Orbital, a pioneer of arena techno and progressive house music, appeared in Southern California Sunday for the first time in many years. The duo, brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll, called it quits in 2004 after 15 years of making and performing electronic sounds. But last year they reformed to play at select festivals. Coachella hosted the pair in its Sahara dance tent.
In the early 1990s, when many rock critics had a hard time getting their heads around DJs and dance music shows, Orbital forged the definitive “live” electronic performance, taking cues from the anonymous DJ and the postmoderism of being lost in sound on the dance floor. The duo donned trademark light-beams on their heads and bobbed in the darkness among a skyline of beat-making gear, leading the way through a virtual tunnel of techno as dancers explored their own inner space.
On Sunday the duo's stage formula was no longer so foreign or futuristic: Many other electronic stage acts, some represented at Coachella this year, have followed faithfully or unknowing in Orbital's pioneering footsteps. To see the pair again struck neurotransmitters with a happy chord. Raver moms were going off. But the performance was lackluster, and the Sahara tent that was throbbing with ravers Saturday seemed less populated as a result.
The performance could have come straight out of 1996, when the brothers performed at Coachella's forefather, Organic '96; judging by the pair's towering stacks of gear — which today could be replaced with a laptop — the act's equipment, at least, was of that vintage. And so was the music.
Neither remixed or remastered, Orbital reached into its '90s playbook and dusted off unrestored tracks (“Time Becomes,” “Chime,” “Halcyon”) performing them, as it did then, sequenced back-to-back, DJ style. While it was nice to hear such influential, all-time faves (and to see a certain affirmation of how ahead-of-their-time the tunes were), the best-of-the-'90s vibe had us feeling a little depressed. As the electronic music juggernaut dawned that decade, friends used to joke that one day we'd be old folks going to see techno show tunes in Vegas. As Orbital demonstrated Sunday, Vegas really isn't that far from the Coachella Valley.