Although the genre of "ambient-house" is perhaps nothing really sonically new to those of us who have heard such obscurities as Pink Floyd, the Orb nevertheless are credited with created a genre resting on the fusion of house beats and relaxing ambient noise. The result is music that you can dance to or relax to, depending on what time it is. The project was conceived by Dr. Alex Patterson and Jimmy Cauty of KLF after they finished their work with Drummond on the KLF's classic Chill Out album (which is still a gold standard for music like this). Releasing two singles, "Little Fluffy Clouds" and "A Huge Ever Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Center of the Ultraworld", the act became famous among those coming down from designer drugs at 3 AM, looking to rest their feet and let their souls drift a little. This isn't exactly Brian Eno or New Age; there are still some house beats and the music is usually fairly busy, so it does have some appeal for club-goers. Not wanting the Orb to be seen as a KLF-spin off, Cauty and Patterson separated, with Patterson keeping the Orb name. He rounded up the then-18 year old Kris "Thrash" Weston and producer Thomas Fehlmann to complete the early lineup.
Since then, the Orb has quickly become the stuff of legends. In their early 90's heyday, the "band" (used loosely, as most of their material was made up of samples) was became pretty huge in the UK, even charting a #1 single there. They displayed a strong sense of melody when needed, and an ability to cover a track with enough samples and layers to ensure the listener wouldn't get bored of the music, and Patterson’s keen sense of humor kept things interesting. They have taken many different approaches over the years, but in general this is a sample-based group, usually writing a few keyboard lines and drum loops and layering samples from all sorts of various and obscure sources to usually great effect. In fact, they pride themselves on their obscurity; only a few times have they used recognizable samples (such as Steve Reich's "Counterpoint"), and to this day most of their sources remain a mystery. Their sound is usually dictated by whoever is in the group at the time, as Patterson was the only constant member, and his skills generally seem centered around finding and manipulating different vocal samples. I would consider Thomas Fehlmann to be the true genius of the bunch (at least, their post-1994 output), with an interesting sonic palette and a great ear for layering. The group also functions as a remix unit, and the result of all the configurations and remix work results in a lot of remix albums and collaborations that I don’t have, but you’ll find all the main releases here:
The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (1991)
Adventures is a 2-hour long journey beginning on land, ("Earth") then lifting off into space ("Back Side of the Moon"), and to another world ("Into the 4th Dimension"). Each track is an aural trip, starting and ending with the band's first two big singles, "Little Fluffy Clouds" and "A Huge Ever Growing Brain That Rules From The Center Of The Ultraworld". The discs seem divided between beat-oriented material such as "Earth (Gaia)" or the reggae-infused "Perpetual Dawn", and more spacey ambient material. The second half of each disc is where the stronger material is; the band (group?) would never be able to replicate the laid-back, jazzy, and weightless groove of "Spanish Castles in Space" or the funky and shimmering "Star 6 & 7 8 9" again, and the closing "Ever Growing Brain" is a free-form work, featuring everything from a sample of Minnie Riperton's "Loving You" to the rooster's crow that opens the album. While most musical works are sort of like a straight line, building from a clear beginning to the end, “Ever Growing Brain” is something of a musical sphere – there are different configurations of the main hooks, different types of beats and a host of samples, but no structure, and it’s never performed the same way twice. What you get here is really just one performance of the piece, and while it's hard to place exactly how it develops or what goes where, all the sounds are very memorable. In a way, the entire album is like this. "Back Side of the Moon" is no slouch either, infused with samples of astronauts reporting from space, the music sounds like it could have been taken straight from the best sections of Brian Eno's Apollo album.
The beat-driven material is also good (though not as stunning), as the band goes for more dubby, jam-laden tracks that take a groove and stretch it until it gets tiresome or morphs into something else. The exception, "Into the Fourth Dimension", is truly an oddity in the Orb canon, the only track that seems rich in hooks but low on identity. The only clunker is "Outlands", a track that seems to be based off the opening notes of Kraftwerk's "Europe Endless" and doesn't wind up covering much ground. The single (and The Orb's most famous tune to this date) "Little Fluffy Clouds" is also here, and at 4 minutes it's the only thing on the whole album that's even remotely concise. But even if you're weary of long electronic releases (and you should be), this album is a classic and well worth the time spent on it (it doesn't hurt that it's easy to get into on the first listen). It's the type of career-defining opus that should cross over to those who don't generally listen to this type of music (similar to say, Tangerine Dream's Phaedra).
