Orbital – ‘Snivilisation’
No. 36 in our Top 100 Electronica Albums of the 1990s
In 1994, Roger Morton, writing for the New Music Express, revealed that Orbital‘s Paul Hartnoll had a recurring nightmare from childhood about the end of the world.
“I’d be looking down the hill towards the sea and you’d see the mushroom cloud go up,” Paul told Morton. “You’d feel your bowel loosen and this warm feeling of horror. I could see my dad doubling up in pain. And then I’d turn round and try and go into the caravan, and someone would say, ‘You can’t go in there,’ and I’d say, ‘Why not?’ and they’d say, ‘Don’t you realize you’re dead?'”
The specter of nuclear armageddon hums like background radiation on Orbital’s third album Snivilisation. As the cultural forces that produced the nuclear arms race ebbed with the fall of the Soviet Union, the Hartnolls, who grew up in the atomic age, never let their guard down. As members of Greenpeace, they kept their fingers on a pulse around the continuing dangers of nuclear power and human arrogance.
Snivilisation also came out the same year as the UK’s Criminal Justice Act. Among the law’s many provisions, it granted British police and civil authorities enhanced powers in blocking and shutting down raves and events with 20 or more people that played music with “a succession of repetitive beats” in public places. It literally outlawed techno and forced it back into nightclubs and was a direct attack on rave culture legislated in a climate of utter moral hysteria and generational division.*
For many UK artists, this was rich hypocrisy at a time when Western democracy was supposedly on a roll. For many, it revealed the insecure wall between freedom and Big Brother: the law seemed like a clear sign that power remained solidly in the hands of moneyed elites with a taste for war and family values. The renegade Spiral Tribe was public enemy No. 1, their uncompromising commitment to free party sound system culture, which had helped form the outdoor rave milieu that first inspired Orbital, triggered the backlash that contributed to the Criminal Justice Act’s passage.
So Snivilisation was in many ways, like The Prodigy’s Music For The Jilted Generation, a spirited retort and a call of solidarity with the larger rave community — an ammonite network of so-called “tribes” that averred to make a capitalism kinder and democracy truer to its highest ideals. The album’s press release framed up the stakes, stating the Hartnoll’s concerns, quoting the Belgian philosopher Raoul Vaneigem: “The history of our time calls to mind those Walt Disney characters who rush madly over the edge of a cliff without seeing it: the power of the imagination keeps them suspended in mid-air but as soon as they look down and see where they are, they fall.”
Sonically, Snivilisation draws that edge with a Graham Crowden monologue snatched from the 1982 satirical film Britannia Hospital, chopping it up in echoing counterpoint to the soft melancholy and uplifting beauty of opener ‘Forever’: “We cling like savages to our superstitions. We give power to leaders of State and Church as prejudiced and small-minded as ourselves, who squander our resources on instruments of destruction,” Crowden rants, like clashing voices in our head.
A sparkling gentle melody rounds in a mesmerizing loop, leading into Crowden’s fading warning: “While millions continue to suffer and go hungry, condemned forever, ‘ever, ‘ever, ‘ever!…” With that, Orbital drifts off the edge of the cliff, their imaginative deep keys holding us up, like steps on air or water, the beat dropping away before it kicks back into a deep rocking groove amid lily-pad tones of electronic compassion, catching us as we fall, followed by interlacing melodies that arc overhead like falling stars or doomsday ICBMs.
The overcast continues with more literal rain sounds on ‘I Wish I Had Duck Feet,’ an eerie vision of tribal waddling and synth sadness complete with voice samples that evoke a circus a la P.T. Barnum: “Ladies and gentlemen, if everyone would please, gather around for the show. We’re going to have a free show…the Illuminated Man…the Sword Swallower…” Tribal drums pitter-patter like rain drops as foggy waves of synths billow ahead over the murky waters of tomorrow: “Shining through his body from within!” says the ringmaster.
The beautiful ‘Sad But True,’ featuring Allison Goldfrapp, shows the Hartnolls’ deft hand at more traditional songwriting while challenging the listener to swim through metallic dissonance, calling to mind the deep contrasts Orbital first burnished with ‘Planet of the Shapes’ on Orbital 2. It’s that brave use of tension, that spikes the senses and the emotions, revealing Orbital as masters of musical communion — Goldfrapp’s haunting vocals bringing an aching humanity to the snivels of the machines crying out for her forgiveness.
Goldfrapp would later embark on a successful career of her own, but her ghostly cries on Snivilisation lodged her deep in the unconscious of electronica fans. Her warmth contrasts with the colder and faster concerns of ‘Crash And Carry,’ which seethes in dance floor rhythms and rattles, bumping in a wicked call and response of robots carrying out and fighting against the diktats of fascist rule. The album seems to burrow into the aural guts of our machine civilization, growing in harshness and sensitivity, each beat and note dancing on the edge of disintegration.
The deeper one goes into this Snivilisation, it almost seems as if the more abrasive, the more beautiful the music becomes. Tracks like ‘Science Friction’ and ‘Philosophy By Numbers’ round out Orbital’s eerie experimentation with surreal notes and angular drums. The former is a hypnotic whirl inside the engine room of human progress, equal parts industrial and spiritual. The latter revels in an unease with institutional conditioning, sounding like a chorus of walruses and seals running amok inside a straight-jacket classroom. It’s otherworldly and quirky, showing that the Hartnolls studied up on the work of their peers, especially The Black Dog.
