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.

Peel Sessions – The Shamen, 12 February 1991

The Shamen‘s fourth and final John Peel session was recorded in February 1991 and broadcast several times that same year. The Shamen had long been featured on Peel’s radio shows, and he seems to have even stuck with them once they transitioned from psychedelic eighties “alternative rock” to the rave-pop-dance that they were so fond of in the early 1990s.

The session opens with a pretty good version of En-Tact‘s Hyperreal, already available in the shops for a year or so at this stage. It seems to have gained some slightly daft sound effects which weren’t there on the quite brilliant original version, and it’s notably lacking the input from William Orbit that made the US album and subsequent versions so good, but it’s still pretty strong.

Make it Mine had already been a single in 1990, and this version seems to have undergone a slightly ill-advised reworking, with a pointless middle section and a length rap from Mr. C. It’s interesting to see them exploring some slightly different directions, but they really don’t seem to know what they’re doing. The input of The Beatmasters that would characterise the next album seems long overdue.

Possible Worlds is a nice inclusion – definitely one of the best tracks from En-Tact, it offers them a chance for some musical exploration without going completely off the rails. There’s a bit more freestyle rapping (including rhyming “brain pattern” with “Saturn”), which is definitely unnecessary, but in general it’s pretty good. Just not quite as good as the original version.

Then comes In the Bag, which I think I’m saying was never released anywhere else. It’s a pretty nice ambient piece which is entirely lacking in melody, but it’s a strong inclusion nonetheless. In a way it’s pieces like this rather than the better known singles and album tracks that make it worth hearing these sessions.

You can read more about The Shamen‘s relationship with the John Peel show here. This session is available on The Shamen‘s 1993 compilation On Air, which is still widely available.

Laurie Mayer – Black Lining

To tell the truth, I don’t know a lot about Laurie Mayer. She seems to turn up as one of the creative forces behind a lot of William Orbit‘s projects, right back to the Torch Song albums of the 1980s. After about two decades of hiding in the background, 2006 saw her release her first (and, to date, only) solo album Black Lining. It came out mere months after Orbit’s Hello Waveforms, and has some intriguingly common roots, but is also something quite unique.

Black Lining, with its sublime wood-nymph (or whatever that’s supposed to be) artwork opens with the softly jazz-piano inspired Flung. Describing it is difficult, and even that sentence slightly does it a disservice – as we all know, bad jazz can be overwrought, messy and irritating, whereas this is chilled-out and sublime. But there’s something about the rhythmic style of this piece that does remind you a little of the genre.

Low Floating Territory is one of the lovelier pieces on here, drifting gently for nearly seven minutes, and carrying you along with it like a leaf on the breeze. Sometimes music can influence the listener very deeply, and look what this CD just made me write. This is very special indeed, but it may compromise your editorial judgement somewhat.

After a while, the pieces start to drift past so gently that you stop noticing. The sweet choral harmonies of Breathe, You Theomorph, and then the reverberant synth lines of title track Black Lining. The more experimental Thundercloud still doesn’t really storm its way across the sky, but it does seem to hover threateningly.

Then comes one of the more fascinating moments, Jagged Rain, later released as the one single from this album. It comes across as a slowed-down and more mellow version of Surfin, from Hello Waveforms – but without any writer credits on this release, it’s impossible to know for sure whether it happened that way round or whether this one in fact came first.

The main part of the album draws gently towards its close with the troubled Never Will I Leave You, and finally the subdued string piece Leviticus. Just eight lovely pieces of music – probably about all that’s needed here. Except that’s not quite it – there are also two “variations”: Low Floating Variation and Flung Variation. Both are sleepier renditions of the earlier tracks, bringing out different aspects and hiding others.

Across the entire hour or so of music, Black Lining is seductively soft, dreamy, and sweet. It may not – with the possible exception of the title track – have the catchy pop hits you might normally look for, but it’s well worth having on the shelf for times when you need something a little quieter.

The original CD release, with its exceptional artwork, is unfortunately no longer available, and the 2012 remaster which is still available has a vastly second-rate replacement. But it’s probably not about that – you can find the remaster here.

