Saturday, April 21, 2012

Halcyon + On + On

Back when I moved to New York in 2001, there used to be a DJ/bar/cafe called Halcyon on 227 Smith Street (in Cobble Hill) in Brooklyn. I used to go there a lot, check out new techno records, chill out and drink with friends. I was young, I think. Good times. It closed at some point, I don't know when, maybe in 2004? Everything ends. My trips to Brooklyn became infrequent.

I don't know what the bar Halcyon was named after, but perhaps it was named after "Halcyon + On + On," the beautiful track by Orbital, a band that has burrowed deep into my consciousness over the past 15 or so years. It's hard for me to remember exactly when and where I first heard the music of Orbital but it was probably in 1996 when I randomly picked up a cassette of their most recent album In Sides. It was one of those purchases without any foreknowledge or warning, having heard nothing of their music. My red pickup truck had no stereo so I would plug in my cassette walkman into my ears and after a few plays, the album began to seep into skin. It was a sprawling 72 minute opus that began with a ten-and-a-half minute spectacular wake-you-in-morning epic track called "The Girl with the Sun In Her Head," dedicated to one Sally Harding, a journalist/photographer who had recently passed away. The track began with percussive (heart)beats that exploded into synth runs like sunshine bursting through the clouds; it was recorded using only electricity from a Greenpeace solar power generator.

For the next few years, I would make innumerable (perhaps more than a hundred) road trips from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and back, and In Sides would be the perfect soundtrack to begin the trip, as I slowly wound myself onto the Pennsylvania turnpike. Like almost all other Orbital albums, the first and last tracks were just magnificent, rolling instrumental techno masterpieces that seemed to uncoil and unfold into mysterious places. If electronic dance music had ever reached nirvana, this was it. It wasn't the four-on-the-floor techno that was beginning to dominate English electronic dance music of the period; it was slower than drum-and-bass (remember drum-and-bass?), much more pop, more transcendent, if possible.

Orbital were/are two English brothers (Phil and Paul Hartnoll) who emerged from the late '80s English rave scene, but were influenced by punk, hip hop, early electro, and '80s pop. Their nineties albums, in my mind, still remain the pinnacle of fantastic dance pop, not the slightest bit dated.

Having first devoured In Sides, I started to make my way back in the Orbital catalog, first to Snivilisation (1994) and then to Orbital II (1993), very very different records, but both with spectacular opening and closing tracks and delicious fillings.

I was lucky to see Orbital in concert (on October 12, 2001, Philadelphia) and although I showed up alone, it was one of the most happy concert experiences I've ever had. Without knowing anyone in the audience, I felt an (embarrassingly hippie-esque) communal bond with the crowd. The two brothers on stage had headsets with tiny twin headlights; they seemed like little alien robots on stage.

Orbital's latter output (The Middle of Nowhere in 1999, The Altogether in 2001, and The Blue Album in 2004) were all surprisingly underwhelming. They weren't bad, but they lacked killer melodies: a few good ideas stretched to the limit. (But perhaps I need to go back and revisit those albums.) Either way, Orbital took a looooong hiatus, almost a decade long, and is now back with a new album, Wonky, which just came out a few days ago. I'm so fucking excited. By all preliminary reports, the album is fantastic, comparing remarkably well to their nineties heyday without sounding dated. [See effusive reviews in The Quietus, Drowned In Sound, and Pitchfork.]

Here then are two tracks. The first is "New France" off the new album.

The second track below is "Halcyon + On + On," my vote for one of the best musical pieces of all time. "Halcyon" was originally released on the Radiccio EP in late 1992 but later completely revamped, remixed, and redone as "Halcyon + On + On" as the final musical track on Orbital II. What it became, in the process, was one of the most sublime pieces of music ever put to tape, the kind of music specially made for traveling into space, or falling in love, or watching a child smile, or hearing rain fall, or any number of corny/cheesy experiences from the world of Hallmark sentimentality. Sure, it's sentimental, but tell me, was sentiment ever expressed so beautifully?

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