Recent editions of this album contain an extra disc of bonus tracks, including the famous live "Ever Growing Brain" that would become the most requested Peel Session. For the U.S. release, the Orb was forced to edit the album down to a single disc, which cut out "Back Side of the Moon" and "Spanish Castles in Space". It's currently the only downloadable version on iTunes. Both of the tracks cut are fantastic, so avoid it.
Perpetual Dawn (single) (1991)
Contains a remix of "Star 6 & 7 8 9" that includes a beat, as well as the "Solar Youth" remix of the title track which emphasizes the reggae aspect of the song and adds vocals. Pretty good stuff that serves of more evidence of early Orb's wealth of creativity. Worth a listen. Some of the other singles may be as well, but this is (so far) the only one I own.
U.F. Orb (1992)
This isn't the Orb's best album, but it represents them better than any of their other discs, and if you want to know who the Orb are and why ambient house was such a big deal in the early 90's, this is the disc to get. The whole album has a dubbed out atmosphere that allows the album to retain a spacey, chilled-out atmosphere while still allowing for a bunch of dance beats. It's still sample-heavy and has a lot of loose-fitting structures, allowing a track like "Blue Room" to meander in space for seven minutes before really beginning. It's really the type of album that seems like it could go on for a couple of hours (like the debut) until you realize that they run out of A-material after just four tracks. The good news is, those four tracks total over 50 minutes and still feel like they had many more areas to explore. The two centerpiece tunes, "Blue Room" (17:34) and "Towers of Dub" (15:00) are both incredible. The former is a weightless free-form piece that slowly grows in intensity, adding a barrage of samples and a neat bass groove (from Jah Wobble, no less!), while the latter is a more controlled, laid back tune that's as catchy a dub experiment as you'll ever hear. How laid back? Well, it starts with a prank phone call, and phases in dogs barking among a vocal sample that goes "Woof! Woof! Woof!". The effects are funny enough, but the tune is deep and playful enough to justify its length and then some, and the result is one of my favorite things the Orb ever did. That, plus the two opening tracks - the beatless "O.O.B.E." (stands for out of body experience, which suits the trippy atmosphere of the tune well), and the title track (relatively short, and the heaviest thing on here), all live up to this album's reputation as a classic. The other two tracks fall a little short - "Close Encounters" treads the same water as the non-album track "Assassin" but is less exciting, while "Majestic" veers close to the ideas that made "Blue Room" great but is nowhere near as captivating. Neither of these tracks are bad (and may have done well on other albums), but they're nothing new, and as a result it's easier to feel burned out by the album's end, which is why this doesn't rate as highly as the last one. Still, this albums' reputation was built by "Blue Room", "Towers of Dub", and "O.O.B.E.", so there's no reason to suggest getting the album for anything else. Start here if you're looking for an introduction to the ambient house genre.
Blue Room (1992)
This may be one of the most unlikely singles to ever reach the top ten, as the group expanded the tune to about 40 minutes long, which is the cut-off for a release to chart as a "single". Therefore, not only was it by far the longest single to ever chart, but is likely to remain so unless the chart rules change. As for the single itself, it's not too much different from what you get on the album, though I suspect those who are really into the Orb will love it and call it their defining moment. Steve Hillage appears on guitar.
Live '93 (1993)
Releasing a double live album after only two regular albums is generally a cash-in, but the Orb easily had enough material. Although hard to find nowadays, this live set was a godsend for die-hard Orb fans - it's improv heavy, sometimes sticking only to the basic structure of the tune, and as such is not really bound to the studio albums the way most live albums are (particularly in this genre). The idea is that Orb tracks really do not take on much of a structure and often change over time, which allows them to play around however they see fit. Much of the material is from Ultraworld, with some of the best coming from U.F. Orb; the "Blue Room" and "Towers of Dub" are both excellent, while the addition of a beat to "O.O.B.E." gives the song a new dimension. The Ultraworld tracks are the most experimental - the band throws in improv on more than just "Ever-Growing Brain", as favorites "Little Fluffy Clouds" and "Perpetual Dawn" are half over before they take shape. "Star 6 & 7 8 9" is the best example - the live performance replaces the keyboards with a steel drum sound, giving the track a warm Caribbean feel, and once things start to take shape, it settles into an incredible groove that could go on for much longer than it does.
A few complaints though - one, the Orbus Terrarum prototypes don't really develop as they're more or less unfinished, and "Assassin" was just never that interesting in the first place. Two, "Outlands" is still fairly boring and goes on for too long, as they don't bother doing anything new with the track. And three, the sound quality leaves a bit to be desired, particularly during the last two tracks - the bass line in "Spanish Castles", which was the centerpiece of the song, seems to have dropped out entirely, and various sections of "Ever Growing Brain" will have you reaching for the volume dial (both ways). It's still great listening for fans of the early Orb albums and paints a great picture of how creative and whimsical the early group really was, but it's not an essential document.
