Longstanding electronic duo Orbital recently released 30 Something, a compilation of re-recordings of some of their early hits, remixes of said hits by artists they have influenced, and a couple new tracks meant to harken back to the brothers Hartnoll’s acid house heyday. 30 Something is not the group’s first major compilation album, but it is unique in its early career skew (most would agree, their best material) and its emphasis on reworks of the band’s classic tracks that split the difference between simple remasters and committing their wild live experimentations to tape.
Push comes to shove, I’d tell you Orbital is my favorite band, and their second LP, 1993’s self-titled “Brown Album,” my favorite album. Having listened to many variations of these core tracks over the years, I approached 30 Something wondering “what’s in this for me?” And I came away thinking the album is a quite fitting retrospective approach for the rare electronic act to make it past 30 years, even if it’s not something I’m likely to return to after a few rotations. Perhaps Orbital newcomers could use this as a launchpad into the band’s catalog. Although the nuances of the alterations to these old tracks would be lost on them, the versions here are mostly strong standalone takes and as good an entry point as any.
Orbital’s 30 Something version of “Halcyon” is a strong example of the duo’s approach to reworking here faring particularly well. The original composition is largely intact along with the addition of percolating key stabs in the back half that swirl together with stuttering synths for a rousing conclusion. The “Halcyon” additions feel a little anachronistic, but they still fit, albeit for me, in a “remix” sense. Honestly, that this, one of my favorite Orbital tracks, has avoided the band’s schmaltzy live version that mashes up Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and Bon Jovi’s “Shot Through the Heart” is a win in my book. Orbital have a quirky sense of humor that is best taken in small doses.
The one thing that most of Orbital’s reworks on 30 Something lack is a sense of negative space. Tracks here are frequently quick to get going and often “fill in” quieter moments with new sounds. Everything is meticulously balanced, but if you’re used to the original album versions, you may find yourself pining for those notes that previously went unplayed. I’d much prefer those analog synths be left to breathe, even if they sound a little raw or dated. None of these tracks are “ruined” by Orbital’s additions, but in most cases I did find myself craving the more expansive headspace of the original album contexts, which often mixed one track into the next.
Elsewhere on 30 Something, the new tracks, “Smiley” and “Acid Horse,” are cheeky bits of rave revivalism. “Smiley” literally contains soundbites speaking to or directly from underground warehouse raves of the early 90s in the UK. It’s appropriately vintage, and the track on 30 Something I find myself revisiting the most (love the flute). That “Smiley” leads off the album also sets the tone of what follows: both a history lesson and a party.
Ironically, when I got into Orbital, I didn’t think of them as a dance act at all, but a duo that was interested in crafting cinematic soundscapes suited more toward headphones than clubs. Other than their debut album, the rest of their output from The Brown Album through Middle of Nowhere (underrated) were quite conceptual and meticulously crafted “album listening experiences.” Yes, they were an influential part of the acid house scene, but they went on to push the boundaries of rave into less genre-beholden sounds.
Perhaps that is why a track like “The Box” suffers so much on a compilation like this. Taken from Orbital’s 4th album In Sides, “The Box” was originally spread across two parts, occupying 12 minutes of runtime. Part 1 is a tone piece, with keys and chimes weaving an eerie tension before a plodding snare turns the track into a grim march. Part 2 sees that tension boil over as the piano becomes more full bodied, and rather than twinkling, the synths snarl through a disjointed breakbeat. 30 Something’s version of “The Box” is barely 4 minutes long and feels like a free trial of the full track. It contains all the sonic elements of the original, but none of the mood. I don’t know why the band didn’t just pick another track from their first two albums instead. I mean, “Remind” and “Lush” are right there.
I should mention the guest remixes as well, which all exhibit what I would call an appropriate level of reverence for the source material. Unfortunately, this also means that most exist firmly in the shadow of the tracks they are based on. It’s a conundrum where the artists’ approach feels both “correct” but also hamstrings the tracks from being all that interesting. On paper, Lone remixing “The Girl with the Sun in Her Head” is a dream pairing. The track itself is… fine, but perhaps too worshipful for its own good (Floex’s version fares better). My favorite of the remixes is Shanti Celeste’s take on “Are We Here?” which actually feels like it’s setting out to answer that titular question with a profound “yes!”
Look, I understand that any compilation like this, particularly one stuffed with remixes is more of a hunt-and-peck affair, and 30 Something can’t fully dodge this fate. However, for this long-time fan, the new tracks and studio reworks of classics by the Orbital themselves makes for an entertaining, if fleeting, curiosity. For Orbital newbies, 30 Something is a sampler platter teasing the full courses found in the original albums. And for as much of a “victory lap” project as 30 Something can feel, it’s heartening to know that the band isn’t resting on their laurels and have a new studio album due next year. It turns out Orbital still has ideas, and 30 Something sees them putting in the work to make this compilation feel like an active contribution to their portfolio and not the lifeless archive so many “greatest hits” compilations turn out to be.
Dan Solberg is an interdisciplinary artist, freelance writer and designer, and art educator, primarily interested in consumer-grade creative toolsets, rave revivalism, and generative aesthetics. Website: https://dansolberg.com/