When it comes to The Orb, the first bit of advice is this: skip their first offering, Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. All the songs worth listening to are to be found on the double album Live 93, and in far better shape to boot. Live 93 is a flawless document of what the live electronic album can be and should be. Hell, it’s what any record should be – that’s how good it is.
Live 93 is loose and self-absorbed in the best sense possible. It’s good enough to make even “Little Fluffy Clouds” an enjoyable extended riff on the original, without any of the constraints of the album version. Even the stuff from U.F.Orb finds spacious life here; “Tower of Dub,” a tight wall of bass in the original version, becomes a flexi-jam that tears straight off from the goofy opening* and just plain tosses space and bass at the audience. (*A prank caller asks a reception clerk if Haile Selassie is there, and leaves a message for Mr. Selassie to meet Marcus Garvey at Babylon & Ting)
Other notables: “Blue Room” is given a proper go that fits its wacky little history, though only for 15 minutes. The 40 minute version is worth hearing, but it’s not essential in the slightest.
Other other notables: The rest of the album. All the tracks are taken from different dates but blended in a seamlessly thematic package. This is the only verison of “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From the Centre of the Ultraworld” you will ever need to buy, as it’s the only one that truly feels like there’s something very large that’s continually expanding.
Next up is Orbus Terrarum, which repeats both “Valley” and “Plateau” in a studio environment. Both are good, but the real star is the closer, “Slug Dub.” As a general rule, any track from The Orb with “dub” in the title is a safe bet for greatness. You could call it “ambient techno” or “ambient dub” or something along those lines, but the only thing it shares with ambient music is the texture and the only thing it shares with dub is having a lot of echoes and those neat stabby rushes that come from fiddling with the “duration” knob on a delay pedal. The rest seems to emerge from that spirit captured on Live 93, alternately playful, ridiculous and hot.
It may have been an attempt to make “chill-out” something other than music to listen to while coming down from having taken drugs…to listen to music. I don’t know, but somewhere around this point the stiffness of their first two offerings is almost completely shed.
If you like this loose side of The Orb then Pomme Fritz will eat your mind for lunch. The experience is best described as “like dumping a bucket of bright paint all over a cement floor.”
It’s not quite sloppy, but things sure do meander. Sometimes they go off the rails entirely, as with the vocal clip freakout of “We’re Pastie to be Grill You,” but for the most part it’s an enjoyable, bass-heavy river of flourishes and a muted layering of flanged drums.
The bass isn’t quite the wall of sound we grew to love in “Towers of Dub,” but it has an appropriately weird sound that’s not quite there all the time; the low end spirals in and out of hearing, like a childhood fever. It’s an interesting shift – “experimental” if you wish to be vague about it – and I’m fond of it.
Orblivion is easier on the digestion; it has the added bonus that you can dance to it without too much effort. It just pops from the beginning to end, synthesizing their two loves – throbbing bass and floaty textures. The meandering has been roped into about as tightly-disciplined a sound as ever came out of these guys. On a scale of one-to-ten, with one being a gang of scruffy squatters asking for money to feed their hungry dog (likely filled with heroin) and ten being a suicide bomber (probably should have been filled with heroin), this is closer to seven. (A guy who keeps his personal finances in order, but isn’t a total dick about it; maybe cries during a sad romantic comedy when the female lead dies, but doesn’t let anyone see him do so.)
The big singles are “Toxygene” and “Ubiquity.” The latter is catchy, but the former is bombastic and kicks you square in the gut. Both are tight as hell, featuring “clever” touches on the drums the usual delay pedal excesses. The more ambient side of Orblivion is touched on with tracks like “Delta Mk. II” and “Bedouin,” with its sing-songy foreign voice, but the meatier beat numbers grab your ears first. “S.A.L.T” is rough and wild, while pop flourishes dominate on “Moulten Love” and “Asylum.” The dub closer, “72,” is another bang-on bass-heavy workout that is chopped apart before falling away into a whispy soup.
There’s a lot more material to check out – singles collections, b-side collections, and oodles of remixes – but this is the core of their greatest artistic period. At their best, these works from The Orb aren’t techno, dance, dub, ambient or – heaven help us – electronica. They’re something else entirely, and the world is better off for having heard it.*
*Except Cydonia, an incredibly mediocre offering. Avoid it.