BLEEPOGRAPHY: 17 – ORBITAL ‘OMEN’

In today’s edition of the ongoing Bleepography series, Matt Anniss looks at the wider influence of Bleep & Bass on British dance music and in particular Orbital’s often-overlooked take on the style, ‘Omen’

One of the central arguments in Join The Future: Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music is that Bleep & Bass was far more influential at the style’s height in 1990 than most have previously acknowledged. Study British dance music, in particular, during that period, as I have done, and you soon start discovering bleep melodies, rhythmic patterns of booming, sub-heavy basslines in work by all sorts of artists, even those whose success was based on altogether different strands of dance music.

Take The KLF for example. Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, along with their “groove consultant” Tony Thorpe, were musical magpies who touched on a number of different styles. They had a hand in inventing some, too, most notably trance, via the original 1988 version of “What Time Is Love” and “ambient house” courtesy of the brilliant ‘Chill Out’ album.

You wouldn’t expect to find many references to Bleep & Bass in their discography, especially around the time of their “Stadium House” trilogy of pop-dance mega-hits. Yet Thorpe’s 1990 “KKLF vs The Moody Boys” remix of “What Time Is Love” boasts driving, weighty bass, and the mischievous duo’s famous melody – itself eerily similar to Anne Clark’s brilliant 184 cut “Our Darkness” – re-invented as an “LFO” or “The Theme” style bleep line.

Then there’s the chart-topping “Live at the SSL” version of “3AM Eternal”. Made in 1990 but released in January 1991 in order to have a greater chance of chart success (traditionally it was easier to secure a number one single then as a record could sell fewer copies and still hit top spot), the “stadium house” style re-make included a bleep motif eerily similar to Sweet Exorcist’s “Testone” and a bassline notably deeper than most in their collection. It’s not a Bleep & Bass tune, but the influence can still be heard.

There was a period of time in 1990 where every new British club hit seemed to feature a sparse bleep melody. While I’d always argue that the long-lasting influence of the style, and what makes it crucial to British dance music’s development, is the ground-breaking inclusion of heavy sub-bass and other dub reggae/steppers reggae influences, it was the alien-sounding bleep melodies that were more consistently copied at the time. In some ways this is understandable – after all, there was nothing particularly new about the use of simple bleep melodies in electronic music: the Kraftwerk catalogue is full of them (hence the German “techno-pop” masters being sampled in a number of Bleep & Bass cuts).

If you’d been raised on a diet of Kraftwerk, New York electro, early Detroit techno and the skeletal electronic psychedelia of TB-303 driven acid house, then Bleep & Bass must have seemed like a logical next step – albeit one which took bass, and sub-bass specifically, far more seriously than any purely electronic dance style before it.

Orbital’s Phil and Paul Hartnoll liked all of these things, as well as the pioneering alien electronic bleeps and weird noises associated with the BBC’s experimental electronic music laboratory, the Radiophonic Workshop. Paul Hartnoll has previously discussed his love of the Tom Baker ‘Doctor Who’ era, and in particular the heavily electronic incidental music provided by members of the Workshop. He touched on this when I interviewed him and Phil at a live edition of Resident Advisor’s RA Exchange series earlier in the year, as well as some of their formative rave experiences.

One they mentioned specifically, with some prompting, was their first live appearance in Leeds. This took place at the Warehouse at the height of the Bleep & Bass phenomenon. The club counted among its resident and regular DJs Martin Williams (co-founder of LFO and the engineer/producer behind the BASSIC Records studio) and Nightmares on Wax, while LFO made their debut live performance there. Famously, the 12” mix of their self-titled debut single was subtitled “The Leeds Warehouse Mix”.

