This is a review I wrote for the Brown Album on Discogs about a decade ago. Tear it to bits - I’m rubbish at reviews.
tl;dr - Brown is one of the best albums ever made.
The Hartnoll brothers have stood head-and-shoulders above the rest for most of their career, from approximately the moment that Halcyon was released in 1992. The brown album is a culmination of their glorious early period, when they could simply do no wrong: the beats, the melodies, the production and - most importantly of all - the coherence and consistency of this set of tunes are all to be marvelled at. I’m hard pushed to think of another techno album that hangs together so well yet with so many highlights.
Orbital are now way beyond techno. Their style is their own and they’ve subsumed techno, tech-house, expansive electronic music, the stuff of soundtracks and ambient works. They’ve hinted at drum’n’bass and, more recently, dubstep. They’ve injected punk, retro, muzak and flashes of comedy into their music - not always to good effect but always in the spirit of experimentation. And it always sounds unmistakeably Orbital. Back in 1993, however, they were techno pretty much through-and-through and the brown album is the last they did that had a single, definitive style.
This unifying style is perhaps one reason why the brown album plays, at least during the first half, as a series of movements in a techno symphony. The stretch from Lush 3-1 to Remind is 30 minutes of seamless, pounding and melodic music. The bright, soaring sounds of Lush 3-1 shape-shift into the buzzing acid mantra of Lush 3-2. The morphing of Lush 3-2 into Impact (The Earth Is Burning) is one of my first ‘wow’ moments on the brown album; as Lush’s refrain fizzes away the layers of rhythm remould themselves as a single high-pitched synth note rings, and then the breakbeat kicks in. The 10 minutes of Impact are an incredible journey, with a chorus of atonal horns, a gorgeous descending lead melody and a playful acid line combining and recombining. There’s also a tense middle section and some great samples (“it’s like a cry for survival”). The next ‘wow’ moment is the point at which the cyclical and arpeggiated synths of Remind drop. Impact’s rhythm dies away and we are left with the sound of the synths windmilling for a minute or two before the brown album’s hardest track kicks in. Based on a remix of Meat Beat Manifesto’s Mindstream, Remind hits you with two alternating sections - one with an insistent, driving acid line and the other sounding like an angry buzzsaw - married to hard beats. It’s no accident that the whole of this section of Orbital’s second album is still played live today.
I used to dismiss Walk Now… and Monday because they weren’t part of the ‘techno medley’ and weren’t Halcyon. I was being unfair though, judging them by the utter brilliance of what comes before and after; they are, on their own, very very good. Walk Now… is almost trance-like, with phased, reverberating sounds built up over what sounds like a looped digeridoo sample. The tune clicked for me when I heard the Walkabout version on the John Peel Sessions. Monday, by contrast, is a slice of bright - and by this album’s standards, light - melodic techno, a tribute to some of the original Detroit sounds of the mid-to-late 80s.
The first and last tracks are, or were, interesting exercises in phasing that are best ignored altogether these days. I also used to dismiss the second track (and first proper tune), Planet of the Shapes, and skip straight to Lush 3-1. It is a fine track on its own, however, and, in the context of what’s to follow, actually creates a lot of much-needed space.
So, to Halcyon + On + On. The single version of this tune, mentioned at the beginning of this review, established Orbital as real heavyweights. Even more amazing is what they then did with the track for the album, stripping out the slightly harsh techno rhythm and the ringing noises, adding more space with a beautiful piano and picked guitar melody in the ambient intro, pushing the descending bassline to the fore and leaning heavily on Kirsty Hawkshaw’s emotive, cut-up vocal line. Halcyon + On + On is a timeless classic, and one’s sense of time actually disappears whilst listening to the music itself. It is incredibly seductive, emotional yet wonderfully logical, and is perhaps the best thing Orbital have ever done.
What I like best about the brown album is the way it tweaks the energy and emotional content up, very smoothly. Whichever track you enter at, it’s difficult to stop playing to the end because you need that fix of the next track to help make sense of the current one. For an instrumental album, this is quite an achievement and this is why I consider it one of the best albums of all time.