A collection of posts from my original weblog...or the inscrutable rantings of a madman...could be both...

Friday, August 30, 2002

Hey musos! Yes..I'm back for the final posting of August--and less than a month away from the big *2 Year Anniversary* of "21st Century Schizoid Man"! I took a week off from my day gig...and *not* having the money to travel anywhere cool..say India or Spain..or my beloved British Isles..or even anywhere cool in the good ol' U.S. of A., like M.A.D.'s pad in Minneapolis or California..I mainly stuck around these parts with some good friends (one in particular--she knows who she is) and some great tunes. That's right...I finally scored my copies of the Orbital "Work 1989-2002" compilation disc and the *brand-new* Future Sound Of London (Amorphous Androgynous in the U.K.) disc, "The Is-ness".
I thought that for this post..I would borrow the "meta-review" idea from C-Dog and link to a review of each disc found at PopMatters. I was browsing at PopMatters last week and read both reviews, written by Matt Cibula. Each review is well-written, but I do have a few disagreements..so I thought I would just throw in my comments in comparison to his.
The Orbital review finds Mr. Cibula largely in praise of the compilation, but recommends the disc to novices only...while telling long-time fans to avoid it. "Which is, finally, what's weird about this collection. There's no way that anyone who is familiar with Orbital would want this CD. You just get too frustrated at the eviscerated versions of your favorite songs, and it's impossible to judge the progression of the band when their songs are all out of order. No, this is just for Orbital neophytes, who will get all geeked up about finally discovering this music and rush out immediately to get everything in their catalog. Fans who are waiting for a best-of will just have to accept it: owning all the albums is the only way to do that." He *does* have a point about all of the shortened versions of the tracks--but I believe the reason for that is simply to be able to include more of their material on the CD. This is an outfit whose average track is somewhere in the 6-to-9-minute range--that doesn't make for a *whole* lot of tunes on an 80-minute disc..and they probably didn't want their die-hard fans (like myself) shelling out for a 2-disc comp. of stuff they already own. Also, they included a lot of remix/7" versions of tunes--a few of them tough to track down now, like the "Industry Standard?" mix of Are We Here (from 1994's "Snivilisation" album) and the "original version" of Choice, called the "Crucifix Vocal US Hardcore Punk" mix (from the first self-titled album...or the "green" album).
I do agree with his assertion about the inclusion of Illuminate (from 2001's "love-it-or-hate-it" "The Altogether" record). "I have heard some critics wax wroth over the decision to include "Illuminate" on this album, because it features Gray (who I guess is supposed to represent "sell-out") and because it comes from their latest album, the disappointing The Altogether. Maybe I'm supposed to affect a superior purist-type pose, but I just don't see it." It is a great track..and yeah, that *is* David Gray singing..but it's happy melody and synth hooks stick in your mind for days..so I've got no problem with the Hartnoll brothers deciding to mesh it in with the final line-up of "Work". Again, this version of "Illuminate" is an "original" mix cut during the sessions for 1999's The Middle Of Nowhere, but was left off of that album when it was thought it didn't suit the overall "mood" of "The Middle.." and re-worked for "The Altogether".
And finally, he nails the point right on the head with his praise for Orbital's genius for engaging melodies..."Every piece here has three or four or seven different riffs that stick like peanut butter and intertwine and break apart and come back together. If I didn't think it too pretentious, I'd compare them to Bach; the Hartnolls have a knack for themes and variations that few of their contemporaries even bothered with." I'd think it pretentious if he compared them to Bach also--but I *will* go as far as to say that some of Orbital's pieces are as epic in scope and ambition as The Beatles' psychedelic-era records--this ain't just dance-music, folks!
The same applies to the new F.S.O.L. disc...I was pleasantly surprised by it. I had read a couple of reviews (including Mr. Cibula's)..and that increased my anticipation quite a bit. When the opening track, Elysian Feels, started up...I immediately *knew* I would like this disc--and noticed how far removed their sound is from their last, 1996's Dead Cities, which alternated between industrial-rage ("We Have Explosive") to melancholy piano solos ("Max"). There is *so* much sitar swathed in the grooves (courtesy of band-friend Baluji Shrivastav), you would think F.S.O.L. were trying to make the instrument fashionable again...which I don't mind--though I know that doesn't sit well with everyone!
