The Orb
U.F.Orb

1992

 

 

 

 

The 200th Ambient Review on AmbientExotica should be about something special. The British Ambient Dub collective The Orb's hallmark and sophomore album of 1992 called U.F.Orb is this special entity. With this album, the band has certainly not achieved every possible music-related glory, but in regard to public relations, contingent surprises and euphoric incidents, U.F.Orb has everything that makes a good story, it is a distinct part of music history, and while we are not talking about The Beatles or The Doors, I believe that The Orb is one of the greatest bands of all time, even more so in terms of Ambient in particular and electronic music in general. The Orb generally provide enough material for a good story. U.F.Orb is released in 1992 on the Big Life label, reaches #1 on the British charts right from the get-go, causes a press coverage frenzy and facilitates a vivacious world tour extraordinaire. Those are the times when the British media slowly put the faces of DJ's and Rave bands like The Prodigy into the limelight, caring a tad more for their personae than the actual music. The sibylline Americanization of the British music press rapidly unfolded, one could state, for the same procedure took place in the US as well, albeit delayed by a whopping five till six years.

 

During this timeframe, The Orb are actually the duo of Dr. Alex Paterson and Kris Weston, the former envisioning a lot of ideas, segues and the use of multitudinous samples, the latter transforming them into actual music with the help of shedloads of synthesizers and sequencers, hence being the producer who has the last word on everything… to this day. Both of them however form the nucleus and are involved in every song, but as usual, the band is extremely permeable and invites a dozen of guest musicians to join the fun, functioning as the girdling helix in order to take the seven tracks to new directions. To be more precise and perfectly honest: the vast majority of the album is created by Kris Weston, Greg Hunter and flacked by Thomas Fehlmann, with Hunter providing both valuable and invaluable help on mixing and effects on the desk, thus giving feedback in regard to Weston's sound that is all over the album. U.F.Orb is a so-called Ambient House artifact, merging the synth-heavy sound carpets with deliberately histrionic arpeggios of energy, a huge sound library, infusions of humorous samples and pumping beat structures. The balance between all these particularities is mostly maintained, although the band ventures into some darker and obscurer realms; this does not come as a surprise, as they already delivered structures of these veins on their 1991 debut Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld. As it is common, the pun of the album title U.F.Orb is only unveiled when you read it aloud with a thick British accent. It then really points you to every paranormal hunter's object of desire. Rooted in the pre-internet era (for normal people anyway) of mystery and Rave, U.F.Orb is a masterpiece par excellence and as funny as it is genuinely eye-opening and meaningful. Read more about its qualities and shortcomings below.

 

The album launches with the only faithful Ambient track, the galactosamine-charged 12+ minutes transcendence that is O.O.B.E.; back in '92, many fans and journalists wondered about its title. Even the British NME which was at the time closely watching every step the band took, did not reveal the solution to the riddle. UFO hunters and people interested in paranormal activities – one year prior to The X-Files TV series – of course knew the answer all along: O.O.B.E. refers to an out-of-body experience, it is as simple as that. Nowadays, thanks to Cupertino, consumers in the know preferably think of the out-of-box experience when making the first contact with a shiny new product, but anyway, these things are of no importance right now. The Orb's O.O.B.E. is the sole work of Kris Weston synth-wise, but his band members Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann are credited as well, as is New-Age and Exotica producer Tom Green aka Another Fine Day who contributes enchanting flute tones to the galactic wideness… or so it seems, for Green's involvement is almost nonexistent and in fact a ploy in order to mask the use of samples the band probably could not clear in time of the release! Since he is able to play the flute, he literally plays along in the hymn's latter part. And that's that. Very cheeky. Alex Paterson's role is ideation-based as the inclusion of the flute samples is based on his conception, whereas Thomas Fehlmann provided his Berlin flat for the whole undertaking and maybe added a tidbit or two to the mix, but nobody is quite sure anymore. Anyway, O.O.B.E. starts like this: before the light, there was darkness. The collective thus kicks off the album with pitch-black bass drones and cricket sounds orbiting around them. A sudden rise in the bassline unveils a maximally enthralling analogue synth choir that inherits all the positive hopes and technocratic dreams of the Space-Age era. Added to them are the opening chords as envisioned by Thomas Fehlmann. Even after all these years, I have to repeat the same-old adage: these textures have to be heard to be believed! Paradisiac flute tones coalesce with this gargantuan blob of glee and shelter, but this is not Tom Green's flute yet, but the Guo Brothers with their composition Soldiers Of The Long March off their 1990 World album Yuan.

