Essential albums: The Orb

The Orb’s rise to prominence in Britain in the early 90’s was the most visible example of what was perhaps that decade's most interesting musical hybrids: ambient dance music...the druggy melange of slow-motion Chicago house beats, Jamaican dub and Detroit techno coupled with mad voice samples, Eno-esque soundscapes and Pink Floyd-style psychedelia...widely influential on the electronica that followed in its wake.

The Orb

country of origin:

Chillout, ambient techno/trance/dub, psychedelia, breaks

decades active:
80's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld (1991, Big Life)
  • U.F.Orb (1992, Big Life)
  • Live ‘93 (1993, Island)

Reviewed by Mike G

The Orb’s rise to prominence in Britain in the early 90’s was the most visible example of what was perhaps that decade's most interesting musical hybrids: ambient dance music (also dubbed ambient house and more accurately in the Orb's case, ambient dub). Alex Paterson and Kris "Thrash" Weston's druggy melange of slow-motion Chicago house beats, Jamaican dub and Detroit techno coupled with mad voice samples, Eno-esque soundscapes and Pink Floyd-style psychedelia was for a short time hugely popular in the UK and was widely influential on the electronica that followed in its wake. While Paterson freely acknowledges the influence of electronic pioneers like the Floyd and the seminal German psychedelic acts of the 70's, The Orb's secret was recasting it’s influences in a quirky, hi-tech dance music framework.

Ambient dance first emerged in the late 80’s from the early acid house scene in Britain and Europe. Exhausted dancers would retreat to special chillout rooms at clubs and raves to bliss out on multi-layered washes of ambient sound created by a new breed of DJ’s, among them Paterson and Mixmaster Morris. At the same time Paterson was meeting like-minded people through his job at Brian Eno’s former label Editions EG. After a stint remixing singles for a number of electropop acts and a brief association with infamous dance pranksters The KLF - who kick-started the media's interest with a series of cheeky press releases  - Paterson eventually teamed up with Kris Weston. The pair went on the road and began to attract a following as a live act, and it was in this incarnation that the Orb made its first album.

Orb classics

The debut album Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld (1991) was co-produced with ex-Killing Joke member Youth - whose contribution was substantial - and it combines an astonishing diversity of elements. All manner of digital samples - voices, explosions, movie soundtracks, melodies nicked from other artists including Steve Reich and Kraftwerk - are woven into the electronic tapestry. Slow to mid-tempo rhythms come and go, varying from subtle melodic pulses and dub reggae to relaxed breakbeats and deep house. Paterson’s fascination with science-fiction and space travel is evident throughout, not least on the album’s ridiculously titled centrepiece “A Huge And Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld”. A freestyle mix combining layers of synth chords, sequencer-driven melodies and ethereal chants, it’s pure cosmic bliss. Yet it’s all done with a lightness of touch and relaxed sense of humour that makes any charges of pretentious difficult to sustain.

Although Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld is still considered by many to be the band's masterwork, the follow-up U.F.Orb (1992) maintains the high standards of its predecessor. The wonderful “Blue Room” with its alien-abduction overtones was originally released as a 40 minute-long single, one of the longest in that format ever made. Although on U.F.Orb the track is half this length it still casts the same strange enchantment with its eerie, siren-like melody driven by a crisp house beat and a sly, hypnotic bass line courtesy of guest Jah Wobble. With the album’s commercial success (Number #1 in the UK) the duo were attracting plenty of media attention at this point. They went on to cement their oddball status with a celebrated appearance on the BBC-TV's Top Of The Pops, playing chess against a background of swimming dolphins while “Blue Room” warbled into living rooms around the country. Live ‘93 (1993) compiles tracks from three different concerts they played that year, adding two new Eastern-flavoured pieces to the groups repertoire and re-working the older material in often innovative ways.

...and the rest

In retrospect the early 90's was The Orb's golden age. As ever in the dance music world, the group soon faced a decline in its commercial fortunes and audiences whose taste was changing, at least in the UK. That the band saw change coming and chose not to simply repeat past glories is commendable, but subsequent album releases have been frustrating: often disorientating, occasionally beautiful, never essential.

With producer buddy Youth now out of the picture, Paterson and Weston released the mini-album Pomme Fritz (1994), an occasionally interesting but often underdeveloped collection of synth sketches, sound effects and samples. Its gently mesmerizing title track is the highlight. Orbus Terrarum (1995) boasts an eerie classic in "Oxbow Lakes" and some beautifully textured ambient landscapes but the album hedges its bets. Seemingly uncomfortable with the trippy cosmic flavour that came to define the band, the music is unnecessarily jolting and abrasive in places.

During the recording of Orbus Terrarum Kris Weston left the band. The reasons were numerous. He was unhappy with the now-dictatorial attitude of their record company; he claimed to be doing most of the musical work in The Orb while Paterson seemed to take most of the credit; and he was also unhappy with more members being bought in, a move which undoubtedly had a role in fracturing their duo's creative dynamic. In hindsight, it's clear that Weston's contribution to the band was underrated. It's also true that the The Orb was never the same after his departure.

The first album without Weston was the darker Orblivion (1997). It's heavy on dub production techniques and technically interesting but - the hit single "Toxygene" excepted - short on compelling grooves and melodic interest.

Since the 90's the band's music has shifted uneasily between styles and approaches: semi-commercial pop (2001's Cydonia album), cold lo-fi techno (on the German label Kompakt), confusing hodge-podges (Bicycles & Tricycles from 2004) and somewhat embarrassing early-90's rave nostalgia (The Dream from 2007). Even the dub-heavy Metallic Spheres (2010), a seemingly natural collaboration with Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, often gets lost in dissonance and largely wastes Gilmour's melodic gifts. Paterson and co remain a compelling live act, however, and that's best way to experience 21st century Orb.


So is it unfair to say that The Orb's time in sun has passed as a studio act? I don't think so. It's not the 90's anymore. But those early albums remain mighty impressive. On Ultraworld and U.F.Orb the group’s seamless sense of line and flow and quirky looping and sampling techniques make for an ambient dance music take on psychedelia that's still smart, fun and transcendent.

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