Pomme Fritz (1994)
By some weird internal band logic, this doesn't even really qualify as an "actual" Orb album. You see, the Orb were at the peak of their popularity, and while the "real" follow-up to U.F. Orb was being developed, the group put together this, a bizarre "mini-album" ("mini" in this case meaning that it's only 40 minutes long) that sounds like an LSD-fueled nightmare. It was immediately slagged and caused Patterson's reputation to take a hit, and the group sort of backtracked on itself, calling the album a "toss off", claiming it was finished in a week, and that the "real" album was coming soon. Hindsight looks more favorably upon the thing, though it's still an oddity - the music was intentionally made to be unsettling, with vocal samples garbled up to the point that they become unrecognizable, dying synthesizer noises, and inverted drum loops. The effect is something quite unique - I wouldn't say the album is scary, as they do make several concessions to listenability (namely the soft keyboard melody that adorns the title track, or the Ultraworld-recalling "Alles ist Schoen" which is as beautiful as their past work). But when you hit the middle of the album, things do start to sound like a bad trip (which means you may want to avoid psychedelics with this one). There's a bunch of madcap humor here, and if you love this type of experimentation (say, if you're the kind of person who finds The Faust Tapes invaluable), this could be right up your alley. They certainly do things right - there's no way something this layered, with seemingly every element of its recording feeling manipulated, could have been done in a week. In fact, Patterson and co. feel like they're having so much fun with this kind of thing that you can't help but wonder if this was the album they wanted to make all along. But it is a very evil-sounding album - instead of sampling Rickie Lee Jones, they're sampling Hitler (the album title is also a WW2 reference), and many parts of the album are designed to be shocking. The real test is track 3, "We're Pastie to be Grill You", which is a whole track of creepy manipulated vocal samples that pile-up without any real backing. It's the same sort of thing that you can see Syd Barrett coming up with had Columbia Records truly cut him loose. Needless to say, a lot of listeners (including the entire UK music press) saw this as the Orb taking things too far and clowning their audience, and I'm guessing many shut the album off right there. But it's not as if music this off-putting and alienating is easy to make, and I'll praise the entire album for being a truly one-of-a-kind experience that compares well to the crazier stuff by Barrett, Faust, and the Residents, something that rewards multiple listens and actually lives up to its wild reputation. At the end of the album ("His Immortal Logness"), it feels as though the group is conceding that the whole thing is really just a joke, but even then, it's a mightily well-crafted one. It's better than you've heard.
Orbus Terrarum (1995)
I don't think most people are really interested in the idea of "ambient music", mainly because they see it as background music, stuff you listen to while doing other things, and in that case, why does it matter what type of music it is? For others the purpose is to make a sonic painting; music that describes a scene and uses the listener to "complete" the work, rather than something that just goes from point A to point B (and back to point A). Or, you can just listen to ambient music because it sounds good. If ambient music is a sonic painting, many of the earlier efforts (for example, Brian Eno's Another Great World) were about texture and a sense of tranquility. The tune "Little Fishes" may just be about watching tiny fish swimming around in a tiny pond. That approach does work when it's executed right, but the Orb do things a little bit different. Their first album could be seen as a nearly two-hour journey from point A to point B and point C. The second could be seen as chill, music to relax and dream to.
The third (or fourth) is a little different. If these are sonic paintings, they're insanely detailed ones. There are prevailing melodies and underlying rhythms, but the music on Orbus Terrarum is more about being in another place and looking around at the strange surroundings. As the title implies, it's a more earthly album, and many of the tracks invoke the feeling of being somewhere exotic. In a jungle, on a bridge looking at a waterfall, underwater, or in the middle of a valley. But not the type of landscapes you may be familiar with; everything here is distorted and unpredictable, like it was put through a lens that makes everything look like those famous goofy glowing mushroom posters or the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are beats, but they are thick and watery; the only straight beat is a jarring underwater drum blast at the end of "Montagne D'Or". And familiar instruments are generally missing; the only real melodic instrument that you'd recognize is a piano playing a strange, rotating riff on "Oxbow Lakes". The rest is mostly synthesized (or sampled) texture, and the result is as off-putting as it is intriguing. This is more friendly than the nightmarish Pomme Fritz, but it never really gets too comfortable in its own space. That's a great thing; the music is unpredictable and doesn't ever get into the repetitive trappings of house music the way early albums sometimes did. Even the requisite dub track ("Slug Dub") is unpredictable and unsettling, built from a reading of a creepy children's book. This is definitely a great album to listen to if you're interested in the concept of ambient or atmospheric music but usually find it boring; this is the most densely layered album I have that could fall under that label. And it still sounds modern, too; most of the sounds are organic and timeless, and I suspect 30-40 years down the road it will be hard to believe this came from the mid-90's. Highly recommended.
