The Orb - The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld

by Joseph Majsterski Rating:9 Release Date:1991-04-02
The Orb - The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld
The Orb - The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld

In the realm of ambient house, one band reigns supreme: The Orb. Founded in 1988, the original duo of Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty put out of a few club singles before beginning work on their first proper album. Due to a dispute over which label their would release it under, the pair split up, with Paterson keeping the name. Only the final track in the set. In the thirty years since, Paterson has collaborated with many other musicians and put out more than a dozen albums, but few have ever attained the dizzying heights of the crucial first album, The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. This set was truly a revelation, a new way of making music that took the sensibilities of the dance floor and slowed them way down, pushing the envelope of barely there ambient work from artists like Brian Eno into bold new territory. And although not quite the same thing, many hybrid genres such as IDM can trace their lineage back to this album.

This absolutely seminal album begins with the rooster crow of The Orb's first major hit, 'Little Fluffy Clouds', a charming song driven by rolling, tumbling percussion, honey-coated melodies, and the center piece, the sampled voice of Rickie Lee Jones from an interview in which she spoke glowingly of the eponymous little fluffy clouds of Arizona in her youth. There's such a timelessly dreamy character to this song; it holds up well even decades later. I can remember hearing it on the radio (yes back then the radio occasionally played stuff like this) before I knew who The Orb was and being utterly captivated by it. It still captivates me today. The song is so good, in fact, that it makes the follow-up, 'Earth (Gaia)', pale in comparison. It's decent enough, but it's always felt like something of a letdown after the delirious high of the first track, even with the fantastic Flash Gordon sample of Emperor Ming (Max von Sydow) and Klytus (Peter Wingarde) discussing the fate of planet Earth. Perhaps it's merely too much of a change in tone, shifting from fun and happy to unsettled and creepy. There's a buzzing hum as from a giant power plant in the early going, and then the song develops into a bit more of a plod, with a melody that's rather basic and repetitive. The bassline is more engaging, but again, it's just less compelling and simply less inspired than the lead track. It does have a cool countdown sample obviously lifted from a NASA launch of the 1960s, and transitions smoothly in the supreme spaciness of 'Supernova at the End of the Universe', where the album really hits its stride, sampling lots of cool mission control conversations and adding an echoing effect along with filigreed melodies and carved outlines of bass to create a powerful sense of emptiness in a void. This is the point where you realize Paterson isn't a one trick pony; he has a game plan and knows what he's doing. Shimmering waves of synths roll through as more scattered bits of beats cascade across the song, mixed with more and more odd samples from random songs, TV shows, movies, and even commercials before the track settles into its main section, a hypnotic, almost tribal rhythm punctuated by huge bursts of subterranean bass. This is a song you can really get lost in.

There were actually two versions of this album. The original UK release was the full two-disc (or four-LP, if you're so inclined) set. But for some reason, the band was forced to trim it down from 110 minutes to just under 80 for its US release, making it possible to fit the entire album onto a single CD. This was the only version most in the US (myself included) were ever aware of for many years, until the full set was eventually released outside the UK. In the shorter set, the tracks 'Back Side of the Moon' and 'Spanish Castles in Space' were completely removed, and 'Perpetual Dawn' and 'Star 6 & 7 8 9' were cut in half by using the versions from the 'Perpetual Dawn' single. Coming back and listening to the full set, the choice of tracks to cut out makes sense, as 'Back Side of the Moon', in many ways, sounds like an extended version or reprise of the early  parts of 'Supernova at the End of the Universe', and spends a lot of time slowly spinning in place, around and around over the same sequence. Which isn't to say it's bad; it is simply one of the most redundant portions of the album, and when looking for bits to trim, it was a good candidate. 'Spanish Castles in Space' was also a good pick, as it is one of the least active tracks, perhaps the least active track, of the entire set, fifteen minutes of minimalist ambient music that sounds like Lemon Jelly at its most sedated. A very slow bassline plods along with only minor infringements by other sounds and a few muted vocal samples burbling below the surface.

'Perpetual Dawn' is a lot dancier than most of the other tracks, with a reggae-style melody and lots of dub effects causing it to stand out even more, with just enough commonalities in terms of organic percussion to keep it thematically coherent. I personally prefer the truncated version from the U.S. release and single because it actually includes lyrics, also reggae-flavored, which make the song a lot more fun. The original album version is like a ten-minute tease, lots of foreplay with no denouement to carry it over the top. 'Into the Fourth Dimension' starts out with more ultra spacey effects and fun quotes about NASA's groundbreaking (does that make sense for a space mission?) Voyager probes, then segues into a holy choir and Spanish spoken word samples before reaching cruising altitude with a ragtag assortment of beats, string samples, triumphant synths, and oddly warbling percussive melodies.

'Outlands' is one of my very favorites. It opens with a lovely thunderstorm and rain sample, loads up some deep synths, throws in planes and automobiles, and finally transitions via one of the trippiest countdowns ever into a wondrous world of psychedelic electronics. Piles of competing melodies duke it out alongside more bizarre vocal samples and another appearance by Rickie Lee Jones. The song has a sneaky, almost conspiratorial melody, with a psych organ wandering around in the background as the beats and glistening, percolating synths take center stage.  But no song can match 'Star 6 & 7 8 9' in terms of pure beauty. The chiming, twinkling synth melody sounds like standing in a golden rain, and rises even higher when a mellower counterpoint joins in after a couple minutes. The beauty here sounds like a clear inspiration for some of Future Sound of London's sweetest moments, particularly on their classic Dead Cities.

The set closes out with the epic journey of 'A Huge Evergrowing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld', led by the continuous cycling of the main synthline as it mutates into variations of its theme and passes through an endless array of samples ranging from vocal chants that come in long moans as well as staccato chips and chops, ocean waves, jets, animals and critters, church bells, more commercials, and the standout, 'Lovin' You' by Minnie Riperton. Somehow it never wears out its welcome despite the length of nearly twenty minutes, although it does do a bit of a breakdown 2/3 of the way through before pulling it back together and then slowing down to nothingness for its conclusion.

The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld is a true classic, an album that opened up the electronic music scene in exciting new ways and showed that it was possible to bridge the gap between dance floor and the meditation chamber. Although not quite perfect, it set the stage for so much that came after, it will always be recognized as one of the best and most significant electronic albums of all time. It still sounds fresh twenty-seven years later. If there's anyone out there who likes the genre but hasn't heard this set, they've done themselves a terrible disservice and need to correct it immediately.

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