 

Added to this is Jazz clarinetist Tony Scott's Zen anthem Is All Not One? from 1964 which launched his second career, that of a New Age musician. This vignette is soon replaced with a lecture of the British writer Colin Wilson about Karl Popper, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's idea of the noosphere and the importance of a civilization's interest to share the cultural wealth with everybody. Say what you will about this academical excursion, but Wilson adds tremendous weight to the sheer beauty of O.O.B.E., this is no tongue-in-cheek ridiculing artifact, but a meaningful, if of course strictly shortened passage of his lecture. Wilson appears again near the end of the tune, but the important thing is that the song revs up the pompousness again, now thanks to an interplay of – ahem – Tom Green's few flute tones with an ethereal ooze of elysian synth loops. Several laser weapon sounds, a steady staccato bassline of ten beats, star dust glitters and wah-wah globs of haze round off the arrangement which ends with Colin Wilson's reminder of Karl Popper's most important of his three worlds: "There's a third world. A world of objective content of thought." After Wilson's voice echoes out, The Orb attach another two minutes of runtime to O.O.B.E. which comprise of wobbling bass pulses, cosmic gales, sitar twangs in tandem with Punjab chants as well as a sample of Augustus Pablo's Each One Dub, off which the pitched and filtered line "tomorrow will not be the same" is taken from, showcasing Paterson's deep love for Dub records. O.O.B.E. is an aural poem, full of warmth and truth, a sample fest that acually works not for the sake of it but for its inner beauty while one is out of his body. It is a revelation that is as relevant today as it was back then at the peak of the Rave era. An essential masterpiece… with a twist: it is, at the end of the day, only a pseudo-intellectual masterpiece, all occurrences of erudition unfold accidentally, and I am not sure that Alex Paterson understood the whole scope of the noosphere conception back then, but all the samples combined do create a magical effect and sumptuous fluxion.

 

After the spine-tingling magic of O.O.B.E., the tempo is boosted while the club-compatible bassline is always close at hand; both ingredients convinced the press to attach the Ambient House label to the album. The second track is the eponymous U.F.Orb, written by Alex Paterson and Kris Weston. Its Ambient prelude offers the same maximum of wondrousness, for instance crystal cave-like stereo-panned synth vesicles, the sounds of someone showering, spoken word excerpts and detonations from the Russian movie Planeta Bur (1962), the piercing alarm sound of Woody Allen's Sci-Fi comedy Sleeper (1973), and much more. After this introductory section, Paterson and company go all-housey thanks to a steadily stomping beat with admixed Disco queen chants, helicopter rotors and the quirkiest yet catchiest synth stabs of the whole album. Their timbre is sleazy, cool and towering above all earthen things. Cheesy kettle drums and cowbells put the finishing touches on the percussive side, the song skillfully sails around dangerous Eurodance cliffs and moves close to state of the art Detroit minimalism. Savage "I want blood!" screams fuel the tension, the partially angry, partially amused screams of pain from the same raspy voice echo into the distance as the layers fade out. This blood fetish thing is added at Paterson's request. U.F.Orb (the song) is chock-full with snippets, samples, remainders and artifacts, but all these things do not count if the melodies cannot impress. In my opinion, they sure can. The song does indeed sound a bit dated due to the purposeful inclusion of stale and stereotyped Dance particles of that era, but hey, this is one of the actual messages here. The song is deliberately played over the top, is willfully farcical but draws from many culturally interesting sources at the same time. Banal trends clash with works of genius. I for one adore the song, it is constantly with me while I'm out to jog and run.

