Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Song that Changed My Life: Orbital's "The Box"

The Bullseye podcast, with Jesse Thorn, occasionally interviews musicians about songs that changed their lives. The answers range from The Beatles to a guy who made music for player pianos. For me, that song was Orbital's The Box, released in 1996. The drum pattern backing the song is pretty typical of the other electronic music of the time, but there's no vocals or samples. There's just that moody, eery music.

When I was growing up, the only music I can remember having in the house was Bon Jovi and the Top Gun soundtrack. When I was eight or nine years old, I started listening to Weird Al, and the local top 40 radio station. I didn't really know anything about the other radio stations that might be out there, except that I didn't want to listen to what my parents were listening to.

Eventually, when I was about 12, I started listening to the local alternative station, mostly because it was what my friends were listening to. It didn't take long before I started getting exposed to the electronica music that was starting to hit the airwaves in 1996. In addition to "The Box," I also enjoyed Prodigy's Firestarter, and the Chemical Brothers' Setting Sun--in the latter case, possibly because I liked Oasis, and it had one of them doing vocals for the song.

For the radio station's "Deck the Hall Ball" that year, they booked The Presidents of the United States of America, Silverchair, the Butthole Surfers, Stabbing Westward, Fun Lovin' Criminals, and the Eels. They initially booked the Chemical Brothers as the closing act, but those guys had to drop out because of something like an ear infection, and they booked Orbital instead. I was not able to go to this concert, of course, because that would have meant having money for a ticket. However, the radio station broadcast the tail end of the show. They were running later than expected, and it wasn't until about midnight that Orbital came on.

They played for two fucking hours, and it just blew my mind. Until then, I had no idea that you could make music without words that was still able to evoke different moods and textures. Go listen to The Box again, compare it to those other songs and artists I mentioned above, and I think you'll agree that it is a completely different thing from what anyone else was doing at the time. They didn't become as popular as some of the other artists (at least not in America), but they weren't making music meant for bumping night clubs.

I devoured every Orbital album after that, and then started branching out into other electronic music, everything from trance DJ mixes to 8-bit chiptunes made on some guy's Amiga in Finland. Most of the music I own today is electronic dance music, and some of it has had a pretty profound influence on me. I might never have had the chance to hear any of it if it weren't for Orbital.

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