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Orbital - Monsters Exist Music Album Reviews

The brothers’ ninth studio album marks their second comeback; there are glimmers of their crowd-pleasing, mind-expanding rave heyday, but too often the material lacks a sense of purpose.

Take a second to reflect on how remarkable Orbital’s initial run was. Since the British duo of Phil and Paul Hartnoll first put the eternal “Chime” to tape using their father’s cassette deck in 1988, the brothers spent the 1990s establishing themselves as one of the rave era’s most masterful dance teams, casually crafting side-long moments of bliss while pushing their sound forward in subtle, complex ways. They survived the commercialization of rave, released a series of strong albums within a genre that’s never had much use for the format, and, despite their involvement in electronica-era zeitgeist moments like the soundtrack to 1997’s Val Kilmer vehicle The Saint, managed to make it through the decade without too many embarrassing decisions to their name. Suffice to say, Norman Cook could never.

Their decision to say goodbye, in the early years of the new millennium, was impressive at the time—a rarity among dance artists, who often continue on well past their creative prime for the sake of the always bountiful dance-festival dollar—and 2004’s swan song The Blue Album was as glimmering a final gesture as any. Of course, nothing is “final” these days, and Orbital eventually reunited for a spate of live shows from 2008 on; the reunion album that followed, 2012’s Wonky, was a high-risk return that nonetheless found the Hartnolls evoking their glory days more often than not. Close your eyes while listening to that album’s “Stringy Acid,” and it sounds no different from the heady, trance-inducing glories that made up their initial run.

Two years after Wonky, Orbital decided—again—that their rave days were over, making it the second time in their career that the duo would be going out on a relative high note. This latest declaration of finality was even less definitive than the one previous; last year, the Hartnolls started playing live again, and now we have Monsters Exist, their ninth studio album over a nearly 30-year career. The title and overall thematic bent of the album is decidedly political, because what isn’t these days; in the accompanying press bio, Phil states that the titular bogeymen “can mean anything from bankers and The Man or your own demons and fears,” while the album’s closing track, “There Will Come a Time,” features a lecture of sorts courtesy of English physicist Brian Cox.

Luckily, you don’t need to be aware of these resistance-rave talking points to enjoy Monsters Exist’s highlights. There’s nothing here that touches the band’s creative peak—and, honestly, even the best of these nine songs falter next to Wonky’s highs—but there’s just enough pleasure to be gained on Monsters Exist to justify the album as a worthwhile endeavor. “Hoo Hoo Ha Ha” and “P.H.U.K” are indicative of the Orbital sound its fans have come to love, the former arriving at a winding horn line and the latter making capable hay out of a punchy bassline and futuristic synths; “Tiny Foldable Cities” weebles and wobbles with a mid-tempo gait to resemble Orbital’s take on Daft Punk’s “Something About Us,” while “Vision OnE” takes a few pleasurable melodic twists and turns, showcasing Orbital’s still-potent talent for crafting patient and expansive rave music.

Elsewhere, the album occasionally dips into moodier, soundtrack-like stasis, recalling the darkly colored cuts on their creative low point, 2001’s Tool-sampling The Altogether. These unfortunate callbacks to gloomier days aren’t the only instance of Orbital getting explicitly nostalgic on Monsters Exist, intentional or otherwise; the album’s strange, vaguely shroom-y artwork was designed by John Greenwood, who also crafted the images that adorned 1994’s Snivilisation and its follow-up, 1996’s In Sides. All these evocations of the past only trigger questions about Orbital’s future, having broken up twice in the 15 years only to stage two consecutive comebacks that were, respectively, impressive and not totally embarrassing. They’ve already had the chance to leave it all on the mat twice, and doing so for a third time following what is arguably the weakest of their post-reunion albums would be less than ideal. The final track on Wonky was titled “Where Is It Going?,” and by the time Monsters Exist draws to a dull, didactic close, you might find yourself asking the same thing about Orbital themselves.


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