The Orb

By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 1993

Probably the most interesting strain of dance music to emerge in recent years has been ambient sound of The Orb. Who would have thought that long, slow tracks fusing natural sounds with classic analogue synths but virtually no drums would appeal to the club crowd? But Britain’s The Orb have proved that this can work. Their latest LP, “UFOrb” is a collection of atmospheric electronic tracks that virtually always exceed 10 minutes in running time.

Dr. Alex Paterson started up The Orb in 1988 with Jimi Cauty, who later went on to The KLF. Paterson had been working in the music industry before this, starting out as a roadie for Killing Joke before getting involved with A&R work. Influenced heavily by New York’s KISS FM, Paterson started getting into dance music and set up a label with Youth. His own project evolved out of this, and Paterson took the name The Orb “because it’s very round.

In October of that year, the group released its first single, the four track “Kiss EP”. This was followed in Spring of 1989 by the ground breaking “A Huge Evergrowing Pulsating Brain The Rules From the Centre of the Ultraworld,” a track that Paterson cites as The Orb’s best ever.

“It was breaking ground where no one had actually done anything,” he explains. “Listening to dance music with the drums all the time all the time, and then suddenly all the drums disappear and you’re left with this hypnotic eight bar loop which we then deliberately sampled in waves and bird sounds.”

Cauty left the band in 1990 when the KLF began to take off. That project was signed to Rough Trade, who wanted everything Cauty worked on to go to the label (The Orb was already signed to WAU!). To take his place, Thrash, a mix engineer who worked with The Orb on “Little Fluffy Clouds” was made a full time member.

In putting together the ambient soundscapes of UFOrb, the group used a wide variety of sources. For example, many sounds came from Paterson’s travels to Morocco, the Philippines, and Nepal. Peterson says that while in Morocco he had a hidden microphone that he used to capture the sound of his surroundings. Another of Paterson’s favorite sources of sound were NASA outer space sounds.

“They made a record out of the sounds, it’s appalling, it’s like a Vangelis type 1812 Overture gone horribly wrong,” he explains. “That’s NASA for you.”

Space and science fictional influences figure prominently in The Orb’s work, particularly in the song titles and visuals. Paterson attributes this to watching too much “Thunderbirds”, “Land Of The Giants” and “Lost In Space” as a child. “Lost In Space is pretty good, really,” he says, jokingly adding that “it should be the next album.”

On the surface, “UFOrb” sounds a great deal more ambient than the group’s debut, Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. But Paterson says this is only the case with the US release. Originally, “Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld” was a double album, but Paterson was told that the ten tracks must be cut down to five minutes each in order to fit them on a single disk.

“I said no way, so we ditched a whole side of ambience,” explains Paterson. “And you’ve got a really, really drumy version of ‘Star 67’ and a pop version of ‘Perpetual Dawn’. I was really pissed off, and it’s been my cross to bear ever since with the American public, and I’m sorry, it’s not my fault.”

This wasn’t the only record action that came an an annoyance to Paterson. A remix cd of “Blue Room” was given away free with the initial pressing of the new LP, and this was done without the group’s permission. To top it off, this bonus disc included “Assassin,” a track that had proved to be a top 20 hit in Britain.

“To me, it’s just complete and utter ludicrousy,” says Paterson. “We spent untold amount of months on the record and are very proud of it, not to be given away as a freebie for an album. It’s not even meant for that album, it’s meant to be on the third album.”

For the “Blue Room” single, The Orb did a 40 minute remix. Previously, British regulations prevented any single exceeding 20 minutes from entering the charts. This of course just led to fans buying the imports from Europe and America. So the British regulation was adjusted up to 40 minutes in 1989, and The Orb felt obliged to take advantage of it. But the group didn’t just rush into it for a sake of making a 40 minute song; the track evolved over the course of several months.

The Orb were meant to embark on their second North American tour in March, but it was called of due to legal problems. Next up for Paterson and Thrash is work on the next Robert Fripp album with Brian Eno.

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