The Orb are rarely anything but chill, and while that's still mostly true here, Orblivion is the first Orb album to concern itself with picking up the pace and maybe even hitting the dance floor, and somehow only contains one track that even nears the 10-minute mark. This is easily the most melodic Orb album yet, and the first where the beats, as aquatic and convoluted as they always are, seem to take center stage. They haven't exactly become the Chemical Brothers, but they do come up with some frantic beats and actually manage to rack up some tension, which is rare indeed. Most of this comes in the center of the album, with "S.A.L.T.", which features a rousing apocalyptic speech by David Thewlis and has a real sense of urgency toward the end, with crashing drums and nervous synth lines. "Toxygene" (which began life as a Jarre remix), the following track, is also atypical, their only tune that seems aimed straight for the clubs, with a great building hook and a driving, dubbed out rhythm part. It's definitely a far way from "Blue Room", but Orb fans should enjoy this anyway - besides those two tracks, most of this is still spaced out and trippy, with the added benefits of a few hooks here and there ("Ubiquity", "Molten Love"). They still do a good job making the tunes sound like worlds onto themselves ("Secrets"), though they make a point to not branch things out too much or add too many vocal samples. The one lengthier tune ("Passing of Time") works, though it seems at odds with the rest of the album. It would have worked better as a closer had they not added an improvised, dubby mess as a hidden track ("72"). Overall, it's hard to feel completely satisfied with this album - much of it is very good, but besides "S.A.L.T." and perhaps "Toxygene", most of this doesn't stand out. It still stands as a great listen and I wouldn't hesitate to list it among their other 90's work.
U.F. Off: The Best of the Orb (1998)
The year is 1998, and electronic music is gaining popularity in the US and labeled as the next major musical movement after grunge. It’s not surprising that a group like the Orb that had been plugging away for nearly a decade would see this as an opportunity to pick up a few new fans. This is a "best-of" collection, but it’s still a good buy for existing fans, as pretty much every track here is altered in some way from its original. Sometimes it's just editing a track down ("Blue Room", which is cut to about a sixth of its original length), but other times an alternate form of a track is given (a raw and sample-laden "Towers of Dub", an early dance mix of "Ever-Growing Brain"). There's a few otherwise unreleased tracks - "Mickey Mars" is a new one, featuring some fairly expressive and wordless singing, and "DJ Asylum" is the best remix of the track, grafting a couple new hooks to a track that needed one. A pretty good selection and a nice Orb primer that won't ruin any of the studio albums, least of all Orbus Terrarum, which isn't even represented until the bonus track, an ambient beatless underwater mix of "Oxbow Lakes".
Along with Orbital's The Altogether, Cydonia gave the hint that the electronic movement was losing its edge. Originally slated for a 1999 release (when early versions of the album were leaked) but bogged down with record company problems, Cydonia was more or less an attempt to get back to their roots, with the pop single "Once More" seeming to recall "Little Fluffy Clouds". The band enlisted Nina Walsh and Aki Omori, a couple of female singers with soft-spoken and inward-looking voices, causing many to slag off the album, as if the Orb with a vocalist was sacrilege. They aren’t really so bad – “Once More” is catchy and relaxing, and the hypnotic “Centuries” works wonders with a steady rhythm and a beautiful vocal line. Still, the music press and many of the fans simply called the Orb a dinosaur and that Cydonia was the beginning of the end, which is bound to happen to every group that puts out this much quality material without breaking up. It's not that bad, but the complaints were valid; many of these tracks were simply unmemorable and trite compared to their earlier work, and the more tedious stuff seems to last forever (“Turn It Down”, “Hamlet of Kings”, “Plum Island”). However, there's enough good material to make this one worth a listen, particularly since the lengthy closing "Terminus" (with Robert Fripp!) is one of the Orb's best yet – the last 3 minutes may be their finest moment. "Promis" is a catchy trip-hop inspired tune that develops a great hook late in the track, and the Propellerheads-inspired "Thursday's Keeper" is a welcome respite from the underdeveloped space jams that fill this album, even though it’s atypical for the group. The problem with this album is that it gets boring after the third track and doesn’t pick up much until the album is nearly over. The good news is that both “Centuries” and “Terminus” are indispensible, and there is generally enough here to hold your interest despite a long running time. Overall, there’s about half a great album here.
