16th December | O2 Academy
Photos: Jeff Oram
I’m going to be honest: the prospect of Orbital’s show at the O2 Academy on Sunday was not piquing my excitement as much as it should have as the 7:00pm door time drew nearer. The weather, unsuccessful Christmas shopping and the early signs of my first illness of the winter were creating a three-pronged attack on my serotonin levels. Once inside, the ten-person deep bar queue and strong sweaty aroma weren’t doing much to help either.
Finding an airier spot in the upper balcony was a step in the right direction, and the support slot from Plaid was a sharp turning point in my enjoyment of the evening. Their sound played like a dancier, more aggressive version of former Warp labelmates, Boards of Canada. Aided by a neat visual screen set-up, their intriguing set closed to a healthy cheer of appreciation from the packed-out venue.
After Plaid cleared the stage, Orbital’s enormous gear rig was just about visible through the shadows. Then, a testing image flashed up on the three giant screens that spanned from one corner of the room to the other, lighting up its impressive silhouette, and it started to dawn on me that all of the hyperbole I’d read and heard about the legendary duo’s live set might not have been hyperbole after all.
Before the Hartnoll brothers (Phil and Paul) took the stage and donned the iconic torch glasses, we were treated to a sample of a Professor Brian Cox monologue and some oscillating visuals which resulted in the final line, “How much do you want humanity to survive?” echoing through the venue. The duo then walked on and cracked straight into ‘Monsters Exist’, the title track from their new album – a surprisingly menacing, slower-tempo piece that was tempo-synced with twisted blood-red imagery of barren trees and dystopian landscapes. It left the impression of walking through some sort of digitised H.P. Lovecraft theme park – but in a good way.
As an immediate antidote to this beautifully bleak intro, the pair dropped another new track, ‘There Will Come a Time,’ mixed with Gloria Gaynor’s ubiquitous ‘I Will Survive’, and I could feel the last remnants of my sour mood getting washed away. It says a lot about the brothers (whose catalogue spans three decades) when a large portion of their set is dedicated to new material. Clearly, they have faith in their abilities, and for good reason. ‘P.H.U.K.’ (Please Help UK) moved from gut-busting electro-funk to heavenly synth sections with enough conviction to keep the crowd engaged the whole way, and ‘Tiny Foldable Cities’ was a simply astounding audio-visual experience, complete with some world-class laser choreography.
Whilst still distinct from the more straightforward techno of the early days, the old establishment-rejecting ethos of early rave culture permeated this new material, and its intrinsic ties to these sentiments (aided by the incredible screen displays) gave these songs a satisfyingly familiar-yet-unfamiliar tone.
Classic tunes were, of course, also chucked in to allow the 90s ravers some moments of wide-eyed reminiscing. The celestial beauty of ‘Halcyon’ was drenched in comforting pacific blue tones pouring from the lights and screens that provided a moment of soul-nourishing reflection; and as ‘Belfast’ closed the first part of the set with its famous slowing down outro, Paul Hartnoll grabbed a mic to say, “Thank you Bristol, we’ve always felt very welcome here,” before shuffling offstage.
This preceded the inevitable encore which I was thrilled to find included ‘Doctor?’, a brilliant reworking of the legendary sci-fi theme (including appropriate time warp visuals) and finally, thankfully, Lush 3; my personal Orbital favourite. Upon the switching on of the house lights, it was clear to see on the faces of the punters, both young and old(er) that the ticket money was well spent, and Orbital are still world-leaders in genre-crossing, question-raising and mind-blowing live dance shows.
See the video for ‘Tiny Foldable Cities’ here: