With their torch-equipped spectacles, Orbital long ago turned the cliche of techno artists’ facelessness to their advantage, creating a brand as unmistakeable as the Ramones or Deadmau5. Tonight, they amplify that facelessness several leagues beyond 11, with a bone-crushing PA and a stage so dominated by the storeys-high video screens that the silhouetted duo – brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll – appear as glitchy stray pixels in the show.
There is precious little banter. As they have for almost three decades, the pair communicate through their music and images, sound and vision pulsing in often perfect sync. It’s the kind of show where you walk home whistling the video feeds; the visuals don’t so much overwhelm the music as end up an intrinsic, inextricable element of Orbital’s art. Those visuals aren’t always subtle. The pneumatic Impact, for instance, scores images of smoke-belching factories, Hazchem symbols and words such as “garbage” and “pollution”. Satan, their Butthole Surfers-sampling banger, fuses hard-edged industrial throb and imagery suggesting the military industrial complex as the root of all evil. The concept is hardly controversial 28 years on, but the blood-quickening track remains simplistic, powerful and compelling.
The brothers aren’t merely coasting on the agitprop of their youth, as material from last year’s reunion LP Monsters Exist attests. PHUK comes accompanied by video directed by Felix Green, juxtaposing images of royal weddings with poverty and homelessness, visions of pristine futures with imagery of rat-infested presents, the Leave.EU’s infamous campaign bus haunting the tableaux. If that all sounds a bit too much fuckin’ perspective, Orbital’s genius lies in imbuing such truth-telling with the joyous rush of all great electronic dance music, so even There Will Come a Time – a treatise on mortality built around a lecture by physicist Brian Cox – becomes an ecstatic serotonin blossom.
Perhaps Orbital’s clinging to the concept of techno as vehicle for protest is the clearest argument for the duo as relics of a bygone rave era, especially as the Skrillex generation hot wire their stadium-techno approach for simple, hedonistic purposes. But Orbital’s messages are still timely, and their sledgehammer polemic remains effective and – most crucially – a senses-overwhelming good time.