The Orb - 'U.F.Orb'
No. 38 in our Top 100 Electronica Albums of the 1990s
“Is there a Haile Selassie here?” — “No” — ”Could you possibly, if he does, he will come in very shortly, would you tell him that Marcus Garvey, ehm, phoned?” — “Uh huh” — ”And that I will meet him, well it's, meet him in Babylon and Ting?”
So Dr. Alex Paterson and Co. immortalized the cross-ways and intergalactic jams of Jamaican dub reggae and its homesick wanderings, with the psychedelic dreamtime of rave and the heady antics of the sample-verse. The Orb’s U.F.Orb remains perhaps Paterson’s greatest album even though many imitators and admirers have turned its innovations into tropes and clichés, giving it a dated quality to undiscerning ears. Unapologetically trippy and “out there,” yet sweet and uplifting, it launched an industry-wide race to chill and thrill, and exploded techno into a hundred new stylizations and genres, from ambient dub to trip hop to progressive trance.
While it’s true that The Orb’s debut double album, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld was more historic and important — unfurling ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ into the defiant right to trip out — U.F.Orb made good on its promise and pushed Paterson’s crazy ideas into an accessible smart-bomb, reaching No. 1 on the UK Albums Chart. Which makes it a kind of miracle, or a reminder of an age of miracles, when people dared to dream that they could make peace through sound waves and beats and dance moves, and open the human imagination to worlds yet undreamed.
“Oh, is that Haile Selassie?” — “No, it wasn't him, it was a cab.” — “He's a, he's a Black gentleman.” The sample of satirist Victor Lewis-Smith prank calling London Weekend Television studios posing as Marcus Garvey (a Jamaican political activist and Pan-Africanist) to arrange a meeting with Haile Selassie (the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974), at “Babylon and Ting” (a reference to an oppressive and corrupt society) is not just a fun skit and love letter to Rastafarian culture, but comments on the deeper meta truth of 1990s electronica: that it owed its being not just to White German or English musicians and inventors, but much more so to the history and indomitable soul of Black music. Like rock ‘n’ roll before it, rave was that strange impossible hybrid of African, European and American byways along with Asia, Australia and every corner of the Earth spinning in on itself.
Unidentified. Flying. Orb. As if spinning through the matrix, a new culture, a new “orb” of energy and ideas, of artistries and technologies, was carrying the whole world into the future. The album’s cover art perfectly captured that liminal moment of 1988 to 1992, with its sci-fi preoccupations with space, its nascent computer graphics star (The Orb’s original 2D logo coming to life in 3D), complete with its glowy baby blue lettering redolent of an ironic fascination with The Jetsons. Foreshadowing the countless desktop-published and Photoshopped rave flyers that would pepper Western civilization, its artwork represented the “state of the art,” even though truthfully it prefigured the ephemeral nature of the digital era.
So that when one listens to the album’s opening song, ‘O.O.B.E.,’ (or ‘Out-Of-Body-Experience’), it feels almost as if one is walking through a sonic blizzard of digital snow, a pastiche of the Internet’s tentacled storm of dreaming and yearning for tomorrow. And yet The Orb was about the Now more than the Future. It was sensuousness more than abstractness. This was music you could feel, less sublimation of the cerebral in sound, and more immersion of the body in a revolutionary ideal: the power to change the world through little electronic transmissions from keys, buttons and knobs. Was it human? Or even real?
Which brings it back to the other end of the equation, not the creators but the receivers, the ravers, the other dreamers out there. For rave was indeed an important movement and The Orb was one of its early flag-bearers, so that the track ‘U.F.Orb’ in one sense sounds like so many ambient techno songs of its time, at once generic and emblematic of a simple and unpretentious flirtation with groove and grandeur. It’s that sincere and one can now say innocent faith in the future and the goodness within all explorers of the psychedelic frontier, that also makes U.F.Orb an oddly moving testament to the rave era’s fierce and almost goofy belief in technology, its determinism and its idealism: that hatred could be erased forever.
The ‘Blue Room’ is where The Orb ended up in that search for universal love, for its perpetual dawn. Named after a mythical “blue room” at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where investigations, evidence and reports on U.F.O.’s were held from the 1940s through the 1970s. It is a perfect black box for The Orb’s active and even some might say overactive imagination. Alex Paterson, who adopted “Dr.” as an honorific, the mastermind behind The Orb, reveled in headspace music, in the hallucinatory power of electronic music specifically and its seemingly endless possibilities, revealing a sort of mad scientist obsession with sound.
