The Orb recorded and released their inarguable masterpiece, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, in 1991. This was followed in short order by 1992’s U.F.Orb and 1993’s Live ‘93. These three albums alone cemented their position in the history of electronic music. However, as is often the case with groups whose early works remain critical touchstones, the Orb’s later work has suffered from commercial neglect and critical irrelevancy.
One of the problems when examining the Orb’s latest work is the fact that Dr. Alex Paterson and company have not significantly changed their approach to making music in the intervening decade. The music may sound different, but the effect is altogether the same. Instead of smooth, tribal proto-trance rhythms, maybe now the sound will be filled with thicker, dub-sticky breakbeats. But the music still ebbs and flows like it has since the very beginning, with the very same instrumental samples and vocal snippets floating in and out and through the proceedings. The effect, as always, has never been to surprise or to subdue the listener, but to touch and placate a very deep and primal need that the listener doesn’t even know exists.
The longest track on Bicycles & Tricycles is “Abstractions (Trance Pennine Express)”, also the hardest song on the album. And yet, strangely, the metallic breakbeat that pulses under the entire song doesn’t really want to make you dance, it wants to hypnotize you. The music wants to lull you into a state of infantile acceptance. The beat itself is gorgeously thick and pulsating, and you want to hear it better, but these clouds of odd synth noises keep wafting over, obscuring your “view”. Ultimately, you can’t think of anything better to do than sit in stunned silence, allowing the waves of sound to wash over you.
I could easily be describing the effect of hearing any number of early Orb hits, such as the sublime (or sublimely odd) “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From the Centre of the Ultraworld” or the majestic “Perpetual Dawn”. Ultimately, although the technology and the individual reference points have changed, the goal of the Orb remains exactly the same: to use pulsating repetition in order to open the gates of numinous perception.
The album begins with “Orb Is (Shopping Version)”, a relatively sparse exercise in mid-tempo breakbeat soundscaping à la the Future Sound of London’s “Papua New Guinea”. It’s one of a few tracks, alongside “Abstractions” and “From a Distance”, that betray the studio presence of Jack Dangers, the mastermind behind the legendary Meat Beat Manifesto and one of Paterson’s few true peers. I hesitate to call anything the Orb have ever done funky, because their raison d’etre has always been the obviation of funk, but the significantly phatter breaks that dot the album could perhaps be termed quite funky indeed.
The biggest surprise on the album for longtime Orb fans will probably be “Aftermath”, featuring an energetic rap by MC Soom T. It’s startlingly minimal for the Orb, hardly obscuring the vocal performance at all. It’s more than a little reminiscent of something one of the more liberal-minded hip-hop producers would conjure up—maybe MF Doom with a head cold.
But “Aftermath” is followed by “The Land of Green Ginger”, which features one of those corny British voiceover bits that Paterson loves so well. It could easily have fit on 1995’s Orbus Terrarum, save maybe for a bit of additional bass. It’s got everything you’ve come to expect from the Orb: scaling melodic basslines, multiple harmonic synth patterns, all arrayed over a very light but insistent beat.
“Hell’s Kitchen” is in the running to be my favorite track off the album. It is one of the more odd songs that I’ve heard in quite a while, featuring what sounds like a hundred bagpipes playing in unison over majestic synthesizer lines and a beat that could have been swiped from a 1992 Consolidated album. It basically sounds like twelve different iPods exploding in your head all at the same time like pigeons stuffed with Alka-Selzer. And that’s a very good thing.
“Gee Strings” is a dub track that sounds almost like an attempt to ape the faux-R&B elements in UK Garage—but again, the beat is mesmerizing all by its lonesome. “From a Distance (Blast Master vs. The Corporal)” is a rather clever homage to the Orb hits of old, featuring the very same synthesized choral notes that made “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain . . .” so chillingly effective thirteen years ago. There’s even the cock’s crow from “Little Fluffy Clouds”. But “From a Distance” also has the pseudo-ragga vocals of the Corporal over a farting synth bassline and accompanying techno shuffle-step. Never let it be said that Paterson & Co. don’t try at least try and keep things fresh.
The album ends on a more somber and restrained note, more in tune with the Orb of yore. “Tower Twenty Three (Spud v Kreature Mix)” is the kind of laid-back electro dub that Massive Attack used to make, albeit with a bit more whimsy thrown in the mix. “Kompania (Grooved Ware Mix)” is a spooky sample collage that reminds me a little bit of early Boards of Canada . . . except, of course, that the Orb and Aphex Twin have been doing these types of pieces since long before BoC were a twinkle in their daddy’s proverbial eye. It’s haunting and slightly sinister and perfectly effective. The album ends with “Dilmun”, which features the same kind of cascading, pulsating synth lines and samples that “Kompania” did, only harnessed to melancholy and regret instead of the slightly ominous horror-film vibe.
Bicycles & Tricycles is a very good album. It showcases the Orb back in peak form after 2001’s slightly disappointing Cydonia. There is nothing on here that will redefine or recreate the musical entity known as the Orb in the minds of their fans, but there is certainly enough diversity and vigor present here to surprise those who had thought them passe in the year 2004.
I don’t think they will ever be able to top Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, or even U.F.Orb, but that’s OK. When you create something that almost single-handedly defines a genre, something that helps to bring critical respect and commercial attention to a heretofore mostly-ignored field of musical endeavor, it is only to be expected that the remainder of your career would be something of an anticlimax.
I’ve certainly heard worse anticlimaxes in my day.