Monday 28 June 2004

Time Becomes a Loop

The audience at an Orbital gig is not a representative microcosm of modern multicultural British society. There's no young club kids, no crusties, no lager-louts and few women. Rather it's composed of old school ravers and those almost fashionable, slightly geeky guys that try just a bit hard; the bloke from the IT department that doesn't talk about Star Trek but still knows his way around a computer; the mate in the pub who is always pleased to show off the latest phone or PDA. They shop for the modern gadgets and hip t-shirts, but always carry themselves with the knowledge that no matter how hard they try, they still don't *feel* cool. People like me.

That's good because the Hartnoll brothers are the same. Album covers featuring diagrams of electron orbitals, iconic on-stage headwear that is nevertheless a victory of function over form; Orbital are not a fashionable band. They've never had the shouty bandwagon success of fellow "dance" acts like Underworld, they've never achieved the dinner party acceptance of Daft Punk or William Orbit. They've just steadily grown and retained their fans over fifteen years from the second summer of love through to now.

Orbital arrive on stage

Friday night in Brixton academy was their last ever gig. Sort of. After this one they're playing others in Glastonbury, Turkey, Scotland. But this was the last gig I'd see them at and the fifth time I'd seen them live in total. There's no intrigue or mystery with Orbital on stage, like Christmas dinner, the menu doesn't vary much: two blokes on stage prancing around behind a suite of futuristic boxes, recreating the loops and sequences from their albums and singles. It doesn't sound like a recipe for a joyful live show and I've no idea what they do behind their racks of sliders and knobs, they could just be pressing play on a CD for all I care, but somehow they press their buttons and twiddle their drum machines to build an overwhelming, all consuming experience.

This being a farewell gig, there were few surprises in the set list. When crowd-favourite Satan came on, a track no recording can ever adequately capture, it was like sharing a room with a storm. Thunder-clap bass lines pounded out in time with video scenes of despised politicians and atomic explosions. It was so big and loud my teeth started to ache. Halcyon + on + on was as beautiful as ever; spiralling, looping, twisting sequences combined with a heavenly vocal sliced and diced to perfection, before the inimitable Jon Bon Jovi/Belinda Carlisle breakdown, now with added Darkness. The Doctor Who theme (see, geeks) raised the hairs on my arm with the power of the grinding bass.

The set finished, as always, with Chime, a fifteen year veteran rave tune that refuses to age. As the familiar sequences started all of us in the audience went crazy; dancing like dervishes to the huge bass line, smiling and shouting, waving our hands in air spangled with gold from the enormous glitter ball that hung above the stage.

Eventually it all ended. The brothers embraced, couldn't say thanks enough, and we watched their head lamps bounce off stage. Ruffles and I just walked slowly out into the Brixton night, simultaneously giddied by ringing ears and the dancing comedown, and saddened that we'd never get to hear Orbital weave their live magic again.

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