The Orb
Orbus Terrarum






The Orb's third huge studio album Orbus Terrarum, released in 1995, has, as the legend goes, North American fans and British foes. While this album opened them the road to fame in the USA, the British press despised the band's earthen approach. The fans begged for a continuation of either the spacey dreaminess of Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, released in 1991, or the Ambient House formula as featured on U.F. Orb in 1992. Dr. Alex Paterson, Thomas Fehlmann, Andy Hughes, Kris Weston and many satellite members of the band begged to differ and delivered a highly experimental mini album called Pomme Fritz in 1994 that has a cult following to this day. Remnants of these avantgarde experiments live on in Orbus Terrarum but are placed in melodious, glimmering surroundings. Each of the seven tracks morphs and changes, and things are not what they seem to be, as the beginning of each composition is always dreamy and soothing, but is altered and shaken by eclectic beats or Dub bass lines later on. To me, Orbus Terrarum is a masterpiece of the multilayered genre. With a runtime of over 77 minutes, there is absolutely no room at all for boredom, as the secrets and inner logic of each take can only be unveiled after repeated listening sessions. The album hasn't aged. It hasn't aged even the slightest bit! It sounds as if it was produced tomorrow. What is unfortunately dated, alas, is the wealth of truly original ideas, entangled patterns, unexpected twists and yes, even the occasional glimpse of bottled-up Punk-related hatred that the band never delivered again after Orbus Terrarum, though their work kept on being melodious and soothing. With these thoughts in mind, I'll present a rather detailed review of this album.

The opening track
Valley tries to mesh the earthen, much more grounded mood of Orbus Terrarum with the spacey Ambient House glitz of 1992's U.F. Orb. It could be seen as an attempt of mediation: in-between washes of pink noise, the well-known flight director samples off the band's anthem Blue Room are launching this opening track. While beautifully shimmering synth spirals float in the background, the plinky honky tonk piano of Blue Room is prominently featured, before the album drifts off into slightly new territories; I'm writing the adjective slightly because the first two cuts were already featured before on The Orb's Live 93 album, but in different versions. The Orbus Terrarum version of Valley inherits the melodious eleven-note Dub bass line plus the oscillating shakers. It embeds Star Trek samples, field recordings of chirping birds and much more glistening synth structures. In contrast to the rather harsh live versions or the take of the John Peel sessions, Valley is much silkier, friendlier and dreamier. The chanting priests have been exchanged in favor of wonky and heavily reverberated bamboo rods and bongo drops. The cozy flute melodies are played by Tom Green who is probably best known for his exotic New Age project Another Fine Day. Even though the bass melody is the only hummable element of the track, the permanent flow and bustling activities of whirls, synth pads, samples, field recordings, percussive devices and flutes create an incredibly attractive thicket. The song truly shines in its last 45 seconds, presenting an iridescent aurora of entangled, time-shifted synth loops which are accompanied by glistening high-pitched sparks. It's a towering listening experience, humble and yet solemn, and only after dozens of listening sessions occurs it to the listener that these synth loops have been introduced at the beginning of the track already, but they faded in and out in the background all the time and were thus masked. Valley is a huge piece. It contains the slightest scents of New Age remnants, but luckily they are the tastiest and juiciest bits, highly twisted and filtered. The flow of this track is amazing, it never gets boring, there are so many layers to distill and interpret, and while I like the drum-laden live version, the colorful album version is a delicious take on a – back then already two-year old – Dub track. 

Plateau is next, and it has come a long way as well. Started and tweaked by Thrash back in early 1993 and played many times at the band's world tour in the same year, the take on Plateau of 1995 starts with a guy who announces the composition as a "sentimental song" – it's David Seville from a 1962 Chipmunks album! The next twelve and a half minutes are spectacular and opulent in their vivacious power. Phantasmagoric synth strings and related eruptions of pure bliss wash over the listener. The acidy base frame of the live version is still there, but the synths have been exchanged and are now gentle and soft. The sustain of the reverberated synth eruption is several seconds long, merging and intertwining with the paradisiac synthetic stream of rapture in the background. A vivid beat is introduced before the three minute mark and completed by occasional 8-bit pulses. Laser-like twists, plane engines and cyber birds traverse the Plateau. It's The Orb's most romantic song, and the endorphins that are set free with each multilayered eruption cause exuberance and joy. The synths are reduced in the middle of the track, however, letting the percussion and the melodious backing curlicues rise in prominence. The atmosphere gets slightly colder and more metallic, and sure enough, Plateau morphs into a beat-driven pompousness that presents the haunting female chants that are so boldly featured in the live incarnations. A few synth sweeps keep meandering in the background, but the atmosphere is much more hollow and echoey by now, ending the album version with a trembling string that fades out. Plateau is the obvious show tune – or better still: show-stopper – of Orbus Terrarum. If the listener doesn't like the pre-Pop Ambient goodness and positive vibe of it, then it's really a big pity. I won't judge other people's tastes, don't get me wrong, but I just want to stress that the band tries hard to reduce the experimental setting and camouflage the rather abstract sections with auroral gleams of light. A masterpiece. The live versions are a bit harsh thanks to their acidy accompaniments, but present the same shimmering synths already. One of the best Ambient pieces the band has ever created. It's the last reported track on which Kris Weston has put his hands on together with the band.

