Dead Bees On A Cake

Keep your brain in a jar and your heart on the beat. Keep an eye out for beauty and a finger on the pulse....

Keep your brain in a jar and your heart on the beat. Keep an eye out for beauty and a finger on the pulse. And, most importantly, keep moving, on to that silvered future where unimagined musical forms float free in the ether. These are the duties of electronic avatars – no longer the faceless synthmachines of ancient lore, but somehow suprahuman, recording and assimilating, extrapolating and configuring, making sounds for that all-over-body Sound Experience that Buck Rogers foretold.

And then there’s [a]Orbital[/a]. Those two lovely Hartnoll brothers who allow something into their vision that most dance stars would excise as being as unworthy and defunct as vestigial tail-bones. Sentiment. For men clearly aware of the problems of impending doom, who released a concept album called ‘Snivilisation’ about how the human race is going to hell in a Volvo estate and who spent many a happy hour rummaging around alien-infested cargo-holds in the soundtrack to [I]Event Horizon[/I], [a]Orbital[/a] have touching faith in gentle emotions. Nostalgia. Melancholy. Quiet euphoria. It’s why they’re associated with good times in big fields rather than dark hours in underground bunkers. It’s optimism, pure and simple; optimism that, no matter how things crumble, there’s time to be human. And on ‘The Middle Of Nowhere’, it looks like it might be catching.

Their fifth album, it’s been called their merriest – although compared with the ‘I wouldn’t say my mother-in-law’s phat’ hilarity of big beat that spawned in their absence, it’s positively Strindbergian. While there’s nothing to shadow the plastic-hearted ‘Philosophy By Numbers’ or the existential gallop of ‘Are We Here?’, it still won’t have you embracing the nearest larch and excavating your festival tie-dye. It begins playfully enough with the matinie-idol charms of ‘Way Out*’, regal strings and orchestra-pit clanging undermining usual ‘cinematic’ clichis by replacing grim noir skulking with Valentino atop the pyramids. It’s a splendid folly, more so for sweeping straight into ‘Spare Parts Express’, a kid-fantasia of friendly vocoders and humanoid synths. Yet the darkness, when it falls, is immediate; ‘Know Where To Run’ malfunctions like Techno Animal before slipping into an uncomfortably leering robot rhumba, while ‘I Don’t Know You People’ runs wild with squalling metal tantrums.

The skill is in the compendium of moods locked into this module. It’s no coincidence that moments are reminiscent of chunky plastic playschool shapes bolted together, for there’s nothing here one-dimensional, sonically or emotionally. The loveliness of ‘Nothing Left #1’ is tough Detroit house melted into rainy cyber-despair, while the drama-queen quivering of ‘Autumn’ revels in zithers and bells as the sound of misery, rather than the more customary wailing and broken glass. This, if you want it, is therapy. As the boundaries of the future and the beyond are slowly mapped and planed, it’s the confines of the skull the Hartnoll brothers are delicately probing here.

It might take you a while, but you’ll get there in the end. The middle of nowhere is always closer than you think.