Again, Mr. Cibula's review is favorable toward F.S.O.L.'s "psychedelic make-over". Though he does take Gaz Cobain to task for his "hippie-dippy" lyrics. "Apparently, Cobain equates "psychedelic" with "throw any damn thing in there and put a sitar on top and people won't really care what you're singing". This was what some freak-out music did, to be sure -- but only the bad boring stuff. This is meandering wank with no real destination: "She's hiding from the yo-yo / It's a real no-no / Life with Jo Jo"; sure it could end up going somewhere, but it doesn't." His complaint is fair enough, and having listened to a *lot* of psychedelia (old and new) in my day--I can relate to the notion that some people think trippy lyrics are the juxtapositioning of opposites--completely not so. However, I didn't find The Mello Hippo Disco Show to be quite the excruciating listening experience that Mr. Cibula did--in fact, it came across to me as Cobain's somewhat oblique tribute to The Beatles' I Am The Walrus--same loping beat and Cobain trying in earnest to emulate John Lennon's surreal style..falling far short of the mark, to be sure, but at least trying.
If you have the recently-released U.S. version of the album--the track list is different from Cibula's promo-copy. The track after "Mello Hippo.." is Goodbye Sky (reprise)..then Osho..then The Galaxial Pharmaceutical, which I enjoyed but Mr. Cibula also found not to his liking. "But there are a couple of problems. The epic closer, "The Galaxical Pharmaceutical", is a 15-minute combination of bad Floyd and "Major Tom"-era Bowie, all paeans to "Mr. Spaceman" and "Mr. Policeman" (that latter from "Life on Mars", what?) and ending with "The spacecraft has been programmed for me"-type stuff. It sounds great, but the lyrics kill it." I will concur that the lyrics *do* distract from the music, which sounds like it was painstakingly constructed to have a seamless feel to it..even though it has several different parts--just like an old progressive (Yikes! there's that *word*!) suite by Genesis or King Crimson. Again, I liked it and got past Cobain's goofy "universal love/self-pity" elements in the lyrics to the core of the tune--an epic psych/prog/techno fusion that requires a *lot* of listens to hear everything going on in it's grooves.
Mr. Cibula *does* spotlight one of my favorite tracks from the album, the absolutely amazing Go Tell It To The Trees Egghead...."Go Tell It to the Trees Egghead" follows, and it's what I was talking about before: a brand-new direction for rock music. This swinging gentle pastoral thing rides an easy tabla beat and marries slide guitar and sitar and meandering flute and prog synth and toy zylophone and an "electric accordion" line and harmonica and blues licks -- it's chocablock with beauty and ease and newness." This track had me clicking the "reverse" button on my CD player so many times! It would finish and I'd listen to it again..I couldn't stop. The flute part is akin to the gentle flute line in Canned Heat's classic "Going Up The Country"..the sitar and tabla make their entrance so subtlely you almost can't remember *when* they became part of the mix. Brilliant tune...great instumentation..I almost wish that "Go Tell It.." was the 15-minute track instead of "Galaxial..", but it's two-chord phrasing probably wouldn't hold up over 10-minutes without getting *severely* repetitive. He also makes a point about Cobain's guitar melody in the song Divinity being similar to Adam Sandler's "Hanukkah Song"..."Wed to a guitar line that sounds exactly like Adam Sandler's "The Hanukkah Song", Gaz sounds like crap here spouting off about how "One day you will find / Inexhaustible ecstasy"." Having heard the track now, I can say that yes, the melody is similar--but the chords Cobain is playing are standard chords that nearly *everyone* has played..still, need I point out the George Harrison/Chiffons lawsuit over "My Sweet Lord"? I know, I know..Mr. Cibula was having a little fun at Cobain's expense..but I bet he played those chords, thought it sounded good for a tune, and decided to pen some lyrics...let's hope Sandler doesn't "pull a Chiffons" on F.S.O.L.
All in all, I'm very excited about "The Is-ness" and the return of The Future Sound Of London. I thought they had long since split and now they are in a near 180-degree turn from their last effort and I dig the results! If you're a fan of psychedelia but feel that electronic music is "cold" and "impersonal", you would do well to listen to this disc..you won't even believe these guys own a sampler *or* a sequencer or even know what ProTools is. I mean, they thank George Harrison and Ananda Shankar (a relative of Ravi and a sitar master in his own right--he recently passed away) in the credits, fer chrissakes! Even Matt Cibula has to give it up for them (before slapping Cobain's wrist *one* last time).."In the meantime, The Isness means that FSOL is back as a force to be reckoned with . . . it's a great fun album, as long as we're not indulging in that "mumbo jumbo slow fellatio" shite. Eh, Gaz?"*


*All quotations taken from PopMatters; reviews of Orbital's "Work 1989-2002" and The Future Sound Of London's "The Is-ness" written by Matt Cibula.