The BBC Sessions 1989-2001 (released 2008)
Live Orb is tough to describe properly since the members generally do not play instruments, relying mostly on a large collection of samples and pre-recorded musical motifs. That said, you’re basically getting the same thing that’s on the albums, but with different arrangements and different groups of samples, and there’s a heavy experimental and improvisational element at play. This a 2 ½ hour set, which can be had for under 10 bucks (so for sheer value, this is an A+), drawn exclusively from BBC sessions over 12 years – only 1 unreleased track (an unexpected cover of the Stooges’ “No Fun”, live instruments and all), and many of these recordings have been made available through other BBC releases, but if you haven’t heard any of this stuff before (particularly if you’re new to the Orb), this is a tremendous find. Almost every track here gets a pretty drastic reworking, and there are a fair number of curveballs (such as live guitar on “O.O.B.E.” and drums on “Montage D’or”, plus a completely overhauled “Once More” that only samples the vocal part of the original). Overall, this is more exciting and whimsical than the studio recordings, if less coherent as a whole. The one advantage it does have vs. traditional live recordings is the pristine sound quality – if you didn’t own the studio versions, you wouldn’t know if this was a live recording. The only time they lose the plot a bit is during the 2001 Evening Sessions (as none of the tracks played are exactly their A material), and if I could pick and choose the recordings used this could easily score ½ star higher. As it is, it’s still well worth picking up for any Orb fan, and serves as a fantastic (if lengthy) introduction for the uninitiated.
BadOrb.com - Bless You (2003)
A compilation album released on Patterson's then-new online-only record label. The idea was to have all the 'signed' artists release an EP, then cull the best material for a full-length for wider distribution. Unsurprisingly it's pretty uneven - S.E. Berlin takes the spotlight with the cerebral "Shuttle" and his bizzaro remix of an acoustic "Barbie Girl", which replaces the lyrics with various Macspeak singing voices. There's a number of interesting tracks here, such as "'Ow Much?", spotlighting the rhythmic qualities of an auctioneer, and the groovy "Snowblind". Considering that all of these artists were influenced heavily by the Orb, any Orb fan should find something to like in here, and most of the tracks have at least one interesting idea, even if some of it comes off as amateurish. The Orb contribute a few tracks themselves - "Cool Harbour" is a great one, but would be re-released on a future album, and "I Am the Red Worm" is less great. The Death of Elphame EP adds "Outer Space". Anyways, the set is two CD's, although the second one contains only 5 tracks - if it was cut down to fit on one CD it would certainly have been better, but at it stands it's still a nice diversion for Orb fans.
If you're wondering what happened to BadOrb - they only released fourteen 12 inchers and this double disc. Given that the Orb’s popularity was on the wane, it’s not hard to see why an internet label that only sold vinyl would fail so quickly. As of 2004, they were no more.
Bicycles and Tricycles (2004)
Having been released in Japan a year earlier, internet-savvy fans were able to see this disaster coming for a while. Just like The Altogether, many saw this as the band's sell-out and last gasp at commercial success. It obviously didn't work, leaving a real embarrassment in the process - "Aftermath", featuring unknown female MC Soom T, is musically trivial and otherwise ruined by a terrible rap spot. They released it as a single anyway, and with that, most thought that the Orb had lost it for good. There's a few salvageable tracks - "Land of Green Ginger" is cute and catchy, and "Hell's Kitchen" uses horns and a driving beat to make a short but epic track (albeit one with little replay value). Besides that, you get to hear the Orb get stuck in an endless loop ("Gee Strings"), rattle off forgettable, underwritten tracks ("L.U.C.A.", "Abstractions"), and repeat themselves ("Tower Twenty-Three" is just a boring riff on "Towers of Dub", and "From a Distance" borrows themes from "Ever Pulsating Brain") before approaching the final two ambient tracks, both of which work well, showing the band still did have some promise left if they could stick to what they do well. I say track down "Land of Green's Ginger" and be done with it. There's a few different versions - the US one doesn't have "L.U.C.A.", and the Japan one has some different track times, and mercifully replaces "Aftermath" with "Now Here".
