Orbital explores the perception of reality in the “post-plague world” with their newest album ‘Optical Delusion’: Full Review

Electronic music veterans Orbital recently released their 10th studio album, ‘Optical Delusion.’ A 10-track deep dive into the human perception of reality in a “post-plague world” and once again, proving that even after 30 years, the duo is still finding ways to present listeners with an entirely new, unique and thought-provoking musical journey. 

Those who have been in the dance scene since the 90s know the name, Orbital. A product of the early acid-house days, the duo from England consisting of brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll have helped write chapters in the ever-evolving story of electronic music around the world. With hits such as “Halcyon and On and On,” “Chime” and “Belfast,” the two have single handily influenced an entire generation of electronic music listeners. It would be easy and understandable for Orbital to call it a career as they have nothing left to prove, but like the geniuses they are, the two continue to find ways to bring the world projects that question what it means to be human. 

Their next indulgence comes in the form of their 10th studio album, ‘Optical Delusion.’ Having a new spark of creativity over the past year, in this project, Orbital explores how we as humans create our own realities from things that are not actually there and see what they want to see, especially in the “disordered” post-pandemic world. 

The album’s name derives from an Albert Einstein quote that Paul Hartnoll discovered in the 2018 book by Michael Pollan, ‘How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence.’ The quote reads, “A human being experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest [of humanity] – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison…”

“As soon as I saw ‘optical delusion’ I thought Oh hey, that’s the album title. It just seemed to say so much about how people construct their own realities, how we see patterns that aren’t there, how we see what we want to see. But it’s actually a misquote. He never quite said that. In the German original what he’s really saying is that human experience is as relative as physics. Wouldn’t it be good if we could accept that, and find a kind of universal theory of everything for the human race? Then you look at everything from history to art to your Twitter feed and you think yeah, that’s what we’re all trying to do all of the time…” – Paul Hartnoll, Orbital

While the idea for the album was first drawn up during the real-life horror movie of the Covid-19 pandemic, ‘Optical Delusion’ was entirely recorded after the lockdowns began to ease and we slowly entered a world with a new normal. With this unique timeline, the listener hears the emotions of the brothers as they experience things they saw on TV as children come to fruition and their thoughts on the aftermath. It is one of the more intriguing explorations of society from an album so far this year and deserves to be commended and thoughtfully listened to from the first track to the last. 

The album begins with “Ringa Ringa (The Old Pandemic Folk Song),” a haunting track that sets the tone of wandering into an unfamiliar world after the Covid-19 pandemic. Best described as a song that conveys that “time always becomes a loop,” it merges an old style of Orbital with the present day. However, the highlight comes from the vocals of Mediaevel Baebes, as their version of the classic folk song “Ring O’ Roses,” which was created to describe the Black Plague, is used to cast a similar eerie comparison with Covid-19. This first track is a perfect way to instantly transport the listener into the confusing emotions of the world Orbital is describing.

“[The nursery rhyme] just [fit] so perfectly. It kept haunting me that it was suddenly relevant again.” – Paul Hartnoll, Orbital

The duo then picks up the pace with the second track, “Day One,” which quickly begins with aggressive broken synth notes followed by deep thundering chords. Later, the beautiful operatic voice of Dina Ipavic is introduced and takes the track to new heights. “Day One” alone will take you on quite the five-minute journey as you never know what is coming next. This could arguably be the best song on the entire album. Following “Day One” comes one of the more popular songs off the project, “Are You Alive?” A song that carries a much grittier tone but with the main point of asking the question, where is everything going? In collaboration with close friends, the brother and sister act known as Penelope Isles, the track is described as a break-up song and features one of the more jaw-dropping productions from the entire album.

Orbital then goes on with their next track, “You Are The Frequency,” which showcases their exceptional talent in still being able to create a song for the dancefloor. The first of two tracks off the album using the vocals of The Little Pest, it does what Orbital intended, and that is to completely consume you or, as they say, “[trap] you in a paranoid electronic hall of mirrors.” Then comes the strength of ‘Optical Delusion’ as we get into the back half of the album.

Next with an acid track song in “The New Abnormal,” which has one of the best basslines currently of this year. After that comes a complete change of pace with “Home” featuring Anna B Savage. While “Day One” might be the best song on the album, this one is arguably the most underrated of the entire project. It is incredibly stunning while being mysterious at the same time and offers a little pivot for the listener as they continue on this exploration of human reality. The first minute of this song is unbelievable and so emotional, with the piano arpeggio being just breathtaking.

Then comes the most popular track off the album in “Dirty Rat.” It’s no question why so many people have gravitated toward the leading single, which features Sleaford Mods. It includes a punchy bassline and powering synth chords that will undoubtedly get your senses going. Also, this feels like the perfect track to let out some anger.

“[‘Dirty Rat’] is just a capital letter, isn’t it? Big, simple, loud statement. It’s punk rock, a real wake-up kind of track.” – Paul Hartnoll, Orbital

As the album begins to wind down, Orbital explores more bass-centric elements by first giving us some drum and bass with “Requiem for the Pre-Apocalyse” which transports us back to a world that existed before the pandemic. Then comes the second song with The Little Pest in “What a Surprise” which features a trap-style beat midway through. The only track of its kind on the entire project.

“[‘What a Surprise’]is all about how we’re all radicalized, not just fucking terrorists. We’re all driving each other to extremes.” – Phil Hartnoll, Orbital

To conclude ‘Optical Delusion’ comes “Moon Princess” featuring Coppe. A perfectly selected finale to this part of the journey. It doesn’t seem to give the closure of simply answering the 50-minute-long question of human perception, but that honestly doesn’t seem to be the point. It feels as if this song is aware that the question of the album does not yet have a resolution, and there is still so much more to explore in this new normal. Orbital now sends the listener off on their own exploration of the post-pandemic world and to find their own conclusion.

‘Optical Delusion’ is a masterfully crafted album and shows why Orbital is still in the industry after all this time. Each track is carefully cared for and has its own important piece in the story. There is no throwaway track in this project. This a detail that needs to be commended. You can tell the duo truly cared about exploring how humans perceive their own reality and used the process of creating this album to try to find the answer for themselves. This album deserves a thoughtful listen and will not be surprising if it is relevant for many years to come.

Stream the 10th studio album from Orbital ‘Optical Delusion’ via London Recordings below. Buy tickets to their UK and EIRE tour here.

Image Credit: Kenny McCracken

Hey everyone! I was blessed to have the opportunity to join the WRY team in 2020. I edit WRY's Youtube content and am also a writer for the website. I have been a massive fan in the EDM scene for over ten years and have been fortunate enough to see some iconic moments in person. Some of my favorite artists are Avicii, Martin Garrix, Krewella, The Chainsmokers, and KSHMR. I absolutely love to attend live shows. I try to spend almost every week at some kind of live event or festival (if not in person, at least watching online). And its a guarantee you can always catch me at Ultra Miami every year! Thank you for all the support! Follow me on Twitter to see which show I will be at next! Hopefully I can see you at an event or festival soon!

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