The Orb

TrackAlbum / Single
A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating BrainWAU! Mr. Modo MWS 017T
Little Fluffy CloudsBig Life BLR 33T
Blue RoomBig Life BLRDA 75
Alles Ist SchoenPomme Fritz
Oxbow LakesIsland CID 609
S.A.L.T.Orblivion
Once MoreIsland CID 767
Spheres SideMetallic Spheres
Golden CloudsThe Orbserver In The Star House
5th DimensionsCOW / Chill Out, World!

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The Orb photo 1

The Orb (c.1990): Alex Paterson & Jimmy Cauty

 

Contributor: Ian du Feu

Lie back and make yourself comfortable. Close your eyes and imagine all pressure is leaving your body. Imagine you are floating, without a care in the world.

What were the skies like when you were young?

As the 1980s drew to a close and the last decade of the millennia took its first tentative steps, there was an overriding sense of political and societal change. The Cold War was coming to an end and as the Berlin Wall came down the new power structures precipitated conflict in the Balkans. There was change in football and football stadiums as people acknowledged the events of Hillsborough and other disasters that couldn’t be repeated. There was a significant improvement in computer capability and increasingly they became integrated into everyday life. This feeling of change was reflected in pop culture, and dance music quickly began to assimilate new ideas and new technologies.

By the late 1980s Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty, aka The Orb, had released an acid house EP, and had a couple of tracks included in an acid house compilation, Eternity Project One. They were also DJs at Heaven nightclub, playing late night spots which became popular as a chill-out alternative to pounding house music. Having experimented with slowing down the beats per minute and dropping drums from the tracks, the Orb appeared to have produced something interesting and new. People liked what they were doing and two singles were released. John Peel, although probably not an active participant in the dance scene, played both singles and a Peel session was arranged for late 1989. Initially, people weren’t sure what the music was, until it started to be categorized as ‘ambient house’. The Orb are seen as pioneers of the genre, a relatively self-explanatory description, the ‘house’ bit for the rhythm, the ‘ambient’ part for the use of eclectic samples, and the lack of standard song structure throughout the tracks. The labelling is a bit constrictive; their music also has echoes of dub, classical, film scores, space rock and krautrock. There are many styles incorporated in their music and the Orb can be considered to be blurring boundaries between different genres.

The Orb’s first Peel session comprised one track which lasted about twenty minutes; a version of their single A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld.

In these early days the Orb were using a collection of record decks, tapes and consoles to create their music. The session engineer had a bit of a problem understanding what was happening in the studio; this was not a standard set-up for a band. On broadcast there were telephone complaints about the length of the track (mainly from Andy Kershaw) but Peel seemed to enjoy it and immediately heard links with 1970’s prog rock. The ecstatic sounds prompted him to recall a romantic liaison he had had in the studio during a Soft Machine session.

A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld is expansive and spacey. A four note synth riff is looped infinitely throughout. Over this hypnotic backdrop various other light sounds, splashing waves, voices, birdsong and rhythms float in and out of the piece. The overall feeling is of being suspended and weightless. This session, and initial releases, were pre-internet and a lot of the buzz about the band was by word of mouth and from tantalizing features in the music press. The surprise the music gave on first listen, without all the back-up information we have now, was exciting and produced a vivid reaction. I still hope to have this strong feeling when encountering a new artist.

With the benefit of hindsight – and the internet – the songs can be picked apart and the samples the Orb used can be identified. This gives a different perspective to the pieces and is something we now take for granted. The first Peel session track has a sample from Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond which isn’t present in all versions. The song was originally referred to as ‘Lovin’ You’ because of the sample from Minnie Riperton’s big hit at the core of the piece, indeed she is noted in the song writing credits. When her record company became aware of the use of this sample they demanded 100% royalties, so Riperton’s vocals were replaced by a sound-alike in later versions. There is also the use of a sample from Grace Jones’ Slave To The Rhythm which is an integral part of the track, and again her song writing team are noted in the credits. The title of the song is a direct reference to a BBC sound effects record which was sampled, and is from an episode of Blake’s 7 called ‘Ultraworld’. Other sound effects from Elektra Records’ Sound Effects Vol.2 and BBC science fiction radio plays are also thought to have been used in the piece.

The Peel session was popular with listeners and was repeated in early 1990. The interest around the Orb continued and their gigs became special events incorporating large light shows as they started to tour round the country. Eventually the single version of A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain… got to No.78 in the charts, unusual for a song which lasted about twenty minutes. It also reached No.10 in John Peel’s 1990 Festive 50. The single’s success led the Orb into the remix business, with several artists seeking their input into production.

