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Somewhere From 'Nowhere'

[whitespace] Phil and Paul Hartnoll
The Beat Goes On: Phil and Paul Hartnoll lead Orbital into new, experimental territory.

Orbital's new album wins raves for its blend of noise and harmony

By Michelle Goldberg

The summer of 1999 is the high-water mark for electronica's gradual insinuation into the American mainstream. This season, the biggest electronic tour in the United States is promoting its shows as concerts, not raves or parties or club dates, a distinction which demonstrates the way musicians with a background in dance music are accommodating themselves to the rock ethos. Called the Community Service Tour, the event features three groups that have been pioneers in making the sounds of the dance floor work in a rock context--rave 'n' rollers the Crystal Method, L.A. big beat innovators the Lo-Fidelity Allstars, and Orbital, the band that paved the way for both of them.

One of the first electronic acts to win raves for their live performances, Orbital has spent the past decade taking techno into new territories. In the last few years, Orbital brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll have worked in film, collaborating on the score for Event Horizon with Michael Kamen, and have joined up with Lollapalooza, the consummate alternative rock festival. Though their new album, The Middle of Nowhere, doesn't go for the stadium bombast of the Chemical Brothers or Underworld, it's not a dance record either--there's no body-moving bass or funk grooves. Instead, it's moody, mid-tempo and psychedelic, mixing '70s analogue synthesizers with cascades of digital percussion and eerie vocal snatches for a sound that's sometimes anxious and squelching, sometimes chiming and ethereal.

"Obviously some of our music is influenced by dance music. Some of it is influenced by soundtracks, and some of it is influenced by rock," Phil Hartnoll says. "It's undeniable that our music is electronic and that some of it has that four-to-the-floor rhythm, but it's not a criteria that it has to work on a dance floor. In fact, it's too full to work really well on a dance floor. Good house tracks are brilliant in their simplicity. With us there are loads of sequences, lots of separate musical parts. You can dance to it in the same way that you'd dance to an indie band."

Which is why the Hartnolls are eager to distance themselves from the rave scene. "Our shows are very different than raves," he says. "Obviously our music has got that flavor, but I don't like people feeling that they're sort of uninvited if they're not a raver. A DJ plays the crowd at a rave much better than we do anyway, because we change tempos so often."

Orbital's combination of pop melodies and techno percussion stems from the intersection of the two brothers' different styles. "My brother is more melodic than I am. I can be quite happy with noises and screeches and that, but Paul likes melody and harmony," Hartnoll says. "We really do it by ear in a way, construct it, build it up in layers."

Like many electronic acts making the transition to concerts--where, in contrast to dance parties, the musicians are the focal point--Orbital is experimenting with ways to keep the audience's eyes as well as their ears stimulated. For their American tour, they're planning one of the massive video installations they're famous for in Europe. Unlike the Crystal Method, the Hartnoll brothers still aren't ready to play rock stars on stage. "We are a band, that's true, but Orbital is about the music, not about Paul and Phil Hartnoll," he says. "When I think of pop stars, I think of the whole package of stickers and badges and little dolls. I even found it hard to print up T-shirts because I felt a bit self aware. But to sell records, you've got to show your face around."

"It could be," he concludes, "that we're pop stars with a small 'p.' " .

The Community Service Tour comes to San Francisco on July 23 at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, 99 Grove St.; $30; 415.974.4060.

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From the July 19, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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