Sunday, October 23, 2011

October 23: Orbital, "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head"

Artist: Orbital
Song: "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head"
Album: In Sides
Year: 1996

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While "electronic music" has existed in some form or another all the way back to the 1940's, it took a very long time for it to catch on within the mainstream in any meaningful way.  Even as recently as the 1980's, as a whole the electronic style was seen as a "lesser form" of music that was exclusively enjoyed by a relatively small group of people.  However, as music and culture exploded during the first half of the 1990's, electronic music finally crossed-over into the mainstream, and few groups were more important to this transition than Orbital.  Bringing an edge to their music that seemed to be pulled from the hard rock sound, the duo proved that there were no limits within the electronic world, and yet even with this new melding of sounds, they never abandoned their "hardcore" fans within the dance and techno communities.  This ability to simultaneously work in multiple musical arenas opened the floodgates to a massive number of electronic-based artists, and this in turn had a ripple-effect on almost every genre of music as the decade came to a close.  However, few other artists came close to the sound and importance of Orbital, and each of their first five albums remain some of the finest that the electronic genre has ever produced.  Due to this high number of exceptional albums, there are a number of tracks that can be cited as the finest the group ever created, and yet one would be hard pressed to argue against both the sonic and artistic perfection that one can experience on Orbital's magnificent 1996 song, "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head."

The opening moments of "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head" in themselves are some of the most instantly recognizable in the entire history of electronic music, as the soft heartbeat gives way to the central musical theme that runs throughout the track.  This transition gives the song a uniquely spiritual tone that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated, and it is an ideal beginning to what may very well be the finest arrangement that Orbital ever achieved.  The light touches and fugues that seem to dance over the beating heart ease the listener slowly into the core of the song, and with each passing moment, the overall tension of the track builds more and more.  As the almost startling chords ring forth from the keyboard, "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head" takes on a somewhat regal feel, and one can hear similar approaches being copied by artists from all genres in the years that followed.  It is the way that these keyboards fade in and out of the following ten-plus minutes that create much of the hypnotic allure of "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head," and yet it is also the more subtle sound effects and instrumentation that vault the song so far beyond those of their peers.  There is a slight distortion on many of the sounds, and it is this "crunch," combined with the almost orchestral overall sound that enabled "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head" to have an appeal that had never before been achieved by an electronic artist.

Yet even with this spinning and almost ornate orchestration, "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head" stays firmly rooted within the electronic genre thanks to the brilliantly programmed drums that run throughout the track.  In both tone and pace, it is this element that is as "classic" a techno sound as one can find anywhere, and yet it also provides a perfect balance for the music under which it is placed.  The way that the hi-hat cymbal seems to skip across the musical landscape is nothing short of superb, and while many other electronic artists have deployed a similar sound, there is something wonderfully unique about Orbital's use on this song.  It is also the range in percussive sounds that the duo of producers bring to the track which would re-write the books on electronic music, and also the way that each blends with the others, creating a single wall of rhythm.  There are also a number of different rhythms operating simultaneously, and this again is a nod to the roots of Orbital, as one can easily picture the song being performed at a massive dance party.  However, this reality also shows one of the most uniquely fantastic juxtapositions that exist within "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head," as while there is no question this is a "party track," there is a level of quiet intimacy that cannot be argued.  The fact that these two tones can exist in such harmony is a testament to the talent of the producers, and the main reason the song stands so far above other electronic efforts.

Taking all of this into account, there is also a bit of a "story" to "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head" which makes the track even more impressive.  The entire recording was actually made whilst harnessing power from a solar powered generator, and while in modern times this may not seem anything of note, in 1996, such events were nothing short of rare.  "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head" was also created in memory of and dedicated to former Volume Magazine photographer, Sally Harding, who had passed away a few months earlier.  Once one takes into account these "subtexts," the entirety of the song becomes even more impressive, and yet without this knowledge, there is no question that "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head" still stands as one of the most uniquely powerful tracks in the history of electronic music.  Standing today as one of the finest works that Phil and Paul Hartnoll have ever created, even more than a decade after its initial release, the track still easily surpasses any other electronic effort.  It is the way that the duo were able to create an orchestration that appealed far beyond the "normal" barriers of electronic music, as there are elements of jazz and hard rock that are clearly present throughout the song.  The fact that they were able to do this without alienating any of their fanbase is a testament to the amazing balance they achieved here, and there has simply never been a finer example of the brilliance of electronic music than what one can hear on Orbital's phenomenal 1996 song, "The Girl With The Sun In Her Head."

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