One fine morning you get up, you go to the office, you open your email and you find a link in your GChat from your boss that takes you to an album. He tells you that it’s one of your priority jobs. You enter and find that it’s “Wonky”, Orbital’s first album in eight years, and your heart gives a flutter. Yes, a bigger one than when they announced them for Sónar 2009. And then you watch the download bar move sloooowly onwards (it’s really downloaded in two minutes, but the wait seems eternal), while a thousand things start to pass through your head. Let’s see: the Hartnoll brothers went their separate ways in 2004, after releasing the blue album and “The Altogether”, by far the worst thing that they had ever done. For a few years, Phil pestered us with his sessions and destroyed the occasional refined eardrum with that project that nobody remembers alongside Nick Smith, Long Range. Paul’s contribution to the music world in the last decade has been somewhat more civilised, with two 12”s worth their weight in gold for Kids (Robert Smith sang on one of them). Then they announced their return to the ring to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of that timeless anthem that is “Chime”. The new generations throbbed, while others said that it was a shadow of what they had been in the past. In 2010, when we had all been able to see them live, they put out a double single, “Don’t Stop Me / The Gun Is Good”, which left bittersweet feelings. Finally, in October of 2011 came the big news: there would be a new LP in April. Until today, what has been heard - that is to say “Never”, “New France” and “Straight Sun”- were promising. But after such a long fallow spell, would they be up to it? Could they manage another “Brown Album”?
The download is finally finished. Once it’s entered your player, you turn up the speakers as high as they’ll go and your experience with “Wonky” begins. The start-up, “One Big Moment”, is magnificent, with a series of vocal samples from unknown sources that help create atmosphere and increase the hype. The brothers split the game between one of those beautiful melodies that only they know how to manufacture, alongside broken rhythms and interferences. It isn’t a big moment (as the title itself suggests) because it reminds one of the best Orbital, but rather because you are listening to a new album of theirs that, at least so far, lives up to your expectations. This is accentuated in the light touches of the following cut, “Straight Sun”. Like on “In Sides” it evokes the golden era of cyberdelics, possessing a very interesting development (of the pianos at the beginning to the same 4x4 as always) and a greater complexity than its predecessor and successor, “Never”. The latter was the first thing that we heard of the return of the brothers from Sevenoaks, and it still shines like it did on the first day. It’s the song that people who turn the repeat mode on when they listen to cuts like “Belfast” and “Halcyon + On + On” will want to hear, with tears in their eyes. The beat takes more than two minutes to come in and before that, you are awash in a sea of pads and female vocals. What heavenly glory!
“New France” ends this long section of advances. After listening to it several times, it seems to be the best of the lot, but at the same time the riskiest. The Hartnolls have never got carried away when it comes to calling on guest artists, at least not to the extent that The Chemical Brothers have. When Alison Goldfrapp sang in “Sad But True” and “Are We Here?” on “Snivilisation” she was a nobody, but Zola Jesus is a somebody at this stage in the game. When you find out that a personality and a voice as strong as Danilova’s is going to share centre stage with Orbital, it kind of gives you the jitters. There was a certain fear that the Goth diva would take over the song, but nothing could have been further from the truth. The best of the two talents comes together to make an epic song, one that can blow up any party – just like “Intro”, her collaboration with M83.
The tension drops with “Distractions”, but not the quality. Here we are back again with broken rhythms, dreamy melodies, and those Orbital-sounding voices. All of this gives the cut an almost ecclesiastical touch until the middle of the song, when the synthetic textures get much heavier and lead to a more relaxed ending. The song ends up blending into “Stringy Acid”, again, another very suitable title. The song is exactly what it suggests: classic techno, with a lot of class and a Detroit denomination of origin, loaded down with strings and splashes of acid. Putting it on is like going back to the Motor City at a certain point at the end of the 80s and watching Juan Atkins, Derrick May or Kevin Saunderson DJ. But the good vibe that this track awakens vanishes in the home stretch of “Wonky”.
So far, the album has been full of classic sounds, without any major surprises (with the exception of “New France”). But in the next two pieces, Orbital experiment with new music and it doesn’t quite work for them. As some of you will know (or will guess from the title), “Beelzedub” is the umpteenth reconstruction of “Satan”. The problem is that they have modified this holy (I know, the word grates on the ears) song so many times that in the end, you’re tired of it. Has anyone heard a version that is better than the original? If you’re hoping to find it here, you can forget about it. Here they introduce elements of dubstep, with a bass that is dirtier than MacGyver’s fingernails. After listening to it a dozen times, I don’t know whether the final orgy of drum ‘n’ bass dignifies the song or horrifies me. Next we come to the album’s title song, “Wonky”, which Lady Leshurr - an up-and-coming MC who some claim is a female Busta Rhymes - participates in. It doesn’t start off badly, with those broken beats, but when her voice comes in, things go downhill. Her rapping destroys a cut that is already tending towards mediocre - at times it even becomes truly irritating. It hardly seems fair that the only acceptable moments seem to be in the central part of the song, when she’s singing instead of rapping. It is indeed wonky - with its ups and downs - but they’re late here, as there are now too many better examples of this genre. It’s cheap wine for the masses; it’s not worthy of the Hartnolls.
The final song, “Where Is It Going?” sums up the album. It has some good moments, like those sharp analogue synths that can do so much damage in a live show, alongside others that are just thoroughly insipid (easy rushes and fat beats that give you a headache and sound completely behind the times). All told, the trademark melodies make the song pure Orbital. So that is more or less what “Wonky” is. It never reaches the heights of excellence of their first four albums - and there are forgettable songs - but it can hold its own in comparison with “The Middle Of Nowhere” and “The Blue Album”. Furthermore, if we take their history into account - and that the last album dates back to a distant 2004 - we’re looking at an album that doesn’t sully the legend of these important figures in electronica. It offers more than one could expect, in short: a better-than-decent comeback.