[midlife 150] #104: orbital “the box”

January 25, 2011

Album cover for In Sides by Orbital

#104 The Box by Orbital, available on In Sides, 1996 [buy from Amazon.co.uk] [buy from iTunes]

The Box is one of the relatively few 90s electronica tracks that, rather having dated since its release (15 years ago), still sounds not only fresh but inspired too.

Recorded by the brothers Hartnoll (Phil and Paul, a.k.a. Orbital) at the peak of their creative powers, its staying power in part lies with the retro feel it’s built around, harking back to 1970s thriller TV themes – John Barry’s The Persuaders in particular – but also its organic subtlety and coherence (bearing in mind the band’s rave culture roots).

It was initially presented as an EP in advance of fourth (and for many, best) album, In Sides, reaching number 11 in the UK singles chart, helped in large part by Luke Losey‘s (grandson of Joseph) iconic stop-motion video (here on YouTube) starring Tilda Swinton.

It was clearly conceived as more than a four-minute slice of radio, though: its four variations on the EP (including a vocal version sung by Alison Goldfrapp) were blended into a seamless 28-minute suite. But it’s the twelve minutes it occupies on In Sides that provide the optimal experience.

Opening tentatively with a hypnotic, chiming riff The Box builds, in increments, a quiet intensity, its music-box motif suggesting a kind of tainted naivety. The enigma is deepened by a melody improvised on that most enigmatic-sounding instrument, the cimbalom.

The pace quickens suddenly half-way in, evoking a frantic, deadly game of cat-and-mouse in a hidden urban underworld. The Box‘s acoustic drum & bass rhythms, clean synth lines and mysterious harmony and melody create the signature tune for the best spy drama never made – it was no doubt single-handedly responsible for Orbital being chosen to re-imagine the theme for the 1997 movie remake of The Saint, but is infinitely superior.

This review is part of close to 94‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

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