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.

Delerium – Chimera

By 2003, pretty much everybody had sampled O Euchari, and nearly a decade or so into the good bit of their career, it was time for Delerium to join in the fun. Actually, a lot of people had worked with Zoë Johnston by this stage as well, so Chimera‘s opening track Love may not have much new to offer, but it’s a pretty good song nonetheless.

It was hardly a concept invented by Delerium, but this was early in the age of overprocessed vocals, which is a shame, as Jaël is a good singer, but After All, the single which preceded the album by a few weeks, does suffer initially somewhat from sounding as though it’s being sung by a robot. Having got beyond that, there’s a good song hiding here, and packaged with the traditional million-or-so remixes, this was a reasonable hit. Well, except for the fact that it came out during the sorry era when the UK record industry killed itself by limiting singles to a twenty minute duration.

Ultimately, it isn’t until Just a Dream that we really get a taste of the beautifully scenic sound that had had typified the preceding albums Karma and Poem, and it’s every bit as good as you might have hoped for.

The pop sound returns with the promo single Run for It, for which they drafted in vocalist Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer (that’s even how she was credited). It’s a good song, but somehow seems a bit insubstantial after the preceding track. Proper second single Truly follows, with none other than Nerina Pallot on vocals. Another pop song, but a particularly good one, and since they waited until 2004 to release it as a single, it managed to get a slightly more substantial CD release.

Serenity is next, one of the longest tracks on here, and perhaps the closest yet to the blueprint laid out by the preceding albums, with its operatic and multinational vocal samples and rippling synthesisers. Touched is sweet too, although honestly, after a decade and a half of listening, it does sound rather dated now.

Forever After suffers from this as well – the Turkish vocals from Sultana are nice, but the scratching in the middle section seems a bit questionable now. It leads into the adorable Fallen, starring Rani, who previously sang on Underwater, the final single from the previous album. Fallen is really sweet, although it does seem to be about someone who’s about to commit suicide in the morning by throwing themselves of a star, which isn’t so cheery.

Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer reappears for Orbit of Me, which for me is another of the weaker tracks on here, but then Julee Cruise turns up to deliver Magic. This one is a bit schizophrenic – in a way, it doesn’t really work (and no, I’m not a warlock – to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what one is) – but in a way, it does. Either way, it definitely worked a lot better for me fifteen years ago.

Eternal Odyssey is a very pleasant, if long, instrumental, which does a bit of an Enigma by sampling Samuel Barber‘s Adagio for Strings halfway through for no particularly obvious reason. Which, by the way, is also something someone had done by this stage, probably more than once.

The general theme, in case you hadn’t worked it out by now, is that with ChimeraDelerium were trying to go “pop” by borrowing ideas from lots of other people. It works, for the most part, as this is an entirely competent album, but it lacks the innovative streak that had characterised their sound in the mid-1990s.

Delerium mainstay Kristy Thirsk appears to lead the vocals on Returning, which might actually be the best track on here – it’s a sweet, almost lullaby-like track that closes the album well. But just as you start to wonder why the rest of the album couldn’t have been a bit more like this, that O Euchari sample turns up again. Chimera is a good album – it’s just not quite innovative enough to be a great album.

The only CD of Chimera currently on sale in the UK appears to be an import, but you can find that here, if you like.

Stowaway Heroes – William Orbit

For a while, William Orbit just seemed to be everywhere. Comfortably among the most influential producers worldwide, he was working with MadonnaAll SaintsPet Shop Boys, and many more.

His career started out with the trio Torch Song, who saw heavy underground success in the mid-1980s. In 1993, they reappeared with a final album Toward the Unknown Region, which included the brilliant Shine on Me:

He famously launched Beth Orton‘s career with this, the sublime Water from a Vine Leaf:

But this was the moment where he really became a household name – in 1995, he recorded Pieces in a Modern Style, which was briefly released and then quickly pulled due to copyright issues. Five years later, it reappeared, heralded by this brilliant Ferry Corsten remix of Samuel Barber‘s Adagio for Strings:

So let’s give respect where it’s due, to the brilliant stowaway hero William Orbit.