Okey dokey, now that the Orb are back on Kompakt, they’ve hit the ground running. COW / Chill Out, World! is their third release since resigning to the German label, following Moonbuilding 2703 AD and Alpine, which is not at all bad for an aging, veteran act. What makes it even better is that COW is a solid reminder that Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann together remain one of the best acts in the field of ambient electronic music. An album like COW shows the difference between climbing to the top and staying on top.
The use of the word “chill” in the title is not meant to signify a certain subgenre of electronic music. Instead, Paterson and Fehlmann are pleading with the world to stop and take a deep breath. A common trick people use when they are required to “chill out” is to count to ten, a method that the Orb uses in a backhanded way on COW. Each of the ten tracks are able to weave their corresponding number into the title — “First, Consider the Lillys”, followed by “Wireless MK2”, followed by “Siren 33 (Orphee Mirror)”, on up to “The 10 Sultans of Rudyard (Moo Moo Mix)”. The title for the sixth track “Sex (Panoramic Sex Heal)” has more to do with the number six than the title for track eight has to do with the number eight (“Just Because I Really Really Luv Ya”). But all hairsplitting aside, the Orb are leading us all in one great, calming count to center ourselves. COW is not beatless, isolationist ohm music, but an ambient album with soft grooves, masterful ornamentation, and priceless little hooks that help set it ahead of the pack.
Normally, it takes quite a while for Paterson and Fehlmann to create an Orb album. They collect their notes and sampled sounds rather quickly, but find themselves becoming fussy when it comes time to deciding what gets eliminated when and where. For COW, they were able to speed up the process somewhat, getting a clear idea of where the music was headed as they collected their sounds. And if this approach actually made a difference this time around, then I will lead the charge proclaiming that the Orb should work this way all of the time.
As many changes that the seven-minute opener “First, Consider the Lillys” goes through, it never loses focus or wanders. The Orb are able to strike a delicate balance of featuring music that is somehow freer in form (especially when compared to past experiments) yet never loses focus or wanders. And COW being an ambient album, by the Orb’s admission, doesn’t mean that it’s nothing but soft synth pads for your yoga class. The percussive elements and other driving sounds can be just downright bizarre, like the kitchen-sink outro to “4am Exhale (Chill Out World!)” where precisely-syncopated clangs change into something groaning from across the lake. Prior to that, this sort-of title track could almost qualify as catchy pop. The same can be said for “5th Dimensions”, where the most pedestrian chord change is given a crystalline twist courtesy of a two-note figure overhead.
You could spend weeks with COW/Chill Out, World! and still feel the thrill of discovery with each new listen. There’s a reason that the Orb are considered to be unofficial godfathers of modern electronic music, and that reason isn’t always easy to put into words. Easier still is the listener’s ability to dive in and hear for themselves why the Orb continue to be so heavily chatted about 25 years after their first album. With the duo’s second tenure on Kompakt, we continue to be blessed with such enchanting examples of mastery.