Orbital: 'Halcyon On and On' (1993)
When people talk about their favourite song of all time, which is an even bigger admission during a time of streaming and being constantly inundated with new music, the Socially Acceptable choices are usually The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Fleetwood Mac, House of the Rising Sun... The decision feels like it has to appease certain conditions of taste, when really declaring a favourite track is our prerogative, and can be something we hold dear for myriad reasons. So here goes: my favourite track of all time is 'Halcyon On and On' by British electronic duo Orbital. Released in 1993, it is one of ten tracks on the band's second self-titled album, including the incredible two-parter 'Lush 3-1' and 'Lush 3-2'. It samples 'It's a Fine Day', a 1992 dance track by Opus III which I also love; ashamedly I did not make the connection that the former had sampled the latter until about a thousand listens in.
'Halcyon On and On' is a saga of a song, and rewards full attention. The song partly holds such a dear place in my heart because I remember exactly where I was when I first heard it; having just come out of a relationship that had simply fizzled out, my head was in the limbo between mourning the loss and figuring out what to do next with my life. The song's introduction is long and drawn-out, and could be interpreted as sentimental. Heavily inspired by the likes of ambient techno and Enya, it has an instantly calming effect. A keyboard plays a simple riff and the airy female vocals make fairly nonsensical sounds over the top, almost like a lullaby. One particular YouTube user has created an unofficial DIY video for Orbital's track, which at the time of writing has over 14 million views, where we are flying over sandy dunes in the desert; it is pure bliss.
Then, just over two minutes in (it's a lengthy 9:27 in total so we are just getting started) a bassline joins the floating vocals and piano work; again a simple configuration, but it is such a startling contrast to the comforting sounds that it jolts us back into our bodies. We are into the chorus at 2:31 and Kirsty Hawkshaw of Opus III has her vocals spliced into a new dimension, completely detaching themselves from 'It's a Fine Day'; Orbital opt not to use any actual words, instead taking the swirling sounds and keeping them as an indistinguishable, universal non-language. It is the kind of sample that is found in the Happy Hardcore genre, and somehow makes me think of an ambient version of The House Crew's 'We Are Hardcore' released the previous year; another brilliant track, but so different to 'Halcyon On and On'.
Once the vocals have dissolved for the first time, the bassline and synth background are in conversation and are in no way synchronised, instead inviting us in and telling us a story: it is impossible to refuse or resist. The drumming as part of this ensemble is very 1980s, you can almost imagine Rick Astley busting a move in between all the other parts. When the vocals return, the "la la la la la" is more distinct and noticeable, cleverly lulling us into this dream state with its wholesome and innocent facade. 'Halcyon On and On' belongs in the rave, but it is certainly not out of place in the home. I could play it aloud on a Bluetooth speaker whilst having a picnic and it wouldn't feel like anti-social behaviour.
The atomic parts are often so conflicted that it can feel like two different songs are playing at once. In a sea of vocals, basslines, synths and pianos, Orbital expertly transition them at varying levels, so by the final chorus crescendo, there is a heightened emotional response, with a secondary vocal that is almost bird-like, creating tuneful noises such as "woooooooo" to whip up the crowd to exactly where they should be: 'Halcyon On and On' is a song of ecstasy, of hope and of excitement, all while somehow evoking a calm that you can also dance to. It is aural alchemy, and as I heard the track for that first time, covered in goosebumps and eyes wider than the sun, I was motivated to do whatever it too to make my immediate future a time of joy, experimentation and optimism.