Greatest Hits – Vol. 8

Every so often I like to take a little downtime and remind you about some of the posts that you might have missed recently. Here are a few…

William Orbit – Hello Waveforms

William Orbit traditionally unleashes his albums in fits and spurts, and so it was a five-year wait between 2000’s seminal Pieces in a Modern Style and the follow-up Hello Waveforms. It finally appeared a decade ago this week, which seems a good excuse to go back and check it out again.

Orbit has always been a dab hand with slower, softer pieces, as he proves with the lovely portamento-driven Sea Green, which opens the album. The rest of the album might well end up being a touch livelier than this, but if the whole thing were in this mold, that would definitely be no bad thing. But while Sea Green could have easily fitted on one of his many Strange Cargo albums, second track Humming Chorus is a different matter. It’s still soft and gentle, but doesn’t quite have the same mood. In many ways this track owes more to the classical reinvention project that preceded this one.

For the most part, instrumentals are the order of the day here, as the fantastic Surfin proves. It was subsequently recreated in even softer fashion by Orbit’s long-term collaborator Laurie Mayer on her solo album Black Lining, but the Hello Waveforms version soars above, and is by far the best track on here. There’s just something about the soft and gentle synth work that really gets under your skin.

The softer, almost Indian-sounding You Know Too Much About Flying Saucers comes next, serving ultimately only to build up to the magnificent Spiral, featuring Sugababes on vocals, and proving that if nothing else, they are definitely extremely good at singing.

The second half of Hello Waveforms is, it’s fair to say, just a touch less remarkable, although you wouldn’t think so from the album’s centrepiece, the adorable Who Owns the Octopus. Maybe with so much high calibre material coming before, some of these later tracks just feel a little less special than they actually are, and Bubble Universe certainly fits nicely – but it also isn’t one that you’ll be humming for weeks after listening.

Other later moments are more striking, such as Fragmosia and the intensely lovely choral piece They Live in the Sky, but other songs such as Firebrand and Colours from Nowhere fit better into the “nice” category than the “excellent” one. Ultimately it’s better to view them as part of the wider soundscape of the album, rather than potential hit singles in their own right.

But Hello Waveforms is, for the most part, quite exceptional. Six years after his most successful work, William Orbit returned with something quite different, not straying too far from his roots, but at the same time remaining as inventive and adventurous as ever. In the end, you have to wonder whether this might be his best work to date.

You can still find Hello Waveforms at all major retailers, such as this one.

Madonna – Confessions on a Dance Floor

Whatever you thought of her in the 1980s, by the turn of the 21st century it was hard not to have some respect for Madonna. Her ability to bring together some of the finest producers in the world of electronic – even if only by virtue of the size of the paycheck – was impressive to say the least.

After collaborating with William Orbit and Mirwaïs on previous releases, on Confessions on a Dance Floor, it was the turn of Stuart Price, once styled Jacques Lu Cont of Les Rhythmes Digitales.

Confessions on a Dance Floor starts with Hung Up, modelled around Gimme Gimme Gimme. The nice thing about taking other people’s songs as a starting point is that you can pretty much guarantee yourself a hit, and so it was with Hung Up, which peaked at number 1 all over the place. Rightly so – it’s a great song.

Other songs miss the mark slightly – third single Get Together is a bit chaotic, apparently based on Music Sounds Better with You (possibly played backwards?) Despite having confusing lyrics and no particular hooks, it still grabbed a top ten spot in the UK, and was a decent hit elsewhere too.

Second single Sorry follows, the track that Pet Shop Boys really brought to life with their remixes. Leaving aside the appalling foreign pronunciations, it’s a pretty good song, but does lack a bit of substance in its original form. If only Madonna could write lyrics like Neil Tennant – this could have been the blueprint for their Electric album.

As it is, there’s an early lull with the dull Future Lovers and the abominable I Love New York, neither of which has anything particular to offer the world. Neither is particularly long, but both seem as though they go on forever. Madonna isn’t a good lyric writer, and rhyming “New York” with “dork” is neither funny nor clever unfortunately. Other singers have got across a similar message much more eloquently.

