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Best Of British: Best Live Act - Orbital

Orbital's glorious incendiary return

Before this year dance music, unlike rock & roll, hadn't really ventured down the comeback trail - possibly because a great deal of dance music is perceived (wrongly or rightly) as of its time and should only concentrate on the future; but more likely because a sufficient amount of time had yet to lapse to make a comeback a viable option. Whatever the reason, it's unsurprising that Orbital should find themselves in the position of innovators once more.

When the Hartnoll brothers Paul and Phil announced at the tail end of last year that they were to reform for a series of shows in 2009, the news was greeted with widespread warmth and excitement.

Since Orbital split in 2004 (Paul says it began to feel like they were going through the motions, while Phil argues that they never wanted to outstay their welcome) not only had we missed their incendiary and celebratory live performances, but, crucially, they began to miss the thrill of playing live too.

"I think that was key," says younger brother Paul. "In reality, what we actually needed was a break, but we probably needed to split up to realise what we had lost. We began to appreciate it again."

Consequently their return has gone better than even they dared hope. Not only are they still attracting those that would have attended their life-changing and life-affirming gigs of the 1990s - their majestic performance at Glastonbury in 1994 immediately springs to mind - but, pleasingly, a new generation of fans are in attendance too.

"We did a gig at a Snowboarding Festival in Battersea the other day," explains Paul, "and there were so many young people there who obviously weren't Orbital fans back then, but they were loving it. A friend of mine pointed out that most of the front row weren't even conceived when 'Chime' came out."

Phil laughs in recognition of this statement because just the other day a friend's daughter told him that her mum used to play Orbital's music to her all the time when she was a child.

The key reason for this breakdown in the audience, Paul believes, is that unlike in the '80s, ageism no longer afflicts music. In his eyes - and he attributes this possibly to the rise of the iPod and its shuffle facility - old or new music aren't separate anymore; both are equally valid.

"I think what we play is new music but we're older people," he explains. "We no longer have the inexperience and arrogance of youth, which can help create great music, but great music can also come from skilled musicians. It's almost a pre-requisite for jazz and blues musician say."

Another factor which both are embracing is the wisdom that comes with age - both concede that they're far happier in their lives now that both are over 40 than they were when in their twenties.

"We're not so self-conscious anymore," Paul says. "It's a nice place to be. What that means musically is that we're no longer playing it safe, something which perhaps had begun to creep in towards the end last time. We're improvising with the structure again, which is something we've always been about."

So now that their return has been an unbridled success, what does the future hold for Orbital? Is there a new album in the offing?

"Truthfully, we're just seeing what happens," answers Paul. "That's another aspect of feeling comfortable. Albums no longer seem to mean what they did. The thought of working on something for a year and then just giving it away on the internet for free certainly doesn't appeal. I think we're at a bit of a crossroads: record labels are dinosaurs, but if people don't pay for music in some way sites like Spotify will just be full of shit."

The pair are working on updating their material though; whether that means re-working old songs that were never fully finished - they're currently in the studio reconfiguring a track that dates back to 'Chime' 20 years ago - or injecting new songs into their set, they're both acutely aware of not just playing a 'Greatest Hits'-type show. So far the response has been fantastic and the award of the Best British Live Act has put the proverbial cherry on top of what has been a memorable 12 months.

"Playing live has always been a strong point of ours," Paul says, "and because we never really had that much chart success the awards we've received always seemed to come for our live performances. I think both of our NME Brats were for playing live.

"But truly this has been a great year - to come back after a five-year gap and stretch our legs once more has been really enjoyable."

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