Saturday, August 17, 2002

U.F.ORB--TEN YEARS ON:
I was recently visiting a site dedicated to the one and only "shoegazer" legends, My Bloody Valentine, and there was a link to an article written last year. The article was commemorating the ten-year anniversary of the release of their triumphant Loveless record. It struck me as a brilliant idea...to look back at the release of a particular album and with that, to see how it's "aged" over the ten years and decide if it's as noteworthy as was thought at the time of it's release. Some would argue that this would make the record reek of mock "importance", to be treated with the reverance of an historical object or even a piece of classical music. I think, and this will come off as pretentious, that music is "art"--yes, even popular music (by "popular"--I mean forms of rock--including electronica)...and certain records should have the status as cultural icons. Obviously, this is the case with albums by The Beatles and Pink Floyd..even extending to The Velvet Underground and The Clash, and most recently, Nirvana's "Nevermind". At some point..hopefully..albums like "Loveless" and The Flaming Lips' "Hit To Death In The Future Head" will share the same stature--I'm not holding by breath, though.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of The Orb's ambient-techno masterpiece, U.F.Orb. It has appeared on some "Top 100 Records of The 90s" lists--courtesy some dubious sources like Spin magazine and the erstwhile A.P. (Alternative Press)--which is fine, but you sort-of wish someone other than the pomo-hipsters who populate those magazines' staffs had noticed how cool the record is. It's a wonder anyone even noticed "U.F.Orb" in the States at all in '92...other than a handful of neo-prog stoners and tuned-in ravers. It was clearly Nirvana's year..at least in the mainstream music press. A psychedelic dance act getting coverage during the "Seattle boom"? You're off yer rocker, mate. In England (The Orb's homeland), though, the time couldn't have been better for their trippy outer/inner space safaris. Dance music was catching it's second wind (after the "acid house" rave scene that began in 1987/88 had dwindled down to a few committed DJs and clubs), especially after "shots-in-the-arm" like Primal Scream's "Screamadelica" and others like 808 State's "Utd. State" record and Orbital's "Chime" single--and of course, *tons* of one-off DJ singles that got the clubs and raves jumping again.
"U.F.Orb" was the second full-length for The Orb, who were D.R. Alex Paterson and Kris 'Thrash' Weston at the time of the record's production--along with legendary Gong guitarist Steve Hillage (who was becoming interested in the new dance scene) and his wife, keyboardist Miquette Giraudy. The Orb were releasing a follow-up to their 2-record (and CD) debut, The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, which contained the massive underground radio (and raver) hit, Little Fluffy Clouds (featuring a spaced-out-sounding Rickie Lee Jones talking about her childhood in Arizona). But while "Ultraworld" contained some excellent tracks, it didn't feel like a cohesive whole..more of a collection of ambient moods and danceable chill-out pieces. Paterson and Weston aimed much higher for their follow-up and looked to annoy the prog-haters with (gasp!)..a concept record! The taster for this second album was the 39-minute (!) single for Blue Room, which became the longest single ever to chart in Britain. The Orb appeared on "Top Of The Pops" to promote the single..but instead of miming playing the tune on their banks of sequencers and keyborads..they got cheeky and played chess on camera while the single played in the background. The tune was slashed in half for it's inclusion on "U.F.Orb", but still manages to evoke the otherwordly mood that Paterson and Weston were trying for.
And the record itself? It begins with a low rumble, then a faux-choir chimes in, along with various keyboard washes. This is the start of O.O.B.E. (or "out-of-body-experience"). A sample of a lecturer discussing philosopher Karl Popper's theory of the "third world" follows, and some more keyboard washes..but these sound like they are going in a "circular" pattern (in fact, I think they do "pan" around the speakers). A flute enters the mix and everything builds up, then quiets down..with a strange flange effect being applied to the flute so it doesn't even *sound* like a flute after a few seconds. The "flanged" flute dominates the mix for a short time, before the keyboards return and another build-up happens..until the lecturer sample intervenes and everything goes silent. The silence is broken by a sample of an Indian record, featuring a man singing and an echoed sitar. Some weird keyboard sounds wash across the speakers..then some "sped-up" voices..and the inevitable "water-dripping" noise. This segues into the title track, which starts in earnest with the spoken-word sample from "Radio Moscow" in 1961...followed by a sampled helicopter sound. A 4/4 dance beat breaks in and the tempo kicks in. It's enough to get people on the floor--but has enough of the trademark Orb "found sound" to keep it from being a throwaway club cut--the helicopter noise replaces a part of the 4/4 beat and there's a spoken-word sample that announces "I want BLOOD!". The track ends with the helicopters fading out and some random tones...and into the aforementioned Blue Room. "Blue Room" begins with keyboard blips and slight feedback from Hillage's guitar--it creates a strange atmosphere. Then an air-raid siren can be heard, which adds to the already un-tethered feel. Burbling keyboards and a sound like clinking chains follow, along with the sound of a train. A pattern of notes takes over the mix for a short time, and Hillage adds some more "flying saucer" sounds from his guitar. A muted beat surfaces through the mix and gives the tune a bit of grounding. A female singer provides a simple, repeated phrase and Hillage provides some spacey slide guitar. The beat then comes to the forefront, with the singer following. Soon the other sounds return and the mix fills out to a complete tune. The Orb's inherent sense of humour shows up with backward gunshot samples and some Star Trek sound effects thrown in there, too. Eventually, the beat fades out and we're left with the burbling keyboards, clinking chains and the train--which whistles "Good-bye" as it departs.