Okie Dokie It's the Orb on Kompakt (2005)
The Orb finally found a record label that would support them, and it's no surprise they picked Kompakt, as Fehlmann had already released two well-regarded solo albums on there. Okie Dokie sounds just like them - the album has much more in common with other Kompakt releases than it does the Orb's. Needless to say, after the last two albums, this is an improvement. The album uses minimalistic beats and lush melodies, resulting in an otherworldly and refreshing experience. Comprised half and half between beat-filled tracks and ambient, it's hard to figure out which side is the best. The beat-driven side can be a little uneven - "Lunik", "Captain Korma", and "Cool Harbour" are all fantastic, while "Komplication" and "Rolo" run short on ideas and take 'minimalism' further than I'd like. The ambient side is a nice treat, especially seeing the they can still pull off such beautiful textures - the tracks seem to have been written in an alternate dimension, even if it does somewhat parallel ours ("Traumvogel"). One of them is actually a repeat of a Bicycles & Tricycles track, with a few differences ("Kompmania", which fits in much better here anyway). Many of these tracks are keepers, with one even recalling the surreal friendly-yet-twisted atmosphere of Pomme Fritz ("Snow Bow"). The change in sound and similarity to Fehlmann's solo work (and indeed, if you like this album, check out his releases) leads me to believe that Patterson mostly sat this one out, or had his contributions restricted mostly to tinkering with already finished material.
Orbsessions, Volume 1 (2005)
A "cleaning out the vault" release that was released concurrently with Okie Dokie. I really do love it when groups with 10+ years of material put out compilations like this, but for God’s sake can’t we at least get a little bit of information in to liner notes as to when these tracks were made or who played on them? This is an exciting prospect at first – “Mummie Don’t” is an outside from the Cauty period, sounding like a Chill Out outtake, even using some of the same hooks and samples of that album. “Sail” is a full-on pop song (!) that was written for Patterson’s late girlfriend, and it’s entertaining if only to see the Orb tackling a style that’s completely atypical of them (it's not good, by the way). The epic “Yungle” follows, which is recognizable as a Cydonia outtake that appeared on several leaked copies, using a few recognizable sounds from that album. That's the more interesting part of the album - the quality gets a little fuzzy from there. None of the remaining tracks seem like more than skeletons or pieces that were never really intended for album release (“Pluto Calling”), and it seems as though most of them are post-Orblivion anyway, so the collector hoping to tap into a vault of unreleased treasures from their golden years are out of luck. There is one track that’s as flippantly catchy as tracks like “Land of Green’s Ginger” ("Son Of"), but even that one seems unfinished. Since this group never really wrote songs, it feels at times that you’re listening to about half of an Orb track – the consolation is that there are a few cool ideas and that the running times of the unfinished stuff are generally short.
Orbsessions, Volume 2 (2007)
Sometimes I just don’t understand these guys – if you had a long-running and improv-based group doing an outtake collection, you’d think you would want to exhaust the best outtakes first, and then move on to the more conceptual or unfinished stuff. But the Orb did it backwards – while Volume 1 seemed composed mostly of unfinished half-ideas, practically every piece on Volume 2 (which runs about 20 minutes longer) is as dense and fully-formed as their album material, and there’s a few must-hear tracks on this one. “It’s a Small World” is just massive, a 13-minute journey of epic and multilayered techno that provides a clear centerpiece, even if it is basically a remix of another track on the collection (“Ralph’s Cupboard”, an outtake from Cydonia). “Jam On Your Honey” spins a number of complex hooks together into one of the Orb’s most upbeat tracks yet, and the result is as addictive as anything in their catalogue - it's as if the Orb were trying to mimic Mouse on Mars with surprisingly good results. I would say these are some of their most hook-based tracks since Orblivion (the raga-themed “Ba’albeck”, also a Cydonia outtake), although there’s stuff for those who liked the spacier, more ambient stuff (“2026”, “D.A.D.O.E.S.”), or for those who like the free-form sample based material (“Shem”, “The Giant Bolster”, “Kidnap”, and yes, the “Ruckzuck” sample did excite me). My guess is that most of this was recorded during the 2000-2004 period, although in general this fares better than what was actually released in that time.