 

Coming up next is the mighty Blue Room, a song encased in a twofold enigma: it pays homage to the alien craze of that time and the mystique of interstellar vivisection experiments, but is itself coated in mystical legends. Having peaked at #8 in the British single charts and been ennobled by that infamous Top Of The Pops appearance in which the band played chess while the music was running, thus ridiculing and unmasking the production "value" – it's the playback, stupid! – of the format, Blue Room is also in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the longest single of all times, clocking in two seconds shy of the magical mark of 40 minutes, i.e. the threshold of the single formula. The album version offers an edit of 17+ minutes, which itself provides the base for the four minute radio edit. The track is written by Paterson and Weston with celestial guitar licks by System 7 aka Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy, crunchy basslines by Jah Wobble and that über-famous and never tiresome lyricless vocal sample by Aisha off her tune The Creator, produced by Mad Professor aka Neil Fraser in 1986 and foreshadowed in a trippier Dub version called Fast Forward Into Dub in 1985 already. This vocal sample alone carries the whole song, and while it is repeated dozens over dozens of times, it does not get boring, let alone bugging, mark my words. So much has been written about the impetus of Blue Room before, so let me state that the album cut is no lackluster deal in comparison to the 40 minutes version. It still has all of the important elements in place: dripstone-resembling pulses, blurred cartoon references and NASA flight director orders, Radiophonic Workshop loans, frizzling snares, shakers and hollow bongos in unison with the eight-note bass melody, Steve Hillage's shape-shifting guitar work that ranges from whale song-simulating structures to diffusely brazen static noise capsules, and large amounts of hall and reverb which interpolate the decay of each source… and, of course, Aisha's luring chants. What is sadly amiss is Marilyn Monroe's performance of Happy Birthday which marks the end of the original cut. Still, Blue Room is earth-shaking thanks to its drums and mollifying because of the changing entanglement of the layers. In addition, its color palette does indeed resemble bluish tones, there is a certain chilliness involved. This effect is largely created through Miquette Giraudy's vision and Kris Weston's amelioration: Giraudy provides the terraqueously drippy synth sound, while Kris Weston enmeshes it with Prince Far I's Long Life. As a result, both droplets amplify each other.

 

Next stop: Towers Of Dub. Another mighty track, but not necessarily in every incarnation! The album version harks back to a – stolen Revolutionaries – bassline Alex Paterson wanted to include on The Orb's debut Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld already. A year later, and Towers Of Dub has grown into something different that was not foreseeable during the working phase on that debut: the strong aura of British humour™, the omnipresence of barking dogs and the iconic eleven-note bassline are still intact, but there is one difference that takes the tune to new realms, and that is a wealth of harmonica melodies delivered by an ominous Marney Pax who turns out to be Paterson's brother Martin. Thomas Fehlmann meanwhile comes up with that lovely five-note bell line which is so essential; Kris Weston then takes this chimescape to another level by editing and pitching it in various ways. In addition to the kick-off phase in the form of a now equally iconic prank call by Victor Lewis-Smith who calls London Weekend Television under the disguise of Marcus Garvey, impatiently waiting to meet with Haille Selassie in an obscure place called "Babylon an Ting," Towers Of Dub is a sun-soaked, fast-paced, bass-coated jocular trip and one of The Orb's genuinely amicable concoctions. Of course there is always the possibility of people disliking the sound of a harmonica. This audience might despise this take, but again, many bootlegged versions and great live performances circulate around the net, one successful take called Towers Of Dub (Ambient Mix) is officially available on The Orb's Best Of album called U.F.Off (1999) and replaces the harmonica sequences with elastically bouncing square lead pads and gets rid of Victor Lewis-Smith's joke in favor of a skit by the infamous British comedy duo of Hudon & Landry. Paterson, Weston and Fehlmann provide options and alternatives. Those were the days bands remixed themselves.

 

The final tunes are the expectedly beat-heavy compositions Close Encounters and Majestic, the former being the pushiest and eeriest critter, the latter providing a mélange of Far Eastern-oriented tone sequences. Close Encounters is co-written with Orde Meikle and Stuart McMillan who form the DJ duo Slam. They provide the frame of the thumping beat and forward ideas to Weston who tries hard to address and please their sensibilities, for we all know how sensible proper DJ's can be. The setting is really murky, its title portentous. Starting with downwards spiraling cell phone ringtones plus an applied Doppler effect which makes their fade-out phase and the recurring rise all the more spine-tingling, the collective with Weston at the helm unchains plinking acid shards, more euphonious chimes, spangly sound effects, phased offbeat shakers and coldhearted synth stabs. The ride feels intense, there is no legato element involved, the layers are anything but chopped and arpeggiated with a scent of post-apocalyptic notions injected. All previous tracks wove strong prospects of warmth and snugness into the soundscape, but Close Encounters is the black sheep, the adamant blaster. Unsurprisingly, I am quite a bit fond of it, but the lack of humor makes it a bit harder to digest.

