The Orb have a sense of humor, all right. Prior to the release of Moonbuilding 2703 AD, the one and only album they recorded for the Kompakt label was cheekily named Okie Dokie It’s the Orb on Kompakt. Ten years on, Alex Patterson and Thomas Fehlmann are back on the German label, kicking off their new lunar adventure with the following sound bite: “First, God does not exist. But don’t worry; what does exist is good, as opposed to evil. So if you believe in God, you believe in good. And that’s as it should be. You are just fine. If you believe in evil, then you probably need a whack on the back of the neck with a big, fucking stick.” This nugget of humanism is spoken in all seriousness, mixed right inside the hovering sounds of Patterson and Fehlmann’s vast musical space.
After a collaboration with Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour and two collaborations with reggae producer Lee Scratch Perry, The Orb still sound like The Orb. Moonbuilding 2703 AD is as deep and eerie as anything they’ve recorded before, maybe more so. Of the music inside, Patterson says it’s “a solid piece of music that mutates into an eight legged lunar Land Rover and takes off into a cosmic horizon of a million sounds, patterns and textures.” All I can say to that is that I have a hard time disagreeing with him.
Patterson and Fehlmann construct their sound by process of elimination. After throwing many samples, sequences, sound bites, and electronic pads to the wall, they slowly start to peel away things that they feel don’t belong. This approach seems to have worked well for them, giving the world of electronica a lengthy, abstract hit with “Little Fluffy Clouds” and a slew of compelling albums like The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld and Orbus Terrarum that will be enjoyed far into the future. Knowing what The Orb’s modus operandi is, it’s still hard to listen to Moonbuilding 2703 AD while imagining them pulling it off this way. How do they do it? How can you throw a dozen kitchen sinks at the mixing desk, do some editing, and still manage to make the perfect soundtrack to the excavation of a monolith on the surface of the moon? From where does this stuff come?
It’s always been like that with The Orb, though. Atmosphere takes priority over more conventional components of music like melody and symmetry. Tracing a beginning, middle, and end in an Orb track is sometimes like hitting a moving target, and Moonbuilding 2703 AD‘s four extended tracks bury the nuances far below the surface. A tucked-away sample will gradually increase in volume, establish the fact that it’s out of phase with the rest of the music, and then proceed to set the pace for the new section. This is done with all the subterfuge that electronic music can muster—which is to say, quite a bit. For example, when listening to opener “God’s Mirrorball” in its entirety, the changes are quite easy to miss. But if you have the 14:45 track as a sound file on your computer, a few quick moves of the cursor will show you just how much mutates of the course of those 14-plus minutes. It takes nearly five minutes for the album’s shortest song to crawl to life. At 9:18, “Lunar Caves” spends about 75% of its time staying close to the ground, saving its subtle rise for the end.
Ambient swells are all well and good for music that likes to play hide-and-seek, but Moonbuilding 2703 AD also features some propulsively catchy rhythm patterns and wickedly slinky bass lines. This is especially true for the first half where “God’s Mirrorball” comes to life with a march-lite pattern and “Moon Scapes 2703 BC” steadily rolls into a tribal beat set to one chord accompanied with an opposing note. The concluding title track is the laid back groove better befitting the image of a glittering mirrorball—or at least that’s how the 13:05 epilogue starts out. As “Moonbuilding 2703 AD” treks along, the mirrorball gently comes apart and disperses its pieces in different parts of the solar system. As far those bass lines go, do yourself a favor and forget about your computer speakers. You need to jam those buds in and let the low end carry you out of orbit.
This approach applies to the bigger picture, too. Moonbuilding 2703 AD, like many other Orb albums, is tailored for the close listener in all of us—not to pick up on the details themselves, but to witness the many details interacting with one another as they wash over you in a mental state of zero gravity. They did it again, those guys, and it will put you over the moon.
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