Orbital – The Altogether

Celebrating its fifteenth anniversary this week is Orbital‘s sixth album The Altogether. In commercial terms, they were somewhat on the decline by this point, having peaked five years earlier with the singles Satan Live and The Saint, but they were still very much in the public consciousness after devising Beached with Angelo Badalamenti the previous year for the film The Beach.

The Altogether opens with a bang, with the appropriately titled industrial instrumental Tension, before it passes on to the much softer, pleasantly rhythmic Funny Break (One is Enough). Personally, I think I probably know this track best from Orbital‘s subsequent compilation Work 1989-2002, where it blends in so well with the early 90s material that I’d actually assumed that’s when it was released. Listening to it now, I think that’s probably forgiveable.

Then comes Oi!, which mixes mid-80s sounds with acid bass, and ends up sounding something like a collaboration between Erasure and Yello. It’s good, but perhaps just a little iffy, but the timeless quality seems to permeate the whole album – next comes Pay Per View, a soft and pleasant, almost jazz-like piece with 808 drums and sampled wailing.

Without reading more about this album, it’s difficult to work out exactly what’s meant to be going on, and the artwork doesn’t give many clues either. But that’s just Orbital‘s approach to music – they seem to do what makes them happy, and don’t listen too much to what anybody else wants.

So it continues. Tootled could almost be an early 1990s rave track – there’s a bit of 2001 energy behind it, but a more lo-fi version recorded on 8-track would belong very firmly a decade earlier. Same for the charming Last Thing, which seems to channel some of their own back catalogue.

This feeling of timelessness continues with a modern rendition of the Doctor Who theme, originally released in 1963, and here extended and updated with some new sounds. It’s exquisite – every bit as good as Delia Derbyshire‘s original, but with a very refreshing twist. For the next track, the Doctor Who references continue. Is that really Tom Baker that they’ve persuaded to turn up and deliver a guest vocal? The Tom Baker? Well, not quite – apparently it’s sampled from an interview. Even so, this is a monumental moment in the history of music. Tom Baker.

If you can find her, Kirsty Hawkshaw is apparently a guest vocalist on the lively Waving Not Drowning, which bounces its way merrily along for a couple of minutes until David Gray turns up to deliver the vocal on the lovely Illuminate, the second single from the album after Funny Break. This is a great song – even if you had found most of the rest of the album a bit silly for your tastes, you would have to appreciate this one, in which Gray seems to show rather more emotion than he ever did on his solo singles.

Right at the end, the ten minute instrumental Meltdown takes things in rather different directions again – at the beginning it sounds as though it could be one of their early 90s hits, but then it all goes rather noisy. A couple of minutes later, it’s another epic industrial piece – in fact, it goes through so many changes over its duration that you have to wonder exactly what they thought they were doing. Yet again, Orbital just stuck to what they wanted to do.

In a similar way, I normally try not to take too much notice of other people’s opinions when I write these reviews, as I prefer to see where the music takes me. But when I reviewed the follow-up Blue Album a couple of years ago, I learnt from the comments that The Altogether is apparently “usually regarded as Orbital’s worst album”. Either the standard of their albums is particularly high, or the people who “usually regard” things are just plain wrong, because The Altogether is clearly very good indeed.

The best version of The Altogether is the US import, as you get a second disc of b-sides, and if you want that at a reasonable price you’re best to import it yourself – available here.

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