Snivilisation is now, for most of its length, a soundtrack for a moderately busy office.
The shelves of every second-hand junk store offer archaeological strata that can be read as frankly and devastatingly as any ruin. That which was once held high is now made low and jettisoned here, brief moments of cultural pleasure discarded. When considered en masse, the fact becomes visible that nothing ages faster than the cutting edge.
Orbital’s Snivilisation—which I salvaged on CD for the princely sum of $3 and mostly undamaged— was a high-water mark of dance culture in 1994 and was voted one of Q magazine’s “25 Best Dance Albums Ever” in 1997. Now, it’s unsurprisingly dated, but not in the ways in which a resurrection might be possible—it’s still too close to us for nostalgia to work its magic. It will be some years, if at all, before a future Trunk Records or Ghost Box plunders it for riffs and loops. Instead, the moments and pop cultural currents that some of these songs refer to have passed, leaving them generally interesting enough to warrant revisiting but not distinct enough to sample for kudos. And as an exercise in relistening, it’s fascinating to hear those moments that were, if not briefly the outer limits of popular electronica, close enough to them, sounding now largely as innocuous as a very mild sonic wallpaper with just a frisson of discord remaining.
The album opens with “Forever,” which expertly circles around a series of soft chord stabs, utilizing similarly subdued sub-jungle drum loops, sampling the long-forgotten film Britannia Hospital to makes its point—a point lost as the sampled speech sits heavily reverbed, just at the limit of audibility.
“I Wish I Had Duck Feet” literally emerges out of a fabulously annoying bubbling sample, tabla beats morphing into another mid-tempo platform for sampled film dialogue to weave around. “Crash and Carry” burbles along nicely at close to the dance-requisite of 120 bpm, foot-tappingly moving through its sections and offering a clarification of the Hartnoll brothers’ compositional practice, blocks of rhythms in fours and eights adding details as they progress, ebbing and flowing in waves.
“Kein Trink Wasser” tinkles its way through a player piano-esque flurry for nearly three minutes before a burbling bass synth introduces a mid-tempo and pleasingly hollow percussive rhythm, none of which bears any obvious relation to the piano hammering we’ve only just endured. Again, as is the case on this album, and perhaps electronic music of this period more broadly, sequenced sections are aggregated so that after another two minutes of burbling synth bass, the piano returns and slots back into place seamlessly. But it must be asked, to what end? Or perhaps what is the purpose of a track that plays out like a home keyboard demo mode, pleasingly complex enough to be just beyond the ability of the amateur consumer, but with the suggestion that you, too, could easily accomplish this kind of sound?
“Crash and Carry” offers a return to the dance floor and is one of the album’s finer moments, managing to capture an urgency in the layered synth basses which stab and weave over the top of a frenetic, bass drum-focused rhythm. In comparison, the one-and-a-half minute “Quality Seconds” has been compared elsewhere to the worst electro-punk moments of Moby’s “Animal Rights.” If anything, it’s worse than that.
However, before the album is damned here with faint praise, it’s important to remember the cultural context that surrounded it and, in particular, the British Parliament’s passing of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994). This act which, amongst other things, gave police the power to break up raves and dance parties, managed to also define music as “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” This led to Autechre’s “Anti EP,” which contained music designed to include non-repetitive beats throughout, specifically as a means of flouting the bill. But that’s another story for a different time. Here, Orbital’s response to the bill is “Are We Here” (with vocals by Alison Goldfrapp), which when released as a stand-alone single included the B-Side “Are We Here? (Criminal Justice Bill?)”—four minutes of silence. The silence, and thus the protest, is absent from the album version. What’s here is a 15-minute track of satisfying beats, more cleverly utilized out-of-context vocal samples and Goldfrapp’s always glorious vocalisations, combining in a track whose impact is largely forgotten as soon as it’s finished.
Snivilisation, in 1994, was a rich and cunningly crafted document, masterfully capturing of a range of emergent electronica motifs and bringing these to popular attention in a way, and at a scale, few others had accomplished. Snivilisation is now, for most of its length, a soundtrack for a moderately busy office. It’s pleasingly ambient enough to not intrude, but with enough happening to encourage an unconscious typing-in-time, a useful productivity where the sampled slogans that occur throughout, which were once ironic statements, now sound positively gleeful.