During 1990, Jimmy Cauty left the Orb to concentrate on the KLF after a dispute concerning record labels. The albums Space and Chill Out comprise music Jimmy and Alex were working on. After the split Jimmy removed Alex’s contributions and released the tracks as KLF albums.

Alex Paterson continued as the Orb and was joined by Martin Glover; together they worked on a new single Little Fluffy Clouds which was released in late 1990. This is probably the most famous of the Orb’s songs and, over twenty-five years later, it still sounds other-worldly.

Little Fluffy Clouds starts with the wake-up call of a cock crowing, a sample of somebody talking about “traditional sounds of an English summer” and a lawnmower mowing. There is then the noise of a plane taking off, encouraging the listener to think about looking upwards. Rickie Lee Jones describing the skies of her childhood is introduced by the question “what were the skies like when you were young?” accompanied by the harmonica from Morricone’s soundtrack for Once Upon A Time In The West giving a dreamy feel to the question. Implicitly, the listener is also asked to think or daydream about their childhood. The track moves into a looped sample from Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint and a drum sequence from Nilsson’s Jump Into The Fire. Over this rhythm is a very ethereal repeated pattern of notes which suggests lights dancing across the described sky. The track ends with the sound of a rocket, as though the voyage is continuing. Some people dream with sound and this track seems like an attempt to capture those fleeting semi-conscious moments. The whole feel of the song is like an out of body experience set to a danceable beat.

The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld

A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain… and Little Fluffy Clouds were included on the first album, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld. The album, released in 1991, has an overall concept of leaving earth and exploring space, the title again alludes to Blake’s 7. Many of the eclectic samples on this album seem to have been taken from records which were really important to Alex Paterson, providing a personal insight into his musical reference points and a journey back to the sounds of his youth.

In 1992, Martin Glover was replaced by Kris Weston. There was a collective of people working on the Orb’s music and a new single was released.

Blue Room was an ambitious collaborative project which blurs the boundaries of what is a single. At 39:58 the song is the longest track to make it in to the UK singles chart; the compilers of the chart had recently changed the permissible length of a single from twenty-five minutes to forty minutes. Blue Room peaked at No.8 and the Orb made an appearance on Top Of The Pops playing chess to an edited version of the single. The track is a dreamy concoction of drifty light textures which suggest the presence of UFOs and alien contact. The shimmering presence of the possibility of an intelligence we are not quite aware of is hinted at throughout the Orb’s work (one of the meanings of ‘Orb’ is the name given to bright circular light balls which occasionally appear in photos and are thought, by some, to be spirits). The track is given some weight from Jah Wobble’s bass, and Steve Hillage’s guitar work zips around the outer edges of the sounds. The wordless human voice is a sample from Mad Professor’s Fast Forward Into Dub and he in turn took this sample from The Creator by Aisha. The lack of recognizable words is thought to reflect very early memories from an infantile world and the feeling of being suspended mimics the sensation of falling to sleep. The ‘Blue Room’ could also refer to a place where it is thought the United States government kept evidence of alien contact; there is a recurring sound motif of air raid sirens going off throughout Blue Room as though the listener is hearing warnings of an unspecified attack. A version of the track was included on U.F.Orb, an album with a theme of UFOs and extra-terrestrial life.

The Orb continued touring and working and a live album, Live 93, was released, followed in 1994 by Pomme Fritz; at about forty minutes in length the Orb referred to this as a mini-album. The work is experimental and the direct links to other artists and other songs have almost disappeared. As a collection of Heath Robinson-like soundscapes, forged from found noises, gathered into an album which riffs on potato cuisine, it works really well. It was quite a departure from their ‘poppier’ work. The track Alles Ist Schoen (‘everything is nice’ in English) is credited to Thomas Fehlmann. He had been around the Orb as an engineer since the first album and from Pomme Fritz onwards the Orb has mainly featured Alex and Thomas. The song is held together by a sliding three note loop while other samples weave in and out. You could imagine this track being used as a relaxation aid; until you hear a sampled voice describing the effects of electro-shock therapy and then the pleasant feel immediately takes on a sinister aspect. The album is avant-garde and the sounds have moved away from dance music.

The Orb returned firmly to earth with their next album, Orbus Terrarum. Their album covers usually have a very direct visual representation of the musical themes; here the artwork supports the collection of pieces which reference maps and geography. The typeface for the ‘Orb’ looks like an Escher loop.

The Orb Orbus Terrarum

The samples used reflect the ebb and flow of the physical environment around us; water, engines, steam, wind, coupled with some wry humour. The Orb were also using real musicians during this period to augment their live shows.

Oxbow Lakes was released as a single to promote Orbus Terrarum. The track is built on a echoey piano motif which moves into the sounds of motors whirring which in turn blend into a bright, dreamy riff. The pitch of the notes are constantly getting higher, and lighter, throughout the piece. It is the sort of music that could accompany an art installation to provide background aural wallpaper or can be listened to as an independent piece.

