William Orbit – Barber’s Adagio for Strings

If anything, in 1999, you would have known William Orbit for his production work on pretty much every pop hit of the year. Yes, they all had pretty much the same synth arpeggio on them – he loves synth arpeggios – but Madonna, All Saints, and plenty of others had benefitted from his work.

What you almost certainly didn’t know was that four years earlier, he had released an album of updated classical music, called Pieces in a Modern Style. Originally credited to The Electric Chamber, it had been speedily deleted following complaints from the estate of one of the composers. But now, with his new-found fame as a producer, Orbit was able to revisit the album, remove the two problem pieces, and replace them with some new ones. And, because he was now a mega-star, he also got two singles, the first of which came out twenty years ago this week.

That opening single was Barber’s Adagio for Strings, taking Samuel Barber‘s dramatic piece and bringing it to life in a modern way. The irony, of course, with Pieces in a Modern Style, was that they weren’t particularly – but with Ferry Corsten‘s intervention, the single version becomes huge. It opens with William Orbit‘s synth string work, just fattened a little, but then suddenly, after the first minute, it just ignites, with beats and a trance lead line. To describe it as anything other than explosive would be underselling it.

ATB takes much the same approach, opening with effect-laden strings, and bringing in his own trademark sounds after a minute or so. His reworkings only ended up being released in Germany, perhaps because they didn’t fit as well for the UK audience, or perhaps they just weren’t ready in time. ATB‘s sound was already well known at this time, and honestly his mix does sound very like everything else he had released. It’s nice enough, but does feel a little surplus to requirements.

Finally, it’s time to hear the original, cut down somehow from its nine-minute album form to be a four-minute radio-friendly version. I doubt this received much airplay, even on classical radio, but it’s good that the single gets the original in some form here. It’s a challenge for the listener, in a way, as many people buying this release would have done so for the first track, but you have to acknowledge that it’s a beautiful piece of music, realised perfectly here. If, perhaps, a little short.

The fourth track on the German single – and actually the lead track on the UK CD single – was Ferry Corsten‘s full 12″ mix. It’s great to hear him take his elements to a full club mix, but it’s also a little disappointing that he chose to open with a fairly dull introduction, with a bit of trance synth work, and a lot of beats. After the first couple of minutes, he just switches us straight into the radio version, which is entirely as it should be, but I could honestly have dispensed with the introduction there.

Finally, we get ATB‘s 12″ mix, and as with the previous track, it’s a little surprising that a piece of music that started off life with a duration of nine minutes seems so forced when turned into an extended dance mix. It’s a reminder, in a way, of how different the forms of classical and dance music have to be. Opening with a rhythm section just feels very dull, in this context.

Even if he didn’t create the single version himself, it was with Barber’s Adagio for Strings that William Orbit cemented his position as one of the finest producers and multi-instrumentalists of our time, and for that, we all owe it a lot.

We reviewed the German CD single, which is no longer available new, but can be found through various second-hand retailers.

Artist of the Week – William Orbit

Time now for another of our archive Artist of the Week features, dating back to early 2005. Some of these do contain errors, and probably contain some plagiarism too. Apologies in advance…

This week’s Artist of the Week was born William Wainwright, and would ultimately go on to become one of the most important musicians in the world of electronic ambient and dance music.

He began his musical career in the early 1980s in the new wave group Torch Song, and while recording with the band started to learn studio techniques, and by the end of the eighties was making a name for himself by remixing and producing the likes of Kraftwerk, The Human League, Erasure, and Madonna.

His first solo album Orbit was released in 1987, but it was with the Strange Cargo project that he started to make a name for himself. The first part of the four-album epic also came out in 1987, and was followed by parts two and three at three-year intervals. It was with these that he kick-started the career of folk singer Beth Orton, who first featured on 1993’s minor hit single Water from a Vine Leaf. The fourth album in the set, Strange Cargo Hinterland, followed in 1995, and features some of his best material to date.

It was at this time he first recorded his legendary Pieces in a Modern Style album, featuring inventive new interpretations of classical pieces, but it initially attracted very strong protests from some of the composers involved, so he re-entered the world of production, apparently never to be seen again.

However, it was with his production work that he truly made a name for himself, being responsible for some of All Saints‘ later material, as well as Ray of Light, one of Madonna‘s best albums to date, and also Blur‘s acclaimed album 13. On the back of this, he returned to the studio to re-record Pieces in a Modern Style, which swiftly made its name as a modern classic thanks to remixes by Ferry Corsten and ATB.

As rumours of a new album continue, he continues to work with the likes of Pink and Eagle-Eye Cherry on production work, and we await his return with baited breath.

Raa raa raa, I can’t sing – a review of an unreleased Enigma album

We all start off as precocious brats, and possibly to some extent internet trolls. Here’s my contribution, written in March 1999, a year or so before the fourth Enigma album would be released.

