In the tradition of Sumerian emblematic regalia, The Orb signifies completeness, being representative of all things gathered within the oasis.
What were the skies like when you were young? Fifteen years ago the clouds would catch the colors of the Acid House party sweeping across Britain, as hundreds of thousands of bored heads found identity in a new kind of dance music and an escape route from a grim Britain buckling under Tory control. Alex Paterson was one of those 24-hour party people stimulated into creating his own music and with the facelessness and openness of house meaning absolutely no rules, this was going to be fun. When The Orb landed with their collage trickery, it reflected the zing in the air that anything was possible, and they proved it; perverting the charts without a chorus was one product of The Orb’s sense of the absurd and conveying the emotional impact of space exploration through suggestion and a handful of samples was another clever trick. During the Renaissance they’d have called it alchemy.
The story of how The Orb implanted itself on Planet Pop and with such uncompromising un-commercial music is now a recognised tale. How an ex-roadie (for post-punk band Killing Joke) Alex Paterson and his friend Jimmy Cauty landed a slot at DJ Paul Oakenfold’s Land Of Oz night and created the first chill-out haven aided by as many record decks, tape recorders and CD players as they could grab, inverting house music’s golden rule by dropping the thump of the kick drum and thus inventing Ambient House during some barmy, balmy evenings during the summer of ’88.
With Alex a massive dub fan and his day job in the A&R department of Brian Eno’s ambient label EG having already fuelled a healthy interest in ambient atmospherics and off-kilter rhythms, The Orb was really just a matter of time. So the pair ventured into the studio to chill with the machines and emerged grinning with the solar-kissed ‘Tripping On Sunshine’ and their debut single the ‘Kiss EP’ – which was released on Wau! Mr Modo, a label set up by Alex and long time friend Youth (of Killing Joke).At the beginning of 1989 the pair recorded their masterpiece – ‘Loving You/A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld’. It’s a colossal mixture of ambience, analogue sequences, choirs and fx and the perfect resting place for the dreamy voice of Minnie Ripperton to float. During that wildly hedonistic summer the track is championed as the first post-rave house track. Chill out music for clubbers. Ambient House For The E Generation. It’s this epic musical statement that landed The Orb firmly on the dance map and with clubbers, chillers and dj’s embracing ‘Loving You’, a deal with Big Life was struck.
In early 1990 Jimmy Cauty decided to leave The Orb to pursue his KLF project, so in the summer Alex teamed up with old pal Youth and created The Orb’s calling card, ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’. It’s during these sessions that 18yr old engineer Kris Weston (aka Thrash) was befriended and piped aboard The Orb in time for their first live adventures. In the autumn ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ was released to an audience eager for more and the band were invited to record their second John Peel Session for which the occasion is used to preview adaptations of tracks from the forthcoming album.
In April 1991 The Orb unleashed their debut album ‘The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld. Shameless in the fact that it’s a double with a concept connected, it brought with it inspiring new vistas on house and techno, as it flooded the brain with dub and techno rhythms, blended spoken word with melted ambience and inserted radio clips, Apollo mission dialogue, classical music, bent-out-of-shape samples and sound fx into the spaces in between. It blew minds, capturing perfectly the innocent, blissed out mood of Britain’s rave culture as it became the post-clubbing chill-out album. Thirteen years on and ‘Ultraworld’ never tires, an established classic that documents an era and still feels like being in the company of an old friend on a sunny afternoon while writing a biography…
With ‘Ultraworld’ materializing in the top 30 UK albums chart, The Orb hit the road to greet unsuspecting audiences with a sonic sensory barrage previously unheard, unseen and unparalleled for a dance act. As Alex dropped in voices, loops and FX from decks, samplers and CD players and Thrash with mixing live, this ensured that no two Orb gigs would ever be the same (or ever will be), as this auditory attack was accompanied by a stunning visual show.
During the same spring that ‘Ultraworld’ was released, Alex and Thrash hooked up with friends Primal Scream to produce a track for their forthcoming ‘Screamadelica’ album, surfacing with the hedonistic classic ‘Higher Than The Sun’; a loved-up anthem that once again perfectly captured the spirit of the times.
The parameters of pop music were indelibly twisted out of shape in the spring of 1992, when their alien-themed opus ‘Blue Room’ entered the Guinness Book of Records for becoming the longest single to ever invade the British charts. Ironically for such a cooled-out piece of music, ‘Blue Room’ was a wild moment in pop, culminating in a Top Of The Pops appearance where they ‘performed’ in front of a flood of visuals whilst sitting at a table in white space suits playing astro-chess. Anything else would have been silly.
The Orb had hit an intensely creative vein and the adventures were spinning ever faster. In the summer, they undertook their largest tour to date accompanied by DJ Lewis (one of the finest ever spinners to come out of the UK) and an even more spectacular visual show, to preview the forthcoming ‘U.F.Orb’ album in its entirety nearly two months before its release. Orb gigs had become events, with the sweet irony being that, if you were going to see this so called ‘ambient’ band, you were going to party to Olympic standards. The tour also included their Glastonbury Festival debut, where the open-air stage made a perfect setting for The Orb’s spacious music and the evening’s event was ensured legendary status by the sharing of Saturday night top spot with old spars Primal Scream and Andy Weatherall. Around the time of this live mud bath ‘U.F. Orb’ was launched and instantaneously levitated its way to the top of the UK album charts.
Extracts from three of The Orbs major gigs in 1993 were captured for posterity on the album ‘Live 93’. These included their triumphant return to Glastonbury to headline the NME stage on the Saturday night (where so many attempted to witness The Orb that stewards had to stop entry to the field) and at a unique concert held within a disused port on the coast of Copenhagen, where aboard a floating stage, The Orb performed two epic sets, one at sunset and sunrise.