And yet he had one foot firmly in the past, and always had been an excavator and obsessor over the psychic travels and sonic gems of yesteryear. ‘Blue Room’ is one of the purest manifestos to the past, present and future that electronica has to offer. Like an Ent, it takes its time to “say” what it needs to say, the original single version running at 39 minutes and 58 seconds. It’s more an aircraft hangar than a room. For inside its phantasmic cave are the long glacial cascading electric guitar moans of the great Steve Hillage, a 1960s progressive and space rock maestro who has traveled, morphed and fused with techno’s kindred ethos, even evoking Pink Floyd’s supernatural ‘Echoes,’ reminiscent of David Gilmour’s scintillating solos.*
Its bass line, written by the legendary Jah Wobble, emerges out of a soup of primordial consciousness, bomb sirens going off, melting into a blipping, bubbling ocean of utter weirdness. Its sparkly, fizzy dub tugs us into a dreamy stream of easy come, easy go chants, the beat of the ‘Blue Room’ chugging like a train heading for the heart of the universe, Wobble’s subterranean groove grounding its extraterrestrial emissions in warehouse raver divinations. Like winds on a desert planet, Hillage’s ghostly guitar glissades through the ‘Blue Room’ as a heavier bass kicks back in, Wobble’s riffs wobbling deliciously to a deep vocoder growl — communicating with the beyond through the medium of sound in a submersed Jamaican riddim.
Flying saucers. Satellites. Radio waves. The other dreamers out there picked up on The Orb’s startling, warped signals. Freedom of thought. Digging into the timeless. Marching to the wobble of the Earth’s axis. The Internet echoes with the strange, beautiful frequencies of the ‘Blue Room,’ from memories of camping trips in the wilderness set to its cosmic swirls to the masterminds behind the So-Cal Raves listserv blaring its radical sonics from the rooftop of their college’s U.C. Irvine administration headquarters onto the school plaza in the middle of night — impossibility as the curious currency of their intellectual insurgency.
‘Towers of Dub’ continues its tip of the hat to Meddle-era Pink Floyd, bringing in harmonicas and dogs barking a la ‘Seamus,’ but then dips into altogether deeper waters with dub bass that wakes the mind to the world’s first technological music — dub — retracing its roots in modern dance music to Larry Levan’s collaborations with reggae rhythm-masters Sly & Robbie. Sampling The Revolutionaries’ ‘Bamba in Dub’ from 1977, ‘Towers’ reimagines its classic bass line in a more urgent, flowing manner, while the name of the track alludes to the pirate radio booming across London in 1991 and 1992 from tower blocks, eluding the police from one channel to another.**
Its lullaby melody contrasts perfectly with what sounds like the spouting breaths of whales or the scratch of slowed down record slides, the deep dive of ‘Bamba in Dub’ taking us down into the collective unconscious, a harmonica guiding us through the rivers of Rastafarian incantation, of echoing piano vamps and trance-inducing clock ticks. Lewis-Smith’s prim English accent warbling at the inflow, his fantastical skit of two towering Black minds meeting at “Babylon and Ting” ricocheting through our heads, its bass strutting the city and the country like a giant among skyscrapers, mountains and clouds, walking into a global outflow. The dog barks echo again, snarling synthesizer snaking through the hills, the drums shaking the sky, the skittering reggae chords shimmering up into the heavens, up, up and around.
“As they worked, Case gradually became aware of the music that pulsed constantly through the cluster,” wrote the cyberpunk author William Gibson in his masterpiece, Neuromancer, published in 1984, describing a makeshift space station circling above the Earth, its five Rastafarian crew members helping connect the book’s protagonists to their tête-à-tête with a beguiling artificial intelligence called Wintermute. “It was called dub, a sensuous mosaic cooked from vast libraries of digitized pop; it was worship, Molly said, and a sense of community.” So dub and roots music in this interstellar flying Zion tethers its passengers to a more righteous orb. For Zion “smelled of cooked vegetables, humanity, and ganja.” ***
Back to Earth, and its onto ‘Close Encounters,’ the album’s glorious highpoint. A collaboration between Paterson, Kris Weston (U.F.Orb’s primary co-pilot) and Slam’s Orde Meikle and Stuart McMillan of ‘Positive Education’ fame — later penning in 1993 the ever-morphing trance techno classic — ‘Close Encounters’ in many ways perfectly captures the promise of progressive techno at the very moment it split into countless directions and inspirations. It starts off with what sounds like chirping robo-bird calls answered by distant howls of some alien enchantress — or is it a spaceship circling the horizon? — slowly coming tighter and tighter into focus. An arpeggio rings the atmosphere followed by hypnotic bass that would make Chicago house’s Adonis proud — pumping and stabbing and zapping through every space.