The "second half" of "U.F.Orb" begins with a prank phone by Orbfriend Victor Lewis-Smith, who pretends to be "Marcus Garvey" calling One Weekend Television looking for "Haile Selassie". The exchange is hilarious between Lewis-Smith and the security guard..with Lewis-Smith saying things like: "Tell him that Marcus Garvey phoned..and that I will meet him..well, it's..in Babylon and 'ting.." After the call..a nice pattern of tones starts up and there's a sample of a guy saying "Hello, I'm Crag..woof woof.." The mix morphs itself into a classic dub beat..because, well, the track is called Towers Of Dub. It's since become a live Orb favorite, but it must've sounded anachronistic, even in 1992. A harmonica chimes in..as well as a flurry of bass notes..and a sampled dog bark (which is "in time" with the beat). Every dub effect is used to it's fullest..echo..the entire mix dropping out save the beat..Lee Perry would be proud! Eventually, the beat begins a *long* fade-out and then there is near silence except for some keyboard washes that sound a bit like ocean waves. Close Encounters is my personal favorite track and it begins with an echoed sound like a laser zap. Then a drone sounds off and a synth sequence starts up. The synth sequence is one of those that sounds as if it is "rolling back in on itself" and it forms the backbone of the mix. A conga sample is added and another rolling synth line emerges to play along with the original one. It all unfolds very quickly and it's tough to keep track of one instrument all the way through the tune. The requisite "bubbling water" sample is thrown in (this *was* 1992)..and fades into the mix. Everything slows down after a while and the tune ends with a sample of a Tibetan (?) man singing in a low voice, children playing..and a keyboard drone that matches the man's voice pitch perfectly..simply an amazing track! Majestic starts with a spoken-word sample saying "There is still no such reality as something..."...followed by a "happy" pattern of notes and a female singer singing (I think) "Majesty". Another pattern of notes, lower in pitch, dominate the mix..along with other spoken-word samples. A sample of an Indian or Arabian flute enters the mix..and for a bit, it's just that and the beat. The "happy" pattern returns..and everything fades, except for a hi-hat and some processed drum rolls. A "break-down" section follows--all hi-hat and electronic drum..with the female singer adding a human element. A spoken-word sample is inserted..and then the rest of the mix comes back in steps. The beat disappears, except for the hi-hat, and the "happy" tones and some spoken-word samples carry the tune to it's fade-out (they throw in some low-volume drum rolls to make sure you're paying attention). A droney flute announces the arrival of Sticky End, the final track. It's very much what it's title suggests--the sound of "suckers" being pulled off of glass, but processed to sound a *lot* weirder.
So what of it ten years later? I think it holds up well--but I'm a big fan of The Orb. The electronic world has passed them by and even The Orb has suffered under personnel changes and changing styles. It's too bad, but it seems no-one in "electronica" is making albums like this (other than the new Amorphous Androgynous "Is-ness" record) anymore. The clubbers want their latest hit to "get their groove on" and don't want their "choons" to sound anything *remotely* like Pink Floyd or prog. The alt/rock/radio crowd abandoned the genre after a couple of years buying albums by The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers, to "git back to the git-tars". None of this is The Orb's fault--they're just making their music that they want to make--but it seems like *they've* even stepped back from their previous ambitions. Which makes "U.F.Orb" even more unique--considering it was their (no pun intended--O.K., maybe a little) high-water mark. Their Orbus Terrarum album in 1995 showed a bit of the brilliance of "U.F.Orb", but couldn't top it's overall other-worldly vibe. The concept..I read somewhere that it's about alien abduction and..uh.."mating" with them ("Sticky End")..and that sounds plausible to me--though I don't know where "Towers Of Dub" fits in there. "U.F.Orb" is ambient-techno as it's most experimental and tuneful..and though some of the effects and samples have dated..I think it stands up quite well in 2002. I've never been a "clubber", so this sort of electronica appeals to me..I just wish there were more of it around..especially in 2002!