In 1997, Orblivion was released, a collection of tracks which capture the pre-millennium apocalyptic zeitgeist. Some people were worried about the impending end of the world; this manifested itself in business with concerns about the ‘millennium bug’ and these feelings were picked up in music and other arts. I have chosen the track S.A.L.T. as the most direct representation of this end-of-the-millennium vibe. It is based around a rant about the imminent apocalypse, back-lit by reverberating synthesisers and a slow 4 beat tune. The monologue sounds like the proclamation of a crazed cult leader preaching a vision and brings to mind many conspiracy theorists.

The Orb’s next album was released in 2001. There had been difficulties in changing record labels and their work had been put on hold for a couple of years. Cydonia is a collection of disparate tracks, some of it thought to have been recorded at the time of the Orblivion album. Two different vocalists were used and the styles range from very ambient through to mainstream dance. Cydonia is an area on the surface of Mars which is thought to show evidence of human civilization. If the album has a theme at all, it could be of outer space contact. The track Once More has a deceptively simple lyric about growth and the search for a loved one. Hypnotic musical textures then support the lyric’s rumination on chosen reality. The idea of different concurrent realities or dimensions is something proposed by Stephen Hawking and is a recurring theme in science fiction.

The Orb collective continued making music, touring, dabbling in record labels, working on side projects and mixing tracks for other artists through the noughties. In 2010 they released Metallic Spheres, a collaboration with David Gilmour. The album has two tracks and seems to have been conceived as two separate sides of a vinyl LP. The sides – Metallic and Spheres – each comprise five movements, with Gilmour’s signature guitar work complementing and contrasting the Orb’s ambient aural sculptures. Since the late 1980s, the Orb had been accused of being Pink Floyd copyists (an accusation they had played up to with some their choices of song titles and album cover art – there is also a persistent rumour that they had released bootleg ambient remixes of Pink Floyd albums) and now they had achieved a status where they could collaborate with their musical heroes. The album is a dense, multi-textural work which effortlessly glides along.

In 2012, the Orb got together with another of their musical heroes, Lee Scratch Perry, resulting in enough material for three albums. Many of the songs are new mixes of old favourites from both artists’ back catalogues. The first collaboration, The Orbserver In The Star House, was released that year. Golden Clouds is a clever re-interpretation of Little Fluffy Clouds.

There are hints of the original version; a very simple beat is embellished with echoes and a collage of suggested sound. Over this backing Scratch delivers a stream of conscious meditation on the nature of the golden clouds of his youth. Lee Perry was 76 years old when he hooked up with the Orb, in this case the collaboration seems to be an exception to the often cited wisdom that you shouldn’t meet your heroes. The Orb were impressed with the speed at which Perry worked, quickly recording and then on to the next idea. The Upsetter’s mercurial touch helped to retune the Orb back to their dub roots.

The Orb COW Chill Out World

The final track I have chosen is from their 2016 album, COW / Chill Out, World!, a slow paced, minimalist, thoughtful album. The bright orange of the album’s cover makes a link to some of Tangerine Dream’s work and the title references an early ‘lost’ Orb album. There are lots of sounds which suggest forgotten, distant, half-heard radio transmissions from a serious Clangers-like universe. The music is less metallic but still pitch perfect. The album feels to be encouraging the listener to sit back and contemplate how infinitely small we are within the universe; to relax and enjoy the fragile, temporary nature of life. 5th Dimensions hints at something that is beyond time and space and outside human knowledge. A chorus of birdsong is accompanied by drawn-out synth splashes, a simple repeated riff and the bleeps of radio signals. These dissolve into the sound of a wheezing engine before condensing into a powerful overhead angelic voice which dominates the sounds before disappearing, like life itself, as the track ends.

The Orb continue working and have reached the stage of being elder statesmen for ambient, electronic music. There are 30th anniversary celebrations for 2018, comprising shows and a new album, No Sounds Are Out Of Bounds.

 

 

The Orb poster 2

 

 

The Orb photo 2

The Orb (2017): Thomas Fehlmann & Alex Paterson

 

The Orb official website

The Orb twitter

The Orb bandcamp

The Orb discogs

The Orb: sample examples

The Orb playing chess on Top of the Pops changed my life

How we made Little Fluffy Clouds

Blake’s 7: Ultraworld episode

Brian Eno on ambient music

The Orb biography (iTunes)

This is Ian’s sixth post for Toppermost (after Fats Waller, King Tubby, Dawn Penn, Melvins, Nina Simone). He spends time listening to music and can be found @IanFergie.

TopperPost #726

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