The Dream (2007)
A clean break for The Orb, seeing the return of Youth and another new record label. The bad news is that Fehlmann is MIA this time, and as such this doesn't sound anything like the Kompakt album (however, Fehlmann did release another solo album this year, Honigpumpe, which is much closer), instead drawing mostly from the first two. At sixteen tracks and 80 minutes (on the Japanese release - "Let The Music Set You Free" is a bonus track), there's a lot to digest, but much of this stays within the same style - there's plenty of dub-influenced material here (of which "Lost and Found" is the best), and most of the songs are based off some kind of diva-like sung passage ("A Beautiful Day", "Vuja De"). That's enough to turn most fans of the Orb off right there, but if you don't mind a more pop-based sound, it fits nicely. Well, some of the time - there's a few ideas, like the Michael Jackson scream on "Katskills" that are just bad. Nothing really stunning here - both "Mother Nature" and "Vuja De" are good tracks that warrant repeat listenings, but I miss the longer tracks like "Terminus" or "Towers of Dub" of old that suited the band so well. The last third or so of the album is a return to that style, but it doesn't really match up to their earlier work, although spacier tracks like “High Noon” do work well. Kind of a frustrating album, since it does resemble U.F. Orb in a few ways, but doesn’t reach the same heights. Most Orb fans will probably enjoy this album, however, and it's generally more consistent than their other releases this decade (Okie Dokie aside).
Baghdad Batteries: Orbsessions Volume 3 (2009)
First of all, I have to note that despite the subtitle, this is actually all new material, so there is some thematic unity here. Although I did not know the Orb’s lineup when I first got this album, within a few seconds of hitting ‘play’, I realized that Fehlmann was back into the mix. Fehlmann is one of the few on the electronic scene to have a sound that is truly unique and recognizable. I think of him as sort of an industrial techno artist – not in the harsh, pounding way that ‘industrial techno’ is actually associated with, but rather in the way that Cluster was – an attempt to synthesize and control the sounds of metallic machinery in a way that comes out in a musical form – in fact, some of his beats sound nearly identical to the ones Cluster used in the early 70’s. While there are some moments of pristine beauty on this album, with them there is always a hint of coldness or loneliness, and even the more playful moments come out twisted the way they did on Pomme Fritz (“Woodlarking”). In the end, this is an album of texture rather than hooks. If you liked Okie Dokie, particularly the second half, you’ll feel right at home with this collection, which provides a sound juxtaposition between spacey ambient freeform tracks (“Chocolate Fingers”) and beat-driven soundscapes (“Suburban Smog”). There are not quite as many standouts as there was on the Kompakt album, but in the end this is as dense and relaxing as you’ve come to expect from the group, and despite a host of strange sounds, some of these tracks are very vivid – “Oopa” is like sitting alone in an alien forest during a rainstorm – evocative, troubling, but also beautiful. My complaint is that they seem to hold back too much during the first half; by the time things really get great, the album's half over. It may be the first time I wished an Orb album were longer.
Metallic Spheres (with David Gilmour) (2010)
I suppose there was a time when the idea of pairing up the Orb with a member of Pink Floyd might have meant something big. But in this case the people in question are Patterson and Youth, who have not really been good together lately, and David Gilmour, about two decades removed from ruining Pink Floyd. Fehlmann, the man responsible for almost all of the Orb’s better material of the last decade, is missing. This isn't a bad album, but it doesn't really feel right sitting among the other Orb albums. It feels like it was recorded in about a week or two to take advantage of a hole in Gilmour's schedule. Notice I didn’t say “written”…I highly doubt any of this material was mapped out, and most of it seems edited together on the fly. That's not really a condemnation of this disc; let's keep in mind this idea did work once before when Robert Fripp joined to form FFWD. But while Fripp's watery guitar texture complimented the material well and gave the rest of the guys something to work with, Gilmour is kind of faceless. In fact, it could be argued that he's not even needed on this album at all; removing his parts wouldn't really change the music, and if they decided to simply sample some other guitar work (Floyd or otherwise), this album may have even turned out better. Despite that, the mere fact that a Pink Floyd member is involved has already given this album an elevated profile. He contributes mostly background noise, occasionally overdriving his guitar, but not really playing anything melodic or even all that interesting. There is one moment where he's plucking on an acoustic guitar, and you wonder if you're in store for some neat folk/ambient hybrid. But it dissolves rather quickly; in fact pretty much every interesting moment on the disc does. Every time you hear something that may build into an actual piece of music, like acid synth stabs, bizarro keyboard textures, or a neat dub rhythm, it soon fades out into formless ambient music. That's really too bad; there are some moments that sound like they could turn into U.F. Orb-style dub, but it's not to be. It's almost as if the guys didn't want to do anything too radical for fear of offending Gilmour, while David himself seems like he doesn't really want to exert himself. He does sing one line, and it's brutal - "If you believe in justice/If you believe in freedom/Stand up for human rights!/And a world we can believe in!/Open up the door!" What is this, System 7? Maybe the reason this is so formless has something to do with a lack of distinct tracks, as the 50 minute running length is simply divided into "Metallic Side" and "Spheres Side". For what it's worth, "Spheres Side" is probably more interesting, sounding like classic Orb in spots, and ending with a big orchestral movement. Perhaps not coincidentally, Gilmour seems to be M.I.A. for large chunks of it. Still, this is not really much more than pleasant and mostly improvised background music. If you’re a Pink Floyd fan that somehow has not heard of the Orb, pick up the early albums and forget about this.
