Though I wasn’t personally familiar with Orbital prior to the release of Optical Delusion, their tenth studio album, it turns out that the duo (composed of brothers Paul and Phil Hartnol) had been making music since the early 1990s. After receiving worldwide attention following their headline performance at the 1994 Glastonbury Festival, the band went on to score two UK top five albums with that same year’s Snivilisation and 1996’s In Sides.
Their nearly three-decade career has no doubt been tumultuous, as the brothers ceased making music together as Orbital first in 2004 and then again in 2014.
Though it’s primarily electronic, Optical Delusion presents an intriguing mix of styles including EDM, synth-pop, and even rap-punk on “Dirty Rat” (having now heard the album in its entirety, I’m a bit puzzled by the band’s decision to release that track as the first single). Of the thirteen songs on the album, only three feature traditional vocal melodies.
Optical Delusion is the sixth entry in SuperDeluxeEdition.com’s “Surround Sound Series” of limited-edition Blu-Ray discs with spatial audio mixes. The Dolby Atmos mix is also available to stream on Apple Music and Tidal.
The band recruited British audio engineer Mark Ayres – best known for his mixing work at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – to mix the album in 5.1 surround sound & Dolby Atmos, and he’s done a masterful job.
As Ayres notes in his short liner-note essay (a must read for audiophiles), this kind of electronic composition lends itself perfectly to the immersive mixing. Fortunately for us fans, he really wanted to push the envelope with the Atmos mix and the results are among the best I’ve heard to date.
That said, the DTS-HD 5.1 mix (which Ayres notes is a “tweaked downmix” from the Dolby Atmos master) is equally engaging and will likely satisfy any listeners limited to a 5.1 setup.
Right from the opening notes of the first track, the electronic kick and snare sounds alternate between the front and rear speakers – creating the impression of standing within a massive sample-based drum kit – as various synthesizer and vocal layers begin to build from all around the room. The center speaker is utilized in an interesting way on the instrumental songs, primarily for eerie isolated percussive samples that really ‘pop’ out of the mix.
Moving into the second track, “Day One,” The metallic percussion oscillates between the rear speakers as the thunderous kick emanates from upfront.
Among the many highlights of the album is track 6, “Home,” featuring vocals from British singer-songwriter Anna B Savage. This track is somewhat “retro” and almost sounds like it came off a Eurythmics album from the mid-1980s. There’s a particularly fun bit where the echo plexed spoken word vocals are spread all throughout the listening space.
As good as the 5.1 mix sounds, the Dolby Atmos presentation quite literally takes the music to new heights. Ayres makes full use of the side, rear, and top speakers for a full-on immersive experience.
Penelope Isles’ multi-tracked vocals in “Are You Alive?” are spread all throughout the room – including the height speakers – while the lead stays locked to the center channel. As that track builds to a thrilling finale, one can detect different interlocking synthesizer lines in front of, behind, and above the main listening position.
The sound quality is excellent as well, with both surround mixes packing more dynamic range than the dedicated stereo version. This kind of music is intended to sound ‘punchy’ and dynamic processing is a key part of creating that effect, but it never gets to be fatiguing at higher volume.
I must also commend SuperDeluxeEdition for being among the few parties to take advantage of Blu-Ray’s extended storage capabilities, packing this disc with four distinct audio options: Dolby Atmos, 5.1 surround sound, a dedicated stereo mix, and an alternative stereo mix derived from the Dolby Atmos master. As if that wasn’t enough, the same four options are included for an instrumental version of the main album–bringing the total to a whopping eight(!) unique audio streams.
Overall, this may be the most impressive SDE Blu-Ray release to date (at least until the release of Ten Years After’s A Space In Time next month, featuring Dolby Atmos, 5.1 Surround, and Quadraphonic mixes!).