Do you know what time it is? Have you got time? Is the time right, or is it out of joint? And how do you know if it’s time to change?
Technology was supposed to free us from the tyranny of time - to emancipate us from the ticking clock, the blinking LCD. But it didn’t quite work out that way. The interconnected world means tighter schedules, endless rolling news, instant communication. What do you do when time renews its mastery?
“I’ve always been interested in time,” says Paul Hartnoll, until recently one half of Orbital, Britain’s beloved, torch-bespectacled electronic innovators and live techno pioneers who brought down the curtain on a 25 year career in 2014. “I’ve always had a thing for clocks, and for time as a powerful force - but also the way time oppresses you. It’s one of those things I keep coming back to.”
And he went back to it again after he and Phil Hartnoll separated last year. “Orbital had stopped working properly.” Paul explains. “We’d had a great four years since getting back together in 2008, but it was time to move on.” As Paul began to explore the new freedom of working alone, he kept returning to a doodle he has drawn since he was a teenager: a clock face with the time frozen at 8:58.
“For me, 8:58 is a moment of choice,” Paul explains. “It’s almost 9 o’clock. Are you going to school? Are you going in to this job that you hate? Everybody faces that decision now and again. 8:58 am is when you’ve got to make up your mind.”
The more he thought about it, the more the idea of 8:58 began to shape his new, more personal music. “Doing this music was an 8:58 moment for me too. Am I going to be truthful to myself? Do I keep battling on with Orbital or do I make a break and try something new? It was decision time.”
The record that came out of all this is a rich and enthralling thing in which Paul expands Orbital’s delirious complexity and weapons-grade dancefloor appeal into new and more sophisticated areas. It’s all there in a stately and exhilarating opener, where bells, pistons and angelic robot choirs resemble a future glockenspiel. It’s introduced with a spine-tingling monologue on the theme of time by ‘Peaky Blinders’ star Cillian Murphy. The name of the track, album and artist is - what else? - ‘8:58’.
Elsewhere there are intriguing, twilit collaborations with Northumbrian folk clan The Unthanks, sepulchral singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt, folk singer Lisa Knapp, and Robert Smith of The Cure - the latter on a newly-rediscovered and superior version of Paul’s 2007 single ‘Please’. There are disquieting walks in the woods, streams of consciousness from English history, ghostly refrains, and at least two straight-up dancefloor bangers in the shape of ‘Nearly There’ and ‘Cemetery’ featuring new artist ‘Fable’.
“The album’s a development of where I was going with Orbital,” Paul says. “Our last album ‘Wonky’ was designed to be played live. But I wanted to do something more collaborative, more of a film soundtrack or a concept album.” He’s succeeded: ‘8:58’ is a time machine and a walk-in dream, a dance record for the mind, and a concept album that effortlessly moves the body. “There are plenty of beats,” he adds, “But I wanted to exercise my more compositional side too, and bring in a witchy, ‘Wicker Man’ aspect.”
Key to the latter - and echoing Paul’s collaboration with Robert Smith - is The Unthanks’ astonishing ensemble performance on a cover of ‘A Forest’, one of Paul’s all-time favourite songs from the early days of The Cure. He’d always wanted to work with The Unthanks. “When listening to their song ‘I Wish’, was struck with the idea that ‘A Forest’ would suit The Unthanks’ unnerving pastoral-gothic voices if slowed down.” Paul thought of funeral marches and Kraftwerk’s ‘Looking Glass’, and techno’s hidden pagan undertow. After all, why do both ravers and Morrismen wave sticks in the air and dance in the summertime…?
After building the track he traveled up to record their voices among the unique acoustics of The Unthanks’ “folk barn” near Newcastle, just before Christmas 2013. “Big stone house in the middle of nowhere, pot of tea with a proper tea cosy, lovely warm welcome… it was everything I could have wished for,” he remembers. “They sat on the floor and sang the song for me in really low voices - I was nearly in tears. And the studio was like a Victorian museum of musical curiosities with weird instruments on display and bunting everywhere. I loved every moment of it.”
Sparse and solemn yet full of that indefinably rich, deep, dark below-the-waterline quality, ‘A Forest’ is a pivotal moment in an album that marks a new lease of life for Paul. At the end of 2014 he put together a TV soundtrack for the second series of Birmingham gangland drama ‘Peaky Blinders’ with Flood and P.J. Harvey (hence the Cillian Murphy connection). “It sounds like me wearing a 19th Century cravat,” Paul jokes. “It’s real instruments distorted in an electronic style - steampunk with samplers.”
With various festivals in the diary for the summer and autumn, Paul plans to bring the live set to life with his usual energy and intuition. The set is heavy with classic Orbital tracks, along with the new 8:58 material, with favourites like “Chime” and “Halcyon” making an appearance, as well as “Satan” “Forever” and many others.
As Cillian Murphy says at the very beginning of ‘8:58’: brace yourself for freedom. Now.