C Batter C (2011)
This was a DVD release of a short film that included a disc with the original 17-minute piece and a bunch of remixes. I have yet to see the film. I think the music may be Patterson solo.
The Orbserver in the Star House (with Lee "Scratch" Perry) (2012)
Another album with a big guest star, this time the 76-year old dub legend Lee Perry. As you may expect then, this is in a reggae/dub vein - tripped out 4/4, emphasis on the three, and lots of repetition. The Orb have definitely tried this approach before, but this is nowhere near as sublime as "Towers of Dub" or as freaky as "Slug Dub" - it's maybe like a whole album of "Perpetual Dawn", but with Perry's vocal rambling in place of most of the samples. It's hard not to like Perry's style; there's a lot of improvisation and freestyle rhyming, and it keeps the recordings loose. But it's hard to really tell who's doing who a favor - does Perry liven up a slab of undercooked grooves, or did the Orb keep things simple to allow him to be more front and center? Does Perry force the Orb to stop meandering so much, or do the Orb give him a new type of beat to ramble over? Whichever it is, the good news is that this is as close to Orblivion as they've been in the 15 years since - less hooks and less replay value, but sonically, it sounds like the Orb are finally starting to recapture their old aura again. The album's highlight, "Golden Clouds", is a homage to "Little Fluffy Clouds"; Perry answers the same question that Rickie Lee Jones did over 20 years earlier, but of course his answer is a bit more imaginative. But all the while, samples from that classic single seep in, and for nearly six minutes, we're reminded of just how evocative the Orb could be. The other big homage is a slurred cover of "Police and Thieves", a song Perry collaborated on way back in 1976, now fairly well known for appearing on the first Clash album. Outside of those two, it's not incredibly memorable; the tempo hardly changes, and it can sometimes be hard to tell the different tracks apart. Some are better than others ("Hold Me Upsetter", "Congo"), but as a whole this is meant for late-night listening, stuff to space out or take drugs to while you contemplate the meaning of "I am a fat man, making music in control, I am a soul man, making music in my soul". I think an Amazon reviewer said it best: "This mix electronics from the Orb and this old reggae man works perfectly as an ambience music."
Appendix: Orb related material
Not released under the Orb name - instead this was Fripp, Fehlmann, Weston, and the Doc. Getting Fripp to work with these guys was an inspired stroke - as Steve Hillage would attest to, old proggy guys really do dig the Orb. This is more similar to Eno and Fripp's No Pussyfooting than anything the Orb ever released - it's an hour of beautiful, slow-moving soundscapes that lack form or direction. Hell, it's hard to believe that Eno wasn't even involved. Essentially, it sounds like Fripp is sitting in the dark, playing high-pitched Frippertronics (which is to say, highly processed and soothing guitar noise), while the others toss about sound effects that sound like they were gathered from nature documentaries. All of this is entirely rhythmless - the closest they come is the watery galloping noises in "Lucky Saddle". There's also little to no melody - the music is strangely effective while it's on, but it leaves you with a mood rather than any recallable notes. All of this works as one nearly unbroken, formless piece - the only abrasiveness comes during the short "What Time is Clock?", and other than that it's hard to tell where one track ended and another began. Makes an excellent sleep aid - and that's a recommendation, although you might not find much use for this type of music outside that setting.
Transit Kings - Living in a Giant Candle Winking at God (2006)
A side project featuring Patterson, Cauty, Dom Beken, and Guy Pratt. This deserved to get more attention than it did. There's a number of great tracks here - "West End of a Duck Going East" is exciting and makes great use of samples, "Free Free" is epic and uplifting, "Oh Shit" is a catchy slice of techno, and "America is Unavailable" is an upbeat guitar-laden groove. Not necessarily a great album - no ground is broken, simply a good and entertaining one with enough interesting moments to warrant checking out. Not quite everything works - some of the more instrumental and slower tracks are seem a little overextended ("Blooze Tracks", "Wagon Wheels"), "Bombay" has an exciting opening but coasts from here, and I wish the ending "Last Lighthouse Keeper" exploded a little more often than it did, but I'm still surprised that this turned out good at all. Worth seeking out.