Most American music listeners who bitch about electronic music complain about the “monotonous” rhythm tracks. And they’re right, to a point: Most dance beats, whether derived from Latin, African, Middle Eastern or Asian sources, are intentionally repetitive. But their complaint usually only points out how little mainstream radio and deaf rock critics have taught them about the music. Orbital are one of the few groups — along with techno pop stars like Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers, Moby and Underworld — that have made even a small dent on radio or in the press. As a result, for four LPs they’ve helped shape a public perception of what electronic music can be. Unfortunately, Orbital’s new record, “The Middle of Nowhere,” will do nothing to challenge that old monotony stigma.
“Nowhere” is an impaired glimpse into the greater possibilities of techno, dampened by Orbital’s amorphous approach to sound and rhythm. The group, which has 10 years of experience in British techno and acid house scenes, shifts here between aggressive, industrial techno and oddly uplifting, goth-tinged mid-tempo tracks. But despite the range of electronic genre influences (electro, house, Detroit techno and new wave), each individual track remains almost exactly the same from beginning to end. The optimist (the undying fan) will say that it’s “hypnotic,” but the pessimist (yours truly) will say that it will hypnotize you right to sleep.
The chiming, mid-tempo techno opener “Way Out” sets the course for the humdrum journey, one spooky, dramatic melody playing from — you guessed it — beginning to end. Then it’s “Know Where to Run,” perhaps the album’s most dynamic song, even if it takes two minutes of listening to an unhappy android’s static talk before it finally launches into a hard-edged techno crunch and then, eventually, a funky, frenetic-house groove. The industrial “Nothing Left 1″ also reaches levels of tonal and rhythmic complexity, but the eerily saccharine “Style” brings the monotonous tendency full circle, building up an uplifting, wobbly electro sound and then, not surprisingly, stays right there, in the middle of nowhere. Those complaining Americans will not be impressed.