Having worked through that, however, Let it Will Be and Forbidden Love are actually both pretty good – both are catchy pop songs, again with slightly daft lyrics, but that’s forgivable sometimes. Actually, in many ways both are better than the other single, Jump, which follows, and is decent, but ultimately has relatively little to offer except the word “jump” in the chorus.

You could probably skip the rest of the album and not miss too much. How High is catchy but lacking in any particular substance. Isaac has some nice vocal samples, but not a huge amount else. Push is kind of catchy but ultimately forgettable, and Like it or Not has a nice cheeky rhythm and burbly bassline, but it’s just an average pop song in the end.

So that’s Confessions on a Dance Floor – a mature and competent album from a global superstar who would sell a lot of records even if she released a CD of herself snoring. But when she works together with the right team, Madonna is still capable of creating interesting music, and for that she has to be applauded.

You can still find Confessions on a Dance Floor through your regular retailers at a bargain price.

The Shamen – En-Tact

In 1990, The Shamen were on the verge of being at the top of their game. Move Any Mountain, or Pro-Gen, as it was also sometimes known, was just beginning to storm the charts, and the five or so years of continuous hits which would follow were just about to begin. But the growth of their popularity was tempered by the tragic death of long-term member Will Sin in 1991, which seems to have affected them very deeply, although they barely took time to breathe before reappearing with Boss Drum in 1992.

In the years which followed, the 1991 US version of En-Tact seems to have become the definitive one – the long dull acid sections which plagued the original release were relegated and replaced by more accessible pieces. It opens with Move Any Mountain, which is a brilliant place to begin – it’s accessible pop, but also very contemporary dance music, and it’s easy to see why it ended up being such a huge hit.

Then comes Human NRG, not a single, but every bit as good as its neighbours. The production was from Graham Massey, of 808 State, and sounds like the best imaginable combination of The Shamen and Massey’s own works.

The brilliant underground Possible Worlds follows, possibly even the best track on here, as it mixes hard-hitting beats with soft and gentle ambiance. As with much of The Shamen‘s output, the lyrics are total gibberish, but once you accept that, it’s an easy track to enjoy.

Omega Amigo follows a similar pattern. This was actually, perhaps surprisingly, the first single from the album, released back in 1989. It’s catchy, daft, and fun. Which is what you want from the early 1990s. This is followed by an edited version of the interminable deep house Evil is Even, which is just about digestible in four-minute form.

Hyperreal Orbit comes next, William Orbit‘s acid take on one the penultimate and second most successful single from the album. It’s an odd hit, with some particularly bizarre lyrics, but Orbit’s production really brings out its better sides. Similarly, the edited version of Lightspan which follows is rather brilliant in its own way, heavily hinting of future directions for The Shamen.

The other single Make it Mine comes next. It wasn’t a huge hit, although it’s one of the catchier moments on here. This version features an oddly low vocal, so possibly needs a bit of work on the equalisation, but it’s easy to recognise it as a good track nonetheless.

At this point, the person compiling the US version of En-Tact from the pieces of the original album appears to have given up somewhat, as the pointless Oxygen Restriction gives way to Orbital‘s sub-par Hear Me and then 666 Edit, a particularly lousy remix of Move Any Mountain. Proceedings don’t pick up until the next of the alternative versions, Make it Minimal, and even that isn’t as good as the version we heard earlier. Hyperreal Selector suffers much the same fate.

Lightspan Soundwave is hard to fault, though – the breakdown between the riff may not be quite as powerful as the original version, but it’s still great while the riff is going. Then, finally, another version of Move Any Mountain (actually it’s Progen 91, but you’re unlikely to care) the I.R.P. in the Land of Oz version, which is a broken down, slightly extended take.

Ultimately, dispense with the remixes on the end, and you’ve got a pretty good album here. Sure, it falls apart a bit towards the end, but plenty of other albums do. As a first step into the world of chart hits and commercial pop, En-Tact is a pretty good release.

The US version of En-Tact is still widely available.