Are They Here?
Cutting to the chase, the world could have survived without another Orbital album, if only because it looked like the English electronica duo got out while the getting was good back in 2004. We thought the modest Blue Album and the tour surrounding it capped an acclaimed career for Paul and Phil Hartnoll. But oh, the calendar, it makes people weird: Five years later, they did the math and acknowledged their 20th anniversary. Greatest hits beckoned, then reunion dates, then the studio. The end product is Wonky—not just the album title, but frankly how the album fits into the Orbital canon.
The Hartnolls were long gone from the near-mainstream, had few projects to occupy them in the meantime, and have production legend Flood assisting them in the present—and still, there’s somehow less of Orbital than you might expect on this new release. Wonky feels more like an afterthought, an afterword to the brothers’ tale, than an explosion of pent-up creativity. Their cuts once held sway for double-digit minutes at a time, yet on Wonky only one track cracks seven. Given 10 minutes to shapeshift “Straight Sun” could be a stone epic; in half that time it merely fights to hold on to its central minor-key motifs.
Orbital can’t get enough of a fix on either their own past or electronica’s present to be consistently interesting here. “Stringy Acid” is a joyous flashback to the days of “Chime” and “Speed Demon,” while “One Big Moment” tries and fails to recapture the harsh/melodic blend that defined Snivilisation. “Beelzedub” offers their take on arena-ready dubstep, and Zola Jesus’ indecipherable wails somehow make “New France” into Orbital’s current paradigm, but the title track is a woefully misguided vehicle for MC Lady Leshurr, the British Nicki Minaj.
Continuing their tradition of a song title on each album tied to location and existence, Orbital’s Wonky entry is a fitting one: “Where Is It Going?” It suggests a tough spot for music fans acknowledging love for an artist, especially one returning from a long absence, yet unsure of love of their artistic direction. Wonky is neither career renewal nor career suicide for Orbital, but you sorta wish it had balls enough to at least come down on a side.