The Orb: Back to Mine

The Orb
Back to Mine

A good music mix goes beyond the ego that all too often clouds the judgment of artists as they assemble tracks for their album releases. It’s a rare gem of an album that’s excellent from start to finish, with no duds thrown on to take up space. Mixes allow fans pick and choose different musicians and dabble across genres to complete the perfect lineup of songs that’s worth listening to front to back. It also gives the mix-maker a chance to play with energy and mood in ways that might be complicated for a band. But creating a mix that sets just the right mood can be a difficult task. While it’s easy to choose songs that bring about a particular frame of mind for you, it can be tough anticipating the preferences of your listeners, or guessing how songs are going to work back to back. Part of the science in making a mix tape is controlling the flow. The movement from one song to the next should be completely natural. You want the listener to think “That’s exactly what should have come next”, while at the same time wondering “How could I have forgotten how much I used to love that song?” Ultimately, you want each piece to contribute to an overall picture, like a jig-saw puzzle, that everyone can see when they’re all played together.

That said, the Back to Mine series from DMC Records is a novel concept. The label asks premiere electronica artists to throw together some of their most darling tracks for after-hours lounging. In the past this has included standout luminaries such as Talvin Singh, New Order, and Morcheeba. When these albums work they can be a lot of fun. Like having your favorite DJ come back home with you and your friends after clubbing, with record crate in tow. It’s also nice to know who your favorite bands like to listen to when they’re off the clock. Sort of like taking a sneak peak at Ernest Hemingway’s bookshelf.

The Orb are more than qualified to add their tastes to the proverbial mix. The group goes back about 15 years, which in electronic music is a lifetime. Dr. Alex Pateron and Jimi Cauty first recorded as the Orb in 1988, when they released “Tripping on Sunshine”. But it was their 1989 release Kiss EP — a remixed homage to the New York hip-hop station with the same call letters — that made people stand up and take notice. This led to much notoriety in the budding English electronic music underworld. Here stood a group that was taking ambient music out of its isolation chamber, and spinning in enough sound effects and rhythm patterns to make it palatable, and danceable, for the masses. Group might be too strong a word to describe the duo. By 1990 Jimi Cauty left the Orb, and was replaced by Youth from the innovative ’80s new wave band Killing Joke. Youth was also soon replaced by Kris Weston from Fortran 5, and thus began a decade long revolving door that has forced comparisons between Dr. Alex Paterson and Mr. Eddie Van Halen.

By 1991, the Paterson and company had released The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, and they were famous. The album contained what were already two of the Orb’s most well known tracks: “Little Fluffy Clouds” and “Huge Ever Growing Pulsing Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld”. Between this beauty and the DMC mix CD, the Orb have released five albums and piles of singles and remixes. They have also created a reputation for putting on spectacular live performances, combining intense light shows with an energy that’s just as apparent on the concert stage as in the club.

In addition to selecting the tracks for the Back to Mine releases, DMC asks its artists to write a short sentence or two on why the song was selected for the mix. Paterson begins his edition with Aphex Twin’s “Polynomial-C”. In the liner notes for the first cut, he writes: “Would you let your daughter near this man?” Richard James a.k.a. Aphex Twin, is to ambient electronic performing artists what Bob Dylan is for every singer songwriter with an acoustic guitar that’s recorded since the 1960s. He was the prodigy, following his own version of Woody Guthrie: Brian Eno. The Orb must pay tribute. “Polynomial-C”, and Paterson’s comments, tells you exactly where he’s going with the entire album. It’s a disc you’ll hear when you head home with your new group of friends, the strangers that you might only know by first name, but who you’ll be eating breakfast with the next morning. But it’s also a collection that’s perfect for times when you’re home after hours with that special someone. In either case, throw on “Polynomial-C” and crack open a few pops while people are getting settled into the new space.

“Polynomial-C” flows easily into Charles Webster’s “Be No One”, a potent psychedelic ramp through layered, distorted waves of sound and a simple piano loop. It works well with Juno Reactor’s “Nitrogen Pt. 1”, which follows. Juno Reactor is famous for creating masterpieces that sound like they were meant to be listened to in a gigantic, darkened theater. This is a sweeping track that anyone who has spent time in a club in the wee hours will recognize.

As any good mix-maker knows, you’ve got to vary the pace a little bit to keep the listener interested. A good mix’s appeal is similar to a Kellogg’s cereal variety pack. You probably wouldn’t buy whole boxes on their own, but you appreciate the selection that all of the boxes in assortment have to offer in single-serving size. So it’s nice that Paterson introduces a little flavor into the flow, with “Interim” by B12 and “Barbie Girl” by the Electric Chairs. “Interim” is a crisp drum-and-bass track with enough sound effects to make the paranoid wonder whether someone’s at the front door leaning on the buzzer or if an imaginary phone is ringing. The amusing “Barbie Girl” is built around an acoustic guitar and one man’s ode to Barbie, seemingly accompanied by a field of crickets.

All of the Orb’s Back to Mine is interesting, but Paterson really outdid himself with the first potion. It sounds like he took the time to imagine himself coming home after hours, and mixed it up accordingly. Or perhaps he merely wrote down what he actually played after retiring from a late night at the club off the clock. Regardless of the case, Paterson’s version is tight.

Not surprisingly, Paterson throws a token R&B cut on the CD. The Chi-Lites “Have You Seen Her” isn’t a bad selection, and it’s hard not to sing along with Eugene Record’s eternal question here. There are so many fantastic R&B possibilities from the ’60s and ’70s that suit the purpose of a down tempo mood, it’s hard to resist throwing one on such a mix. Choosing the Chi-Lites isn’t a bad decision here. The song also serves as the transition from the opening portion of the CD, giving Paterson a chance to offer some more abstract compositions such as Joachim Spieth’s “You Don’t Fool Me” and another Aphex Twin track: “Blue Calx”. He also throws in “Falling” by Julee Cruise, the slow motion gothic theme to the Twin Peaks television show. It would have made a perfect choice to end the mix, if the song hadn’t been featured already by so many other chill-out albums, both professional and amateur. Still, it’s a song that you can never really tire of hearing.

Paterson includes an unreleased Orb track here as well, called “The Land of Green Ginger”. The song has the added bonus of making this CD a must have for any die-hard Orb fan, since there’s no other place to find this number yet. “The Land of Green Ginger” provides the fans with a glimpse into what the Orb is moving towards in the future, and acts as an introduction for those unfamiliar with their sound. But considering this is the only self-inclusion that Paterson chooses for his mix, it’s a relatively poor choice. “The Land of Green Ginger” sounds like a watered down version of “Toxygene”, the group’s single released in 1997. Considering the commanding creative skills Paterson has demonstrated in the past, this is not one of the stronger selections on the disc.

That said, there are sure to be some tracks that don’t appeal to you on this mix. Given the relative range of styles that Paterson utilizes, it’s unlikely that it could be any other way. It’s possible that there are a few too many tracks included here for kitsch value, such as Thomas Fehlmann’s “I Wanna Be a Fishy” or Creature’s “Ow Much!”. These songs just don’t seem to fit into Paterson’s overall mood as well as the others. They stand out too much. But as with a mix made by even your best friend, you can always sit back and try and figure out what the hidden meaning is behind the oddball inclusions.