much in common with the Yes cannon as the squeals of acid house.

Acts like Orbital and 808 State took prog and classical sensibilities, welded them together with Kraftwerk’s sounds, and in doing so formed the roots of all modern melodic dance music. It’s prog with loops and breakbeats.