I Was There – Orbital invade London’s Royal Albert Hall, 9/5/96
As the Hartnolls celebrate 30, Ian Watson remembers one of their landmark moments
In 2012, Phil Hartnoll was reflecting on Orbital’s return to the Royal Albert Hall, 16 long years after their groundbreaking performance at the venue on May 9th, 1996. At the time, the show was seen as a watershed moment – electronic music proving its cultural worth to the mainstream by inhabiting classical music’s most revered space – but years later Phil admitted to a more personal connection. “‘It is just such a lovely building. So many memorable gigs I’ve seen there – Ennio Morricone, John Barry, Carmina Burana. It’s a great place to play; the whole experience is more than just a gig…the nerd in me enjoys the fact that it’s a big round building as well.”
Ten minutes after picking up my review ticket – I’d been sent to cover the show by music weekly Melody Maker – I had other, more pressing concerns on my mind. I’d been allocated a front row seat – usually a result for a reviewer, who can often find themselves stuck at the very back – and I took my seat to discover I had a prime view of a bank of electronics and very little else. If I’d been there to report on the wiring of the technology or deliver what was then referred to a “train spotting” rundown of mixes and crossfades, then I’d have been in the perfect spot. But the truth was that the point of the gig – emotionally, culturally and physically – was going to be happening behind me. There was one crucial instrument that I didn’t have a view of at all, and it was a big round one – the venue itself.
Someone very foolish – and this quote is usually attributed to Frank Zappa, although the provenance can vary – once said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, supposedly to highlight the futility of music criticism. But if there’s one thing a good dance DJ can tell you, it’s that the atmosphere of a night frequently relies upon the way the audience interacts with the dynamics of the room, that there is a direct link between dancing and architecture. Here at the Albert Hall, those links were promising to be multi-layered. How would music borne of concrete and warehouses fare in a hall designed for the swell of an orchestra or the power of a single, unamplified voice (I once saw Tony Bennett fill the Albert Hall without a mic and it was truly awe-inspiring)? And would the Hartnolls shatter the space-time continuum with the ritual of placing Orbital in the world’s most famous circular building? Panicking slightly, I set off around the hall searching for a solution, only to hear a chorus of voices calling my name. I looked up to see a group of fellow writers in a box – “Come and join us!” Phew! The gig could begin.
Looking out over the hall from the vantage point of the box, the thing that struck me was actually how futuristic and cinematic it felt, like a set from a science fiction movie. From the earliest flying saucers to the Millennium Falcon and the Death Star itself, the circle has been a potent symbol in sci-fi – and as the lights around the curve of the room brought this all to mind, the Hartnolls artfully added to the space-age iconography. “Housed inside an iron cage that probably last saw service in ‘Mad Max 2’, the duo look like sci-fi electricians working on the Death Star,” ran my subsequent review. “The two pin-prick torches strapped to their hairless pates add to the impression by recalling the scavengers that scour the desert of Tattooine, and the odd pair of illuminated goggles in the crowd makes you think this some sort of extra-terrestrial gathering”.
This wasn’t simply electronica encroaching on the turf of classical music, then, but something more significant. The aliens, the outsiders, were materialising in the mainstream, and as any student of Star Trek’s Prime Directive will tell you, they would change the wider cultural landscape by doing so. We’d already seen Orbital affect a lasting shift on Glastonbury festival – their triumphant headline set on the NME stage in 1994 brought about the introduction of the dance stage the following year – and this was the next step. “A techno outfit taking over the Albert Hall is the dance equivalent of Venusians holding a government meeting in the House Of Commons,” continued my review. “Everyone involved in this most other-worldly of scenes has come to celebrate a long overdue move towards recognition and respect. The mood of the evening is therefore that of a communal coming of age.”
But there was something else going on, something hinted at by Phil Hartnoll’s 2012 comment about the Albert Hall. The memorable gigs he selected were by two legendary film composers, and a classical work synonymous with the establishment, which contains a piece that’s had an indelible influence on movie scores (“O Fortuna”, which inspired the music of The Omen, Star Wars, Lord Of The Rings and countless others). So while the aliens were beaming into the mainstream, the brothers were also subtly knocking on the door of movie soundtracks, making it clear that this was a space and an environment in which they belonged. By the end of the following year, they’d recorded the title track for the reboot of The Saint, and written the score for the sci-fi flick Event Horizon – two achievements undoubtedly helped by this night at the Albert Hall.
So this was a night of possibilities, of future paths being potentially uncovered, and the music matched this feeling effortlessly. The opening double salvo of “Out There Somewhere Parts 1 & 2” slowly built from the wobbliest of techno accompanied by a voice intoning “what’s wrong?” to a warm crescendo with its sights on the stars, while a video cross behind the brothers displayed a sine-wave of the music being played and the symbols used in ESP tests (a square, a circle, a triangle, etc). And as the set progressed through the percussive euphoria of “Lush 3”, the technicolour bliss of “The Girl With The Sun In Her Head”, the searching, ever-mutating “Dwr Budr” and the unsettling, atmospheric “The Box” (like “The Ipcress File” relocated to a warehouse in King’s Cross), there was a sense that the tunes could and would go anywhere, explore any mood or style, move ever onwards through freshly shattered barriers. “You’ll hear a thousand bass drums followed by a baby’s gurgle and a supremely calming jungle beat, just because they like to organise sound like a firework display, keeping you hooked with endless thrills,” I wrote in my review. “There’s even a touch of Hammond organ in one song, just to prove the love affair is with sound rather than futurism, and a piss-taking chopsticks piano that segues into a harpsichord rave tune. Anything’s possible. That’s the whole point.”
The performance ended with two encores, as if to cement Orbital’s transition from the seamless world of rave to the more regimented realm of the Albert Hall. And it was the first of the first of these (no prizes for guessing that an ecstatic “Chime” rounded off the night!), that nods to one final point about this spectacular show. “Impact (The World Is Burning)” pulled off the trademark Orbital trick of marrying euphoria with uncertainty while a sampled voice stuttered “It’s a cry for man, it’s a cry for survival”, harking back to “Choice” earlier in the set, where another sample demanded we choose between peace and annihilation. At the time, basking in the excesses of the mid-90s, unaware of the dangers of climate change, I dismissed this in my review as “nonsense, but stimulating all the same”. Twenty-six years later, it all feels rather different. Perhaps the next time aliens barge their way into one of our sacred spaces we should pay a bit more attention to what they have to say.