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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Delerium – Poem

This album puts me in a slightly awkward position – wherever possible, I like to review the “official” version, but for reasons best known to themselves, Delerium completely reshuffled their 2000 album Poem for its UK release the following year, and ended up with a totally different track listing. It’s difficult to know which the “right” version is, but since the UK version is what I have, we’ll go with that.

Hot on the heels of the massive hit single Silence from the previous album KarmaDelerium already had their next album Poem ready, and obviously decided to go ahead with releasing that instead of messing around with its predecessor. Since Delerium single versions rarely bear any particular resemblance to the album versions, there’s a lot of logic in this, but it’s a slight shame that Karma missed out on all the fun.

But first up here is the second track on the US version, Innocente (Falling in Love), which features Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer on vocals. Apart from Silence, this was the main single for this album, and rightfully so – it’s a great song.

Dance and electronic stalwart vocalist Kirsty Hawkshaw turns up next, for the lovely Nature’s Kingdom, a semi-acoustic piece with a typically exceptional vocal performance. Delerium fans tend to be ultra-loyal to their earlier ambient and industrial material, but with songs as good as this it’s difficult to see why.

Only a couple of albums into this phase of their career, they had however already carved themselves a very particular niche, which Daylight breaks rather nicely. It was already over a decade since their first album, with sometimes several albums a year, but they had never actually worked with a male vocalist before. Some might not see this as a problem, but I think it’s a shame, and despite apparently looking very scaryMatthew Sweet delivers a fantastic vocal performance on a great song here. The recent compilation Rarities & B-Sides revealed that this was intended as a single, and it’s a great shame that never happened.

In the end, the only other single was Underwater, with Rani Kamal on vocals. It’s a great song, but for their 2004 Best Of compilation Delerium opted for Above & Beyond‘s remix version which headed up the single, and rightfully so – it’s a lot better. It wouldn’t have fitted on the album in the slightest, though – the focus here is on chilled out, ethereal, mystic music.

The first half of this collection concludes with Fallen Icons, another exquisite song. If I had to pick a favourite Delerium album, though, despite how good the songs on here are, it probably wouldn’t be this one. On Chimera (2003), the mix of songs and vocalists is generally better if you’re looking for a “pop” way into their sound, whereas Karma (1997) is undoubtedly the pinnacle of their chanty sound.

This has plenty to offer, though, as Aria, a collaboration with Mediæval Bæbes aptly proves. As with a lot of the songs on here, I’ve no idea what they’re actually singing about, but I’m not sure that matters enormously in this instance – it’s still a great song.

The same is true of Myth, which after a couple of minutes of introduction eventually builds into an exceptional piece of music. Jennifer Stevens‘s vocals are exquisite, particularly in the crescendo of the chorus. It’s really hard to fault something like this.

The feeling on here is very much one of a compilation, as the potential hit singles come thing and fast, such as Inner Sanctum, which was just a bonus track originally, although it fits perfectly on here – it’s actually difficult to imagine Poem without this song. Unless you think the question “why is eternity forever?” is perhaps a slightly silly one, that is. Then the deliciously named A Poem for Byzantium follows, one of the catchier tracks on here, another semi-acoustic piece with an excellent vocal performance.

You might be forgiven for thinking that the new sound of Delerium is pretty much set by this point, but if so Amongst the Ruins will come as a bit of a surprise, taking you very much back to the older sound of the group and reminding you that they still have that side too. Commerical success may have taken them in a very different direction, but they’re still the same people.

So Poem is a slightly schizophrenic album at times, and it’s far from perfect, but it does have a lot to offer in the way of catchy, chilled out, electronic pop songs. As is so often the case, approach it with an open mind, and it has plenty to offer.

You can still find the European version of Poem on regular release in places such as this one. Tread a little carefully if this is what you’re looking for, as the US release is available too in some formats.