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

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!