How Orbital created the blissful masterpiece, ‘Belfast’

On 7 January 1991, Orbital released the III EP, the group’s third single, which contained the blissful masterpiece Belfast on its B-side.

The story of how the track came to such a quintessential part of the Hartnoll brothers’ catalogue is the stuff of legend – having been booked to play Belfast Art College in May 1990, David Holmes and Alan Simms ‘discovered’ the track on a discarded demo tape left behind by the band.

A few years back, Paul Hartnoll (check out our 2018 interview with him here) revealed that during a rummage through some old DATs and four-track tape recordings, he had uncovered the original version of Belfast, heretofore imagined lost forever.

As you can hear below, it contains many of the lush features evident in the final version (including the ‘slowed down’ finale) albeit missing the ethereal vocal segment – more on that later.

“I’ve been trying to remember exactly when I recorded it [Belfast],” Paul wrote on his blog. “It comes from the era between my first ever release on the House Sound of London, under the name ‘DS Building Contractors’ and buying our first Orbital DAT after getting a proper record deal with Pete Tong at FFRR.

“I know it was recorded after Chime because the track on the tape before it is a more typical house track that has elements of Chime and Belfast in it.”

As he surmises, some time during the winter of 1989/90, having “finished an early shift at Pizza Piazza” in his native Sevenoaks, Paul sat down to write what would become Belfast.

“I decided to make an ambient song,” he explained. “It was a rainy melancholy mid-week kind of afternoon. I got the chords first and just went from there. Got it all in place as a drumless ambient piece, but I just couldn’t resist the call of the 909 drum machine. So in went the drums. Much better! So ,what you hear here is the jam I did on a rainy afternoon, after work and before catching up with my friends for the evening. At the time I remember thinking it was ok, but I wasn’t over impressed.”

This is when the story gets interesting…

“Months later, after the success of Chime in March 1990, I got a call from David Holmes, DJ, club runner and hair dresser from Belfast. Would Orbital like to play at the Art College in Belfast? Yes!

“So, after the gig, in Davids Mum’s house’s spare bedroom, David asked if we had any demos. Two weeks later, David rings up and tells me that him and his friends all love the second track on the tape. We called it Belfast after the brilliant time we had there. The track was named after, and dedicated to David and all his friends.”

Brother Phil Hartnoll (check out our interview here) recently repeated the same story to the BBC, in an interview to coincide with the duo’s One Big Weekend gig in the Northern Irish capital.

“We left David with a tape, with a demo of Belfast, as it is now known,” he explained. “We had such a brilliant time, we completely loved it, and we thought ‘ok, because of the experience we had, it’s a beautiful track, we’ve got to call it Belfast.”

And as for the hypnotic vocals? As it turns out, they predate the city of Belfast itself.

They are taken from O Euchari, a vocal composition by Hildegard von Bingen, also known as the Sibyl of the Rhine, who plied her trade back in 12th century Germany. The version in question was performed by soprano Emily van Evera.

“When we were making the Orbital III EP, we decided to put a version of Belfast on it,” Paul wrote on his blog. “While I was re-recording it with all the lovely new gear we had bought from the record deal, Phil was making a birthing tape for the imminent arrival of his second child. He was at my Dad’s hi-fi with the headphones on, while I was at the computer and sampler playing through the track.

“He popped the head phones off and said ‘listen to this, it sounds brilliant’. So, he turned the speakers up and hey presto! Hildegard von Bingen’s O Euchari burst through, in tune, in time, Job done!”

A writer, composer, philosopher, visionary and mystic – oh, and a Benedictine abbess – von Bingen took much of her inspiration from the ‘beatific visions’ she saw as a child, which formed the basis for her choral compositions.

Indeed, previous artists had already pillaged O Euchari – as well as appearing in Orbital’s Belfast, the same sample occurs in The Beloved’s The Sun Rising, released the previous year.

Something tells us, however, that the esteemed Ms. Von Bingen may not have approved of the Hartnoll’s choice for the A-side of the III EP, the altogether more blasphemous Satan.

PS: The original tape given to David Holmes featured Belfast on the B-side, with a separate track on the A-side, which came in time to be known as ‘The Other One’. You can listen to it here.

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