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POP MUSIC : Just Don't Call Them Techno : Brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll of Orbital put emotion in their electronic music--and set '90s standards for the merger of dance and rock styles.

November 20, 1994|Ernest Hardy | Ernest Hardy is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.

'The field behind us was full of tents with people just sitting around, smoking a few joints and listening to the music," recalls Paul Hartnoll. "I've never seen such a huge crowd in my life."

Hartnoll, who with his older brother Phil makes up Orbital, the most compelling force in '90s British dance music, is talking about the 10,000-strong Ravestock, the all-night dance party at Woodstock '94.

To some, Ravestock provided a symbolic merger of the once warring dance and rock cultures.

"The best part is that I don't think a lot of the audience at Woodstock had gone there for a rave or anything like that," Hartnoll says, "but we got a wonderful response from the crowd."

Deee-Lite, Aphex Twin, the Orb and a handful of big-name deejays spinning records were also at Ravestock, but Orbital is the act that sets the standards in the '90s for the merger of dance and rock sensibilities--and the one best equipped to reflect on it.

Orbital has been wowing adventurous music fans since 1990, when its debut single, "Chime," marked it as one of the most assured forces in the techno genre. A melding of sounds that featured a gorgeous melody, shifting rhythms and a crisp, sparse groove, the single is now considered a dance classic.

"Chime" made the Hartnoll brothers darlings of the techno set, but they don't view themselves as techno artists.

Citing influences as diverse as arty electro-pop group Cabaret Voltaire, punk's Dead Kennedys, industrial rock and '70s movie soundtracks, the twosome--who will perform at a rave on Saturday at the Long Beach Exhibit Hall--insist they don't want to be identified with any single genre.

"Labeling our music as techno is really limiting," Paul Hartnoll says. "The only description I can ever really stomach is 'electronic music,' and that only covers the technical side of how it is made. It's not really saying anything about what type of music it is."

The Hartnolls were born and reared in West Kent, a rural suburb of London, and had little formal training in music. In fact, they took only a handful of piano lessons, the family piano ending up little more than a conversation piece.

"Our dad was a builder, and he always ended up bringing home the odd bit of furniture from when he worked in someone's home," says Phil, 30, who speaks with none of the aloofness often associated with the British rock scene. "Once a year they got the piano tuned so it would be there if we wanted it."

Nonetheless, the home was always filled with music. Their parents loved records, and their father was especially fond of film soundtracks.

"We used to get up on Sunday morning and our dad would be blaring the theme to 'Shaft,' " says Paul, 26. "The Carpenters were another big favorite in our home."

As teen-agers, the brothers had varied tastes. In addition to the punk and industrial music that was all around them, they fell in love with electro-pop and the faster, more electronic variation of disco known as HI-NRG (pronounced "high energy").

"The only real exposure HI-NRG got in England at the time was in gay clubs that we didn't know anything about," Paul says. "We'd stumble over it in the record stores, and we thought we were the only people in England listening to the stuff. That and the electro-pop is what finally pushed us into getting a drum machine, and that's how the whole thing started."

Paul eventually finished the equivalent of American high school, landing work doing odd jobs in a London recording studio when he was 18. Phil dropped out of school when he was 16. Prodded by his father, he worked for a few years in construction.

"I hated every second of it," Phil says emphatically. "The attitudes and the bigotries (of many co-workers) were totally against everything I stood for, and it was a horrible period in my life. I got away from that as soon as I could."

His escape came after he and Paul began experimenting at home with a cheap drum machine and a synthesizer. Some early solo tracks Paul did for a compilation album led to a contract with FFRR Records.

With the release of "Chime," they not only changed the course of their own lives but also helped take the entire techno dance movement to new heights.

On their 1992 debut album, "Orbital," and 1993's "Orbital 2," the Hartnolls were obviously influenced by both the sugary pop and the sweeping film scores they'd grown up with. That lightness gains emotional weight when mixed with the current of darkness culled from their punk and industrial roots. Balancing frenetic beats and samples from films and other records against minimalist grooves, they created a standard for beauty and harshness that few others have been able to meet.

Says Neil Harris, director of artists and repertoire at FFRR Records, "What makes them stand out in the electronic music field is that there is a lot more humanity in their music, both in the thought process that goes into it and in the way they interact with their machines."

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