Orbital makes more room for atmospheric introspection on their latest album, Monsters Exist, by scaling back the aggressive drum n’ bass that defined 2012’s Wonky. In the wake of an acrimonious falling out that led Phil and Paul Hartnoll to stop speaking to each other for five years, the reunited brothers—who’ve never shied away from politically and environmentally conscious overtones in their music—draw inspiration from the anxieties of what they describe as the current “global situation” rather than from their own interpersonal conflict. Brexit in particular looms large on the cheekily titled track “P.H.U.K.,” which stands for “Please Help U.K.”: The song’s music video, which juxtaposes archival news footage of the poverty-stricken with images of the opulent elite, may directly convey a sense of a polarized society and the chaos it breeds, but Orbital also seeks to communicate that contrast via the music by pairing frenetic builds with meditative breakdowns.
This contrast, however, between bouncy or turbulent beats and contemplative or cosmic ambience, which recurs throughout Monsters Exist, is so dissonant that it effectively gets in the way of the album making a cohesive statement. “The End Is Nigh” lurches and meanders, its dramatic, expansive beats cutting out abruptly for awkward diversions into discordant electronic effects. Occasionally, these sonic shifts also occur as a result of the album’s sequencing: The opening title track establishes a tension-filled tone, but the upbeat and repetitive “Hoo Hoo Ha Ha” quickly abandons that mood with its campy, lighthearted horns, while “The Raid” then unexpectedly plunges Monsters Exist back into an ominous, dystopian atmosphere.
The album thrives in the spaces where Orbital strikes a balance between, rather than starkly juxtaposes, disparate tempos and textures. When the slinky “Buried Deep Within” kicks into a thrumming rave pulse midway through, it feels like a natural progression of the cosmic soundscapes that opened the track. The Hartnolls also work skillfully with more jagged patterns, as on the sublimely hypnotic “Tiny Foldable Cities,” as stabs of high-pitched keys converge with a throbbing low end on a densely layered track where all the moving parts complement rather than work against each other.
While Orbital has, through the years, frequently embellished their largely instrumental music with guest vocalists, from Alison Goldfrapp to Zola Jesus, the only featured guest on Monsters Exist is physicist Dr. Brian Cox. With an entire track devoted to a spoken-word piece that’s part cosmology lecture, part conservationist TED Talk, he offers a bleak kind of optimism in the notion that our individual atoms achieve a sort of “limited immortality” by living on through the “the great cycle of stellar death and rebirth.” As the album’s final track, such a grandiose closing statement comes off like a forced exercise in high-minded escapism. It’s another jarring turn on an album otherwise content to simply mirror, rather than elaborate on, the muddled, schizophrenic energy of an increasingly disconnected world.