Oxbow Lakes remains the poster child of Paterson. The beautiful classic piano melody has been played by himself. It is probably the real standout track of the album, maybe not for me, but due to its Modern Classical-embracing approach that is augmented with synthesizers and electronic drum kits, it is surely quite appealing to listeners unfamiliar with the band. Released as a single, Oxbow Lakes places the piano melody in bubbling swamps and hazy drones, juxtaposes it to dubby bass lines and coruscating percussion, and encapsulates it with rising shakers and dark synth pads. After the piano fades out, a spectral five-note synth loop takes over, the tempo seemingly increases and culminates in a beatless phase in which ethereal glaciers and sparkling swirls coalesce. It's a surprising shift, as Oxbow Lakes turns from a romantic depiction to a wild, percussion driven and beat-fueled ride only to end on a festive, peaceful mood. And this won't be the last shift in quality as Montagne D'Or (Der Gute Berg) shows. It is by far my favorite track off Orbus Terrarum and consists of three phases, each of them rising in tension and pressure. Phase 1 starts with a guy who wants to leave for Constantinople, followed by superbly warped, filtered and twisted steel guitar washes which are traversed by synth bubbles and clicks. Glittering synth swirls accompany the guitars, while a different guy is advertising a "new wealth for every two dollars". This phase is pure bliss and yet distantly pernicious and tense – a great counterpoint to the golden shimmers of Valley and Plateau. Phase 2 begins with ringing telephones, additional percussion, icy cymbals and permanently pulsating and rising synth droplets. Once real drums are interwoven, occasional band member Fil Le Gonidec is reading a poem by Edward Lear about an orb. This leads to the final phase, a thunderous drum manifesto with numerous clangs, cymbals and passing electric guitar strings. A quirky elevator, ski lift or cable car crashes into the next track…

… called
White River Junction that brings back an auspicious ambience full of croaking frogs in a swamp, all the while a self-help tape is running about self-respect and confidence. Given the band's humor and history, its inclusion can be interpreted as a mocking middle finger to sales people who produce and advertise such cassettes. And indeed does this interpretation seem to be verifiable, for this self-help tape is a faux-tape by the Iowa-based mash-up band The Tape-Beatles. It's from their 1989 album A Subtle Buoyancy Of Pulse. While their recording is spinning, gorgeously dreamy synth swirls are spiraling in the background. Once the lead melody sets in, consisting of both a flute and dark pads, a rapid-firing Jungle rhythm is introduced with literally earth-shaking bass bursts. Omnipresent clicks and gurgling drops dampen the maelstrom a bit while a five-note melody is looped incessantly. White River Junction ends as it begins, with the ambience of flute washes. It's another great song and tremendously frenzied. On the penultimate track Occidental, the convoluted experiments that were scattered throughout the previous tracks are put into the limelight, and the mood gets rather dark. Warbled synth pads are traversed by sustained scintillae, droning bubbles and rustic beats. After nine minutes, the beats vanish and make room for a surprisingly spacey landscape full of glints, galactic strings and incisive whirls, each of them thin and spiky. The final track is Slug Dub which begs to be compared to their Dub hymn Towers Of Dub. Placing a fairy tale about lettuce-eating slugs next to sunny afternoon-evoking balmy synth sweeps, lucent pads and vibrating bass lines, this ditty successfully paints a good mood due to the warm sweeps, the funny melodies and the percussion-related ornaments. The middle section revs the drums up a notch which fire balefully, but never destroy the sunny synthscapes. Slug Dub ends with the conclusion of the tale and presents blurry, down-spiraling melodies that are fitting foils to the main theme, but finish the song and the album on a slightly darker, deeper mood.

Orbus Terrarum is the perfect symbiosis of their melodious work of grandeur U.F. Orb and the utterly experimental mini album Pomme Fritz of 1994. Orbus Terrarum contains unexpectedly edgy, harsh and frantic sections, pumping percussion, wild rides and ever-morphing structures. Each track starts as a pitch-perfect example of a bustling Ambient track, with field recordings, blurry strings and other ingredients, but soon thereafter, either a Dub line or eclectic beats are thrown in. The constant ambiguity of darkness and brightness, relaxation and fury as well as sweetness and acidity makes this a tremendously intriguing album. On each and every track there are so many things going on, and even though a few sections are overloaded with effects, echoes and reverbs, this is always done on purpose in order to stress the intimidating raw power as a fitting counterpart to the syrupy glow. The Orb remain in clear-cut Ambient territories on Orbus Terrarum, but the stomping 4/4 beats off U.F. Orb are despised on here and are nowhere to be found. The wealth, the richness in both textures and decorations make this an absolutely great listening experience. This album grows on you, it literally has to since one cannot grasp everything at once. This is one of the strongest Ambient albums ever created, and as I've mentioned in the opening paragraph, it just doesn't sound dated at all, no matter how overly critical and nit-picking the listener may be. It pulsates, morphs, breathes and lives. Fans of field recordings, beautiful melodies and demanding intersections must own this. It's totally different than their well-known and genre-enhancing material of the early 90's, but is to this day The Orb's most sophisticated and thought-out album. Ever. Try to get hold of the recently released deluxe edition with a second CD and liner notes by the band's close friend DJ Kris Needs. That CD is chock-full of honestly fantastic remixes and re-takes of the majority of the original compositions. Those were the halcyon days when electronic bands remixed themselves and saved the first drafts or blueprints of a track for later. The deluxe edition is also available as a digital download on iTunes and Amazon.

Further reading:
There is a notoriously great fan page of The Orb that lists most of the samples that have been used on their various tracks. Although the collection stops with the band's 2003 release
Bicycles & Tricycles, it has a spot-on knowledge about every album before it, among them Orbus Terrarum. You can find the website here.




Ambient Review 084: The Orb – Orbus Terrarum (1995). Originally published on Jun. 20, 2012 at