Date: Sat, 13 Mar 1999 17:41:13 +0000
Subject: Re: What do you think Enigma 4 will cover?

There's going to be that woman at the beginning going "Hello, it's me
again. I'm trying to build my part up" over that bit he always puts at either end of the album and some of the singles (you know the one, the one which worked at first, but is now becoming rather tiresome).

Then there will be a couple of good tracks mixed into a couple of rubbish tracks with Michael going "Raa raa raa, I can't sing" over and over again.

Then there will be one really excellent track which everyone remembers.

Then Michael will screech for a bit.

Then that woman will come back again saying something really deep and
meaningful, that annoying bit which he puts at the beginning and end of all the albums will come back again, and the album will end.

A few months later a limited edition will be released with some unnecessary remixes on the end and this will p*** off all the faithful fans who bought it the first time round.

There will be one hit single and several flops.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this got a slightly annoyed response, from someone called Great Ruler D.P. He or she was actually very nice about it, and I suspect did realise that my message was intended as a joke, but I’ve edited this down slightly to fit…

Date: Sat, 13 Mar 1999 17:48:19 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Re: What do you think Enigma 4 will cover?

Do you know a damn thing about introductions and setting moods? Sometimes, an album can make a powerful statement by its beginning and its end. In fact, I happen to like those introductions because it sets the mood and gives some thoughts. It shows that it is not shallow...
If you can sing, try it... in the mean time, put up or shut up! [...] Call Cretu and audition...
What do you mean unnecessary remixes? I find the remixes interesting because it can transform the music in a different way.

In a way, I stand by what I said – ultimately, having heard The Screen Behind the Mirror, and having seen how it performed in the charts, I think I got everything pretty much right, even down to ATB‘s slightly questionable remake of Push the Limits, but I still shouldn’t have sent such a mean message to the band’s own fan message board. Lesson learnt, and apology made… Mea Culpa.

Enigma – The Screen Behind the Mirror

There’s a lot to like about Enigma‘s fourth album The Screen Behind the Mirror (2000), but the opening track The Gate is not among its finest moments. Four albums in, and Michael Cretu was still starting every album with exactly the same synth effects. This has a bit of added drama from Carmina Burana, but that’s not entirely original either.

Push the Limits, the first proper track on the album, is. This is what happens when Enigma does dance music. Admittedly the single version didn’t really cut the mustard, hence ATB‘s remixes, which did help on the commercial side of things.

After Le Roi est Mort, Vive Le Roi! (1997), undoubtedly the most defining album of Enigma‘s sound, it wasn’t really clear where Cretu would go next. He had said originally that the project would be a trilogy – the record company had even released a nicely packaged Trilogy set – and this would be the fourth album. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that The Screen Behind the Mirror follows very closely in the vein of its predecessor.

But with Gravity of Love, the first of several collaborations with Ruth-Ann Boyle (formerly of Olive), he really is at the peak of his game. Boyle is an exceptional vocalist, and this is really pop, in the purest sense, but full of weird offbeat ethnic samples and influences from classical music, built as it is around more samples from Carmina Burana. Most of all, though, it’s also an absolutely brilliant song. Also, the path of excess leads to the tower of wisdom, apparently.

Similarly Smell of Desire, which is a typically beautiful instrumental. This album is going very well indeed by this stage, although the lyrics bothered from 1990’s Mea Culpa could really be dispensed with on here.

It’s at this point that the album seems to lose some of its momentum. Cretu’s own vocals always jar slightly with his own music, which might be part of the problem with Modern Crusaders. The appearance again of Carmina Burana, and the guitar wankery probably don’t help enormously either. Ultimately, this track and Traces (Light & Weight) are both a bit of a mess. A pleasant mess, but a mess nonetheless.

A rather uncomfortable segue takes us into The Screen Behind the Mirror, a much more pleasant and straight-laced instrumental with weird processed vocal samples as the main melody and some more borrowed vocals, this time from Gravity of Love. Repetition is the key here, apparently.

Endless Quest, too, is pleasant, although it’s back to the echoey panpipes of old. It’s difficult to know what to say in retrospect really, because the follow-up Voyageur, which saw Cretu really trying to innovate and change his sound, was so fundamentally awful. But it’s also fair to say that ten years into the project, The Screen Behind the Mirror saw him largely retreading old ground.

Then come the awful Camera Obscura and the forgettable Between Mind and Heart (as in “lies the hand, which must mediate”), with more even more helpings of Carmina Burana and very little that we hadn’t heard before. It’s left to Silence Must Be Heard to save the day, and it really does that with aplomb – another collaboration with Ruth-Ann Boyle, it’s truly fantastic, and definitely one of the best tracks on the album. It’s a great closing track to an album which is something of a mixed bag.

The Screen Behind the Mirror has a lot going for it, and you do find yourself really wanting to like it – if only it had contained a little bit less repetition and a few more original ideas.

You can find The Screen Behind the Mirror at all major retailers.