Building up and breaking down, building up and breaking down, over the course of five minutes it patiently hovers over new vistas and ranges, coming back again and again with growing urgency and vim, dropping down the hips, bending the knees, and then — peace, glorious bittersweet peace, a melody bequeathed from the gods, the sky worshippers opening the arms, leaning back the head, the light of the rising sun traveling across over 90 million miles to us. The drums and airs grow in frenzy, followed by a kind of collapse in the whirling sands of time, the groove search: pilgrimage to the meccas in all of us — “Good morning!” — the encounter with universal mystery and beauty and spirituality — the sound of myths and bliss.
Taking us to ‘Majestic,’ the album’s last full composition is drafted in the more quintessential vibe of the time and produced by Youth (Martin Glover); it jams to a breakbeat-laden pulse, its bass rolling like a Slinky. The slightest echo of the ‘Close Encounters’ howl gives just a touch of moodiness before bouncing to an effervescent funk that’s not too distant from Deee-Lite’s ‘What Is Love?’ but dancing on desert-dry lakebeds, dervishes in the head, a flute saluting the Great Unknown, as a liquid blob of goodness orbits our expanded world with the closing ‘Sticky End.’ This Orb has landed. Or has it taken off? Perhaps both all along all at once.
From the wind-piping of ‘O.O.B.E.’ played by Tom Green and written by future core partner Thomas Fehlmann — an electronic music dynamo in his own right — to the down-the-drain, up-in-the-brain ‘Sticky End,’ Paterson flies his U.F.Orb with gusto and a wicked sense of humor. Other hands have always helped steer The Orb forward: besides Weston and Youth, Hillage was joined by his wife Miquette Giraudy; and harmonica player Marney Pax along with Fehlmann made ‘Towers of Dub’ extraordinary and winsome in its cowboy-goes-to-Jamaica brilliance.****
At the center of The Orb however is Paterson, the Doctor, the Madman, making it cool to dig prog rock again, bringing minimalist electronic composers out of the chambers of obscureness, and washing the ivory towers with dub’s sticky principled irreverence — rebellion with a revolution of the mind and the spirit as much as the body politic: Selassie and Garvey sublimated. Because before world peace, we will ever need revolutions in consciousness, not only jokes and sermons, but a new medium of dancehall encounters. For the human high has its roots in the muck of music.
3. Blue Room
4. Towers of Dub
5. Close Encounters
7. Sticky End
*The Orb would collaborate with Gilmour in 2010 on Metallic Spheres. The Mad Professor is another unseen influence on U.F.Orb, his wild echoic dub experiments and remixes with their big shattering shapes, is evident throughout the album. He would in fact remix ‘Towers of Dub’ for Paterson on the ‘Blue Room’ single.
**The supreme importance of dub reggae and West Indian culture in the life of rave music cannot be understated, helping give UK acid house and its children a key part of its power. This is of course most evident in the creation and rise of drum ‘n’ bass, which has many of its roots not just in hip hop and breakbeat techno, but dub. The Orb’s obsession with dub is therefore central to its sound but also its story.
However, house music also has reggae reverberations, whether we’re talking Larry Levan’s DJ sets at the Paradise Garage, the fat bass grooves of Chicago’s Adonis or further back to Levan’s critical experimentations on Gwen Guthrie’s ‘Padlock’ and ‘Seventh Heaven,’ where he remixed Sly & Robbie’s reggae grooves into magic.
***I do not condone nor do I scold the usage of “ganja,” but its role in dub reggae music and more chilled electronic music is significant. It is ultimately the sacrament of the Rastafarian religion. Cannabis has psychotropic effects that have been studied by scientists. It seems to slow one’s perception of time and accentuates sound and novel thoughts. For some, it can have deleterious effects. For others, it’s mana.
More importantly, in terms of Gibson’s description of dub as part of his cyberpunk vision, the key insight to me is less about the lifestyle or beliefs of Rastafarianism, but Gibson’s emphasis on “worship” and “community,” and how he foresaw in 1984 its immense influence on the future course of world music, especially “digitized pop,” which one can say is indeed electronica and in time so-called EDM.
Dub music is in essence the use of studio technology to reimagine music in its most altered form, using echo, reverb, delays and other sonic tricks to conjure immersive music. Dub has an extensive history and has affected if not spawned many genres. And yet core to its spirit is ultimately what Gibson perceived in terms of a cluster above the Earth with people at the center — it’s grounding in humanity.
****In 2012 and 2013, Paterson and Fehlmann would follow their love of dub to one of its original sources, collaborating on three albums with the legendary Lee Scratch Perry. And not to be missed, The Orb was commissioned by Trojan Records to DJ, compile and mix a double-album of dub reggae gems titled I’ll Be Black — with a cheeky inner sleeve that proclaims, “The Trojan Orb destroys the Death Star.”