Sunday, September 26, 2010

Better as a Single: "The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld" by The Orb

"Intelligent Dance Music", the rather pathetic term coined to describe 90s dance genres that weren't especially danceable and that were created by undersexed English men, is a bit of a misnomer. Little of it was as properly intelligent as, say, Donna Summer at her peak. What it was, frequently, was evocative. Capable of generating more mental synaptic energy in the listener than it did in the creator. A little bit of chemicals helped, too. As did mood.

Which is still the case all these years later. Put "The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Underworld", the two-hour début by English DJ Alex Paterson and cronies on your turntable when you're in the wrong mood and it's god-awful boring, repetitive, indulgent synth-noodling with sci-fi samples on top. But catch yourself in the right mood and it's still an evocative and occasionally moving journey, even if it plays like nostalgia by now. I saw The Orb live a year or two after the release of this album, and found it a near-mystical experience. What I was on at the time is only, well, half of that, let's say.

They called this music 'ambient house', back when it might have seemed that house was something other than a kind of silly flash-in-the-pan. By now, all that really means to us is 'ambient with a beat'. Most of the songs on this album have a beat, at times quite a heavy one. Still, though, even when this music is designed for the dance floor, it's more properly meant for 'calming down' than getting pulses racing. What was revolutionary about this music back in the day was its purpose. The Orb, and concurrent album Chill Out, were a kind of unholy union between former roadie Paterson and professional pranksters the KLF. The thing is, though, that it's not really a prank. This frequently amusical dithering-cum-sound collage was intened for 'chillout' rooms at raves, places where ecstacy-addled revellers could let their heart rate approach normal again.

It seems like nothing special now, and this music evolved more directly into new-age quackery than into any 'ambient' followers. Yet even though it seems more dancey than other 'ambient' stuff looking back at it now, it does in fact take a good deal of inspiration from thoroughly 'uncool' predecessors, not just the obvious Brian Eno but even Pink Floyd and prog rock. Having said that, then, the point of 'trimming' this album is suspect, since the songs' excessive length is kind of the point. Two hours long but only ten tracks, this is an album that revels in a kind of mannered excess. Cutting it down kind of destroys it. To that end, then, my resulting album, length-wise even less than half the vinyl-stretching original, plays a little bit differently. My side one is beatwise and my side two rather beatless. Or perhaps it's not an 'ambient house' album at all, but one side of 'ambient' (side b) and one side of 'house' (side a) - though no house that Steve 'Silk' Hurley would recognise.

Note: there actually is a single-disc version of this, an American release that shaves some 35 minutes off the running time to make a single full-length CD. However, it does so not only by dropping two tracks but by condensing several others, often to the extent that they remain mere 'sampler' versions of the proper album tracks. The American version is quite different to mine, but it's not really comparable. To start with it's still a 'double' (and comically you can buy in on vinyl too, a double just like the UK version, just 35 minutes shorter than it), and the shortened tracks make it much more of a 'pop' album - kind of like subsequent Orb releases. Mine is better.

The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld
Side one
  1. Little Fluffy Clouds (4:27)
  2. Perpetual Dawn (9:31)
  3. Outlands (8:23)
Side two
  1. Earth (Gaia) (9:48)
  2. Spanish Castles in Space (15:05)
Little Fluffy Clouds: keep (side one, track one)

This Steve Reich-meets-Ennio Morricone 'jam' is a great deal more pop-wise than the rest of the album, a verse-chorus-verse dancefloor-filler that, as the Orb's second single after the entirely unprecedented "Huge Ever-Growing Pulsating Brain", should have signalled Paterson's selling-out in pursuit of Top 40 dreams. In retrospect going so poppy so soon might well have been a risk indeed if it weren't for the undeniably awesome nature of this track. All these years and reissues later, this still holds up remarkably well as a bliss- and wonder-filled 'feel-good' dance track. To the extent that naïveté was an important characteristic of early 90s dance music, Rickie Lee Jones was crazy to object to the inclusion of her bizarre rambling observations, because they fit this track like a glove.

The opening track actually gave me lots of pause, with the countdown that starts "Perpetual Dawn" initially feeling much better-suited. The thing is, though, that the immediacy of this song is such that it forces itself into pole position, really. It sticks out anywhere else on this album. So first it is.

Earth (Gaia): keep (side two, track one)

The space-travel theme of this album, and of its conjoined twin Space (by the KLF), is never fully explored. But in this amazing mid-tempo track, the 'transportative' qualities of good IDM are emphasised, and the whole thing does indeed feel like a strangely-spiritual journey into deep space. This is truly beautiful music for dancing or for listening in equal parts. It ends with a few minutes of poinless sci-fi bloops and bleeps, but oh well. You can't win 'em all.

"Earth" does do a good job on the original as track two, but my single-disc version wound up startng beatwise and then slowly slowing down. So for me "Earth" is the first half of the second section, the last time we hear a drumbeat. Since it's mid-tempo, its the 'let's take things down a notch' track. Side two, track one.