 

Majestic, on the other hand, is a mellifluous song for morning hours as it offers a positive, enchanting outlook. Kicking off with a sample off The Tape-Beatles' Music With Sound (1991) and lots of additional snippets from the same source, Majestic floats along and drops exotic birdcalls, an exhortative reminder to "wake up" and an emerging nine-track synth chime melody. The space theme is less apparent here, especially so since The Tape-Beatles' idiosyncratic-sagacious ephemera à la "we're actually on TV, and I'm waving and waving, I'm on TV, this is just great!" break the spell of being in space, but pinpoint the lifestyle of the 90's in which The Orb's album is obviously rooted. Additional cymbal placentas and their reverse brethren cleverly prevent Majestic from being an all too saccharine hymn and put the focus back on the Ambient House dimensions. Melody and percussion are the actual stars of this tune. Martin Glover aka Youth is involved in this creation, although his commitment can be narrowed down to one single keyboard… which is, I might add, his only sound-based involvement on the album. The aptly titled finale Sticky End then throws the listener into a bubbling, sizzling-hot gallimaufry of elephant poo. At least that is what Alex Paterson stated time and again in many interviews. It could be a legend, this might be a perfectly fine bubble bath, but it does not matter anymore. The listener is grounded.

 

One does not merely listen to U.F.Orb, although it is surely possible and definitely justified to do exactly that with ease. But in one way or the other, it is the historic aspects, the breaking of boundaries, the manifold several achievements and inclusion of records, Guinness-based or not, that ennoble the aura that whirrs around this glorious enshrinement of the short-lived – some say gimmicky or even non-existing – Ambient House genre. If this categorization gives you the creeps, just call it an LP supercharged with electronic entertainment, as this term is better suited anyway. Wherever the band dares to travel on this album, whether it is to brighter climes or to the many crepuscular alcoves, the famous British sense of humour is always close at hand and omnipresent without ridiculing the unique depth of the listening experience. From the gargantuan beauty and wideness of the thought-provoking panorama that is O.O.B.E. over the guitar-laden bluetifully chant-interspersed mystery of Blue Room to the harmonious harmonicarama Towers Of Dub and the final sunrise phase Majestic, this #1 album is highly enlightening, elevating, erudite and eclectic. It bubbles, foams and splutters due to all the spoken word samples, melody fragments and skits. These are simply joyful. While our societies have not reached the state of the noosphere yet, it is a sad state of affairs that in our connected age, bedroom musicians simply cannot inject such varied sample doses anymore, even though it is easier than ever.

 

There might be the day when someone on the upper floors notices this music. Mayhem ensues. Poignantly enough, singers and acts like Rickie Lee Jones and The Tape-Beatles got to know about their works being used – a euphemism for "ripped off" – in The Orb's music much later. U.F.Orb is therefore not the completely innocent gemstone from a jurisdictional viewpoint, but what the heck, it sounds fantastic, has esprit and verve and is chock-full of ideas. Being recorded in 1992, it sounds more than a bit retrogressive, fair enough, but what people pinpoint as dated or old-fashioned is simply the warmth of the analogue synths, and possibly the overly arpeggiated fabrications on some tracks. These do not destroy the fun at all. Better still for the fans – and not necessarily for producer Kris Weston – there is a U.F.Orb Deluxe Edition available since 2007 with a bonus disc of valuable archival and rare remixes, among them an Ambient version of Close Encounters and a remix of O.O.B.E. by one engineer called Andy Hughes who became a full-time Orb member later on after being employed for pushing faders and patching things for Kris Weston. Add the informative and detailed liner notes of Kris Needs to this sacrifice, and you get the most essential version of this eternal album. U.F.Orb – one of my elixirs of life.

 

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 U.F.Orb. Without this collected knowledge, all my band-related reviews would be way less detailed. You can find the website here.
  • Follow The Orb on Twitter: @OrbInfo.
  • … and if you dare, follow Kris Weston on Twitter: @swearymonkey (now defunct but you never know…). 

 

This review has been severely updated on July 26, 2013.

 

Ambient Review 200: The Orb – U.F.Orb (1992). Originally published on Apr. 3, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.