How to Survive Comfy Couches, Blinding Lasers, and All-Night Raves
For even the most casual fan of ambient electronic music, the Orb is one of the most important acts you could ever know, up there with Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, and Aphex Twin. Since the late ‘80s, the primarily English collective has been drawing people away from the sweaty main stage and into the chill room with their unique brand of comedown, atmospheric house and eccentric sampledelica. What’s more, they convinced a line-up of conscious street consumers to head for the neon couches as they watched their first six albums in the ‘90s crack the UK top 30, including a number one in the form of 1992’s U.F.Orb. Then, after their press started to turn sour on the island, Rolling Stone began singing their praises in North America, which helped land 2004’s Bicycles and Tricycles on the Billboard electronic charts. They’ve done Tops of the Pops, a Peel session, and some 80 commissioned remixes of the industry’s finest, while redefining expectations of the party dynamic. The Orb is legendary.
Since it began in 1988, there have been over half a dozen Orb members. The good Doctor Alex Patterson has remained their only constant. After years as a roadie for Killing Joke, Patterson settled down with eventual KLF founder Jimmy Cauty and began deejaying around London under the spherical name, quickly landing a residency at Oakenfold’s Heaven. They would release their first charting single in ‘89 with the help of Al’s Killing Joke pal, bassist Martin “Youth” Glover, then broke up the following year under the stress of choosing a label. Alex kept the name from becoming a mere KLF side project and Cauty went on to his own time-constrained success.
From 1991 to ‘94, Patterson paired with engineer Kris “Trash” Weston and sought influence from Steve Hillage (guitar), Andy Falconer, and Berlin producer Thomas Fehlmann. This formation produced two top 10 albums and a 40-minute saga called “Blue Room” that would surprise everyone by peaking at number eight on the singles chart. As far as commercial glory goes, this time of alien infatuation and legal ambiguity was the most successful period of the Orb, but problems within the group remained persistent. Weston walked away after 1994’s Pomme Fritz, their first album for Island, citing a belief that Patterson didn’t do his half of the work as his reasoning. However, Fehlmann eagerly stepped into the vacated role as a fully-fledged partner along with touring member Andy Hughes to maintain the group as a trio. Over the course of their next three full-lengths, this formation would push their sound from a sparse, organic vein to the techno-pop and trance-dub realm enjoyed by Delerium’s more upbeat and Orbital’s less minimal numbers.
Cydonia from 2001 was almost universally derided by critics under the belief it pandered to aging ravers still sketchy from the cresting dawn of Madchester. The rebellion worked, making it the first Orb album not to crack the UK charts. They have not been back since. Hughes left shortly after Cydonia‘s release, immediately replaced by one Simon Phillips, and Island dropped them with disgust, as they have so many great artists. Yet the Orb continued on that silky course with 2004’s Bicycles And Tricycles, finding release with Cooking Vinyl. It made more of an impact of US soil than its predecessor, but the glory days were obviously behind Alex and company. Phillips seemed to agree and vacated before Okie Dokie It’s the Orb on Kompakt surfaced the following year. What ever happened to loyalty, eh?
Slimmed down to a pure duo, Okie Dokie is widely regarded by fans and critics alike as essentially being a Fehlmann solo album. This is largely due to the fact it was a lot closer to Thomas’ increasingly popular catalogue than anything from the Orb’s past. The results landed squarely in the category of clean, loop-based, humourless minimal techno. The press would surprisingly embrace the change of pace, happily coinciding with Germany’s Kompakt exploding into one of the most buzz worthy electronic labels in the world. Even if it wasn’t the most sonically satisfying Orb effort, the desire to keep pushing and tweaking made Okie Dokie at least worthy off respect. And if it actually was mostly the work of Fehlmann, he is a world-class producer, so you could do worse in your local indie record store. That would be the end of that, though. For the Japan-released record The Dream, Patterson guided the Orb safely back to its roots and away from the glossy Fehlmann aesthetic.
Their 10th release, counting Live ‘93, sees the glorious return of Martin Glover, who recorded the project at his own studio. Youth had a major hand in piecing together the single that has remained one of their most easily recognized songs since its release, “Little Fluffy Clouds”, from the 1991 debut Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. At that moment in time, Glover had other obligations and could not commit to Patterson’s project, but karma has seen fit to cross their paths again. They have dusted off some old attic synths and the quirky samples that defined the Orb’s early ‘90s output (including a rehash of the vocal from “Blue Room” in “The Truth Is…”) and spliced that with the lyrical, liquid dub of their early ‘00s work. Patterson himself calls The Dream the follow-up to U.F.Orb. Also back from those days is System 7’s Steve Hillage and singer Andy Caine, while Japanese vocalist Aki Omori returns the favor she first lent on Cydonia. The loose, hopefully nostalgic attitude that surrounded the creation of this album comes across in every song. I’m picking up good vibrations for the first time in years.
The introductory title track kicks things off with a dense sound collage of scratchy political samples and nature sounds. Before long, swirling ambiance, chimes, and a post-rock guitar swells to presuppose a huge hip-hop like bassline. Right off the bat, you know the Orb of ages past has remembered the true way. The wishy-washy synthetic house is dead; long live the Doctor.
“Vuja De” continues the momentum with a tasty Juliet Roberts soul-singing chorus riding a Meat Beat Manifesto riddim and old school pads through a smattering of cinematic snippets (a ringing phones, siren, and speech) to an ecstatically familiar place. It was an inspired choice for a single. “DDD (Dirty Disco Dub)” stands out with an obvious appropriation of the intro to the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money,” just substituting “honey” for “money.” The beat is more Meat Beat dub, pushed further Jamaican by a vocal raga, while the “let’s go to the disco” chorus is pure party fodder. I dig the subtle drum and bass influence that creeps into “Katskills” when the huge bass rounds out. There, the heavy reverb on the percussion doubles the effect, complimented by a hip-hop “whooo” and a dash of classy guitar.
The Dream is clearly a return to form, and a graceful one at that. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how this album will settle in the ranks among their classics under the cold eye of history. Like how no one ever picks the Blue Album as their favorite Orbital or Let It Be as their favourite Beatles album, Dream is not White, but a Magical Mystery Tour through warm and fuzzy childhood memories and the innocence that existed between punk and grunge. While I can’t see it charting anywhere, it is a fabulous complement to one of the most important catalogues in electronic music history.