Supernova at the End of the Universe: lose

While this song has a truly enjoyable early-90s dance beat, for much if not most of its twelve-minute running time, it has little more going for it than that beat. And that's obviously going to get tiring pretty quick. Obviously in the chillout room epics, striking the balance between thinking and feeling is the goal. But this goal, sadly, isn't always reached. And in any case we're more likely to be listening to this in our bedrooms or on the subway. In that case, this song has little to offer.

Back Side of the Moon: lose

More of a sound collage than a composition, this beatless epic is atmospheric, moody stuff. "Ambient" rather than "ambient house", it fulfills Brian Eno's original conception of aural wallpaper: music, if that's even what this is, that you can tune into or out of at will. It establishes a mood, but with needle time being precious for our purposes here, fourteen minutes is a pretty extravagant length of time to do precious little more than establishing a mood.

Spanish Castles in Space: keep (side two, track two)

On a thoroughly 'futuristic' record, this is defiantly retro: all ambient, no house, so organic it even has what actually sounds like guitars and humans playing instruments live. This is glacially slow music, an ever-mutating line played over and over again until it's become something entirely other. Sands shifting on the desert floor, or the gradual tectonic shift of a continent across the face of the planet. It doesn't pack more of a punch into its fifteen minutes than any other track on the album, but the mood it establishes is a valuable one, one of a sterile twilight calm, and ultimately it's a fulfilling journey. To where? Well, I have no idea. I guess that's what you find when the song reaches its inevitable conclusion and you return, squinting, once again into the sunlight.

I like this track enough to include it, but only on a 120-minute epic could this not be the final track. In fact, it is the final track, inasmuch as the double really plays like two distinct albums. So this finishes the first one. In this case, it's how my entire album ends: not with a bang but with a whisper.

Perpetual Dawn: keep (side one, track two)

This track might wear its Jamaican influence more proudly on its sleeve than any other track, but it's not quite the sore-thumb it appears to be. The harder and deeper beats seem like an interruption in the flow on the album, but in fact as the first track of the second disc, its opening countdown represents a kind of 'fresh start'. Silly and profound in equal measure, this assured, confident track might perhaps be lacking some of the mystery and the emotional connection of the other two singles, and you might say that it's a bit overlong (even as it's one of the album's shorter pieces), but it's an insight into how versatile Paterson really is. The Orb's musical genre is almost always said to be influenced by Jamaican dub, but in reality there's very little except a sense of atmospherics and the value of repetition that carries over from dub to IDM. This, on the other hand, is a respectful and spot-on tribute to dub music, and inasmuch as 'ambient dub' exists as a genre, this is a highlight of it.

The countdown at the beginning of this track just screams 'album opener' to me, and I would have loved for it to be the album opener. But it's problematic: really, conceptually, this just fits better after the more traditional dance track "Little Fluffy Clouds". So track two it is, and if "Little Fluffy Clouds" is a bit of an 'intro', then the countdown still represents the beginning of the 'journey' part of the album. Plus, where else was I going to put it?

Into the Fourth Dimension: lose

This is a hyperkinetic beat on top of (not under) a series of disparate musical elements. Many of these 'elements' are quite beautiful or evocative, but they never quite cohere into a united whole. As a result, the track never really becomes a 'piece' and is most definitely less than the sum of its parts. And it represents wasted potential, too: with a little more thought, this could have been an album highlight. As it is, though, it's nine forgettable minutes.

Outlands: keep (side one, track three)

This overlooked track is, if anything, even 'deeper' than "Perpetual Dawn". It's a real floor-shaker, and even if precious little goes on, it's still compositionally a song, exciting to listen to and never outwearing its welcome.

On an album that, to a large extent, works a rather narrow sonic range as far as possible, once you've looked at the obvious standouts, deciding which songs to include and which not to becomes difficult. In addition to length, one reason why "Outlands", which quality-wise doesn't let the side down, makes the cut is its very danceability. Having twenty-odd minutes of beatwise music and twenty calmer minutes at least gives my single-album a thematic unity. So this track finishes off the beatwise side, as track three of side one.

Star 6 & 7 8 9: lose

'Brief' at only eight minutes, this keyboard-improv session is pleasantly pastoral, but ultimately little more than filler to flesh out side four. And filler that sounds much more like the past than the future, and more like the countryside than deep space.

A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld (Live Mix Mk 10): lose

I know, I know. This is a career-defining, genre-defining epic début, one that regularly shows up on 'best ever' lists, and not including it on my trimmed single seems almost willfully perverse. The simple fact, though, is that there really isn't nineteen minutes of musical incident here. Some bits are intriguing, and as a time- and space-altering 'headtrip', it's a live performance that must have been enchanting to witness. But after Minnie Riperton goes away, you find yourself wondering, 'what now?' The Orb's iconic chess-playing 'perfomance' of this on Top of the Pops was appropriate in more ways than one. And here on the album, after an amazing but indulgent and occasionally tedious 110 minutes, you find yourself craving some Ramones well before the song even comes to an end.

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