At this point, Orbital were still riding high on the success of their superb debut single, “Chime”, which charted highly, got them on to Top of the Pops and has gone on to become one of the most popular and iconic British dance tracks of all time. When they appeared at the Warehouse, it’s highly likely that Paul and Phil would have performed tracks from their follow-up EP, “Omen”. This was, and remains, the most Bleep-influenced release in the Hartnoll brothers’ catalogue. It’s no surprise that it was made and released at a time when Bleep & Bass was not only flavour of the month, but arguably flavour of the year.

In its’ original 12” form, “Omen” owes a big debt to the Bleep & Bass records that had been emerging from Yorkshire since the release of Unique 3’s ‘Only The Beginning’ and ‘The Theme’ in October 1988. Darker, creepier and more alien-sounding than ‘Chime’ or its B-side ‘Deeper’, the track is less reliant on breakbeats than much of their work. Instead, it boasts drums and rhythmic fills influenced by Forgemasters’ ‘Track With No Name’ and Sweet Exorcist’s ‘Testone’.

The ghostly chords introduced early in the track use a synth sound reminiscent of ‘Track With No Name’, too, while the layered melodic motifs are pure Bleep and Bass. The bassline is far more prominent – another nod to Bleep and Bass – while there’s another nod to Yorkshire, and Sheffield in particular, in the use of a prominent vocal sample from a 1985 ABC track (“I’ve seen the future”). As tributes to the “northern sound” go, “Omen” is wholehearted and fairly sonically accurate, even if its’ emotive feel is a little more succinctly saucer-eyed than many of the Bleep & Bass cuts that inspired it.

‘Omen’ was first released on a three-track EP that also included another track similar in tone to the sparse, metallic and intoxicating mutations of house and techno that marked out the best Northern English dance records of the period: ‘Open Mind’. Tough, mind-altering and undeniably industrial in ethos, it utilised sounds that first entered the musical lexicon following the release of A Guy Called Gerald’s ‘Voodoo Ray’ in 1988. They also featured in a host of Yorkshire-made records – think Nightmares on Wax’s ‘Dextrous’, the Mad Musician’s ‘JazzOut’ and Sweet Exorcist’s follow-up to ‘Testone’, ‘Clonk’ – in 1989 and 1990, around the time ‘Open Mind’ was made. Orbital’s clonking interpretation was a little wilder, as you might expect, and also featured the kind of fuzzy, aggressive and alien synthesiser sounds that were then more of a feature of Belgian and Dutch hardcore.

In addition to the regular ‘Omen’ EP there was also a second 12” containing a suite of remixes and alternate versions by the Hartnoll brothers. These, two, doff a cap not only to Bleep & Bass but some of the earlier styles that inspired the genre’s creation. ‘The Chariot’ and ‘The Tower’ mixes both pepper a loose electro rhythm with a number of bleeping melody patterns, while the flipside ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and ‘The Fall’ versions are sparse and stripped back, prioritising the track’s bassline and bleep melodies with much less use of the emotive elements that tie the original mix closely into the developing – and now so familiar – Orbital sound.

Of course, Phil and Paul Hartnoll would go on to scale even greater heights with their self-titled 1991 debut album (popularly known as ‘The Green Album’) and its’ similarly eponymous 1992 sequel (‘The Brown Album’), firmly establishing themselves as one of Britain’s most popular dance acts. By 1994 they were big enough to play a headline-grabbing set on the main stage at Glastonbury, a significant moment in the story of dance music’s rise to wider acceptance within the music industry at large.

Since then, they’ve never looked back, and later this year will celebrate 30 years in the business with a brand new album. Their brief dalliance with Bleep – or at least their take on it – is perhaps not one of their most celebrated moments, but it nevertheless played a part in the style’s complex  (if short-lived) story.

To purchase a physical or digital copy of Matt Anniss’s book Join The Future: Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music, head to the Velocity Press website. To buy vinyl or digital copies of the Join The Future: UK Bleep & Bass 1988-91 compilation, head to Bandcamp or Bleep.com

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mattanniss

Freelance writer, editor, copywriter and communications professional. Music obsessive. DJ. Sports anorak.

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