One of the album’s greatest triumphs comes next with ‘Kein Trink Wasser,’ which means “no drinking water” in German. A waterfall of piano keys sparkle in a loop of melodic shards, a fierce echo of minimalist giants Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The overflow of notes builds and builds until it drops away to stark chords that awake the moral imagination, while a breakbeat buttresses the drama with funky ballast, giving us minimalism that cuts through the New World Order of fast food and reality TV. Gorgeous and extreme, ‘Kein Trink Wasser’ is Orbital at their most inspired.
A concept album that challenges us to think and listen more carefully to the world around us while painting the sky with sounds seemingly beamed from the heavens, Snivilisation is perhaps Orbital’s most quiet and difficult album. It is a record of mixed emotions and relentless vision. Broken hearted, Paul and Phil Hartnoll, two brothers who believed in the power of music to change the world, were almost hellbent on memorializing that sometimes silly notion in a kind of sonic stone. So that ‘Quality Seconds,’ comes at us like a tidal wave of aggression, blurring the lines between hardcore punk and abstract techno, pumping its fists at oppression.
Almost exhausted, we come to the high point — ‘Are We Here?’ Considered by many to be Orbital’s finest composition, it again employs Goldfrapp on the angel council. “What does God say?” a distant male voice asks us memorably, followed by the musings of another voice, what sounds like an Aussie scientist in the astral wilds reporting back to us: “Are we here? Are we unique?” he asks earnestly. “Are we something utterly special in the universe? Or are we an example of many many civilizations that have been many many different life forms?”
Blending the scientific and the spiritual, the Hartnolls bring in a twirling jungle beat set to a lugubrious ska riff. Goldfrapp’s vocals whip about as if caught in a dust devil, her dervish moans opening up as ‘Are We Here?’ evolves into ever more frenetic drum scapes. But none of this prepares us for the delightful climax, which comes in a succession of brilliant waves borne on the broken rhythms of space and time. Questions ricochet in our heads: “Are we here? Are we unique?” Again it asks reverently, or is it mockingly, “What does God say?”
A reggae vocal counterpunches, “Warning! Warning! Nuclear attack!” taken from The Specials‘ song ‘Man at C&A.’ The washing machine snares and xylophones step up to Goldfrapp’s rising call and response in what sounds like a plea of “Being on a higher level!” Harp-like sparkles graze the rhythms until her voice bursts into what it seems some deem a wordless prayer for peace: “Here we are in your presence,” the lyrics Machine wants to spell back to us. “Lifting holy hands to You. Here we are praising Jesus. For the things He's brought us through.”
Answering her joyful coos in a kind of religious chorus, are high-pitched pipes that sustain like reflections in a waterfall — the true wordless secular hymn asking us to live up to the creeds we preach — trailing off to clock chimes and wakeful double knocks, before a humorous yet biting sample of an English family complaining about this new generation. “The prodigal son is alive and well and living in the front bedroom,” says the father. “We never see him, he treats this home like a hotel,” says his mother or sister. “You just can’t speak to him,” a brother adds, before the grandfather roars, “He’s disgusting, long-haired, work shy, dirty lay-about, ought to be in the bloody army!” And in answer, Orbital simply repeats, “What does God say?”
Coming full circle from ‘Forever,’ the album ends with the epic ambient composition, ‘Attached.’ It wells like lapping waves from across the Solar System onto the shores of the Moon. A snarling synth snakes through a dream symphony in the heavens above, its sleepy gentle melody walking up the octaves as a drizzle of light falls down from flickering stars. Skittering rhythms and a soft beat skip with an optimistic lift. Up, up, shining high, strings subside and the mind drifts to Orbital’s confident ride. Patiently, they build back the suspense, tensions rising to an operatic yell before slipping us again into the euphoric current of life, floating us into a future of liberated minds.** Without words, it asks us a different question, “What IS God?”
In the decades after Snivilisation, Western civilization encountered al-Qaida, many troubled wars and a Wall Street meltdown that left the global economy in tatters. But the Hartnolls were not just pointing fingers at governments. They were calling on all of us to keep the faith. The album’s sniffling cover art says as much. With egg beaters, mobile phones and robot electrodes sticking onto our heads, Snivilisation is a grand mirror for the age. The album’s inner sleeve art includes a witty picture of God on a clouded throne wearing virtual reality goggles. The message is clear: no one is free from the mirage, not even Him.
2. I Wish I Had Duck Feet
3. Sad But True
4. Crash and Carry
5. Science Friction
6. Philosophy By Numbers
7. Kein Trink Wasser
8. Quality Seconds
9. Are We Here?
*Not all generations were divided. In fact, John Peel (born in 1939), BBC Radio 1’s fearless DJ and purveyor of cool, had championed all of British rave’s artists: you can hear some of Orbital’s most fierce techno magic on their Peel Session of 1994, a continuous live performance that bridges their “Brown Album” with Snivilisation, incandescent in its brilliant twists and turns.
**As we all know, that future is still not here. But it’s the attitude, the mission, the dream, the belief, that carries. Interviewing Orbital in 2012 in Paris, Phil would tell me with great fervor in his voice:
“The same things concern us. It’s the whole disappointment in so-called civilization. We’re not advanced at all really. We haven’t advanced. While people are still killing each other, don’t even talk to me. It’s ridiculous!”