In early 1994, their new label Island Records released ‘Pomme Fritz’ (The Orb’s Little Album). Its content was far removed from the spacious techno and ambience of ‘U.F. Orb’, instead the hi-tech, hyper-complex rhythms they’d been experimenting with had evolved into profound, landscaped electronica. Already weary of expectations for repeat variations in the vein of ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’, ‘Blue Room’ and ‘Loving You’, ‘Pomme Fritz’ is the sound of The Orb exercising the extremes of electronic emotion by fooling around with the wiring. It’s basically six different mixes of one track, with the Orb saying ‘look, you can get a single off us for 39 minutes and get an album out of us for 41 minutes, what’s the difference?’ Sadly, few got the point.
While 1995’s album ‘Orbus Terrarum’ took The Orb’s music to another level, it also signaled the departure of Kris Weston – who was replaced by Andy Hughes. The rich electronic textures and dub tricknology throughout ‘Orbus’ are ultimately applied to the dreamlike ‘Plateau’, which like the equally voyaging ‘Valley’ had been developed in the live set for the previous two years. ‘Orbus’ widens further The Orb’s popularity in America and another year is spent touring extensively across the globe.
The ‘Orblivion’ album was released during the summer of ‘97 having begun life in Berlin at the home of long time floating Orb member Thomas Fehlmann. It saw ideas condensed into six-minute strikes as opposed to extended excursions and the genre-warping games were expanded with the influence of the British drum’n’bass scene. There’s also a millennial theme and a ‘time is out of whack’ theory strapped to its round bits. Included was ‘S.A.L.T.’ – one of the most chilling, as opposed to chillin’, pieces to come off The Orb ship, featuring David Thewlis’ frantic ‘666’ enunciation from Mike Leigh’s play ‘Naked’ and the bouncing ‘Toxygene’; constructed from the remnants of a rejected Jean Michel-Jarre remix.
At the beginning of 1998 the live Orb stripped down to its bare necessities and undertook a series of low-key gigs as Le Petit Orb. This new handy-sized version of their stage show allowed the band to travel more freely and test out new material, performing tracks in progress and fine-tuning them as they went. Le Petit Orb still flies reconnaissance missions to this day. Also that year Robbie Williams finally realized an ambition to be in The Orb when they teamed up to record a reggae-fied cover version of an old Bee Gees song called ‘I Started A Joke’ – for a charity album ‘Seven Days In May’ (later included on ‘Auntie Aubrey’s Excursions Beyond The Call Of Duty The Orb Remix Project Part 2’). ‘U.F. Off’ was also released; a ‘Best Of’ which attempted to put the band’s musical achievements into perspective and as part of the celebration
The year 2000 saw Andy Hughes leave the band to be replaced by John Roome (aka Witchman) with the release in early 2001 of The Orb’s sixth studio LP ‘Cydonia’. As always exploring the experimental edges of electronica, techno and drum’n’bass, ‘Cydonia’ was recorded in Berlin and London beginning life at the tail end of ‘97 when Alex and friend Aki Omori penned the opening track ’Once More’. Released as a single with remixes by Jimmy Cauty (Scourge Of The Earth), Tom Middleton (Jedi Knights/Cosmos) and Bedrock (John Digweed & Nick Muir), ‘Once More’ was backed with a stunning 10 minute rework of ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ by deep house DJ Danny Tenaglia, who breathed new life into this already established classic. During the summer they undertook a massive excursion of the USA at the bequest of Moby who invited them to join his Area One Tour alongside New Order, The Roots, Outkast, Derrick May and Carl Cox.
Also during the summer of 2001, an internet only label Badorb.com was set up to release brand new Orb and Orb-related material exclusively via the web. Unfortunately this ambitious project only lasted just over a year due to unforeseen administrative problems a real shame, as the idea was unique in its endeavor to release a new record/mp3 and accompanying t-shirt each month via the site. Before its close this hovering label still managed to release intriguing. With orders arriving from every part of the globe, including a number of o®bscure corners, it confirmed The Orb’s dedicated planet-spanning following and effect that The Orb’s music still has.
In 2002 a three-track version excursion was released on the German Kompakt label; the ‘Kompassion EP’ featured ‘Cool Harbour’ and exclusive versions of ‘Gee Strings’ and ‘Dilmun’.
This summer sees the band releasing ‘Bicycles & Tricycles’ on Sanctuary. Being characteristically free-spirited, ‘Bicycles & Tricycles’ is traditionally full of Orb humor and darkness, love and loathing, intensity and simplicity, embracing all the elements that make Orb albums unique. This CD sees The Orb’s pilot Alex Paterson, along with long-time collaborator Simon Phillips (Prayer Box) and John Roome (Witchman), joined by collaborators Thomas Fehlmann (That Swiss Fella), Fil (Autolump), Jimmy Cauty (Custerd) and vocalists The Corpral and Soom-T (Monkeytribe).
And so The Orb’s uncharted trajectory continues, a spin in the galaxy that trails behind it a series of statements, secrets, clues and a critical mass of legendary records and live shows. With its completely off-the-wall approach to making music, The Orb has played a central role in the development of electronic music and been instrumental in opening up ears to a spectrum of different sounds by channeling everything to the same point. They have shown that music can be used as a vehicle to convey ideas and information and their imaginative visual aspect has been the blueprint for the larger dance acts of today. As The Orb continues to evolve it continues to bring pleasure. Time goes slowly when you count it. Fifteen years is a long time on anybody’s stopwatch, but who’s counting? Orb Is…