Monday, January 25, 2010

I’d Love To Turn You On #1: The Orb - Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld

We spend so much of our time buying, selling and listening to the latest releases that we sometimes forget to plumb the depths. Every one of us here got in to record store thing, at some level, because we have a deep interest and curiosity about all kinds of music. Most of us are collectors to some degree or another, and one of the abiding joys of collecting is to pull out the rare, beautiful, little known or downright obscure album and turn on a friend. Sometimes it's a classic that needs to be shined up and put back on the top shelf. With that in mind we are going to revive a column we used to include in our newsletters called, appropriately enough, I'd Love To Turn You On. This will give our super collectors and musical academicians to wax poetic about their favorite albums (or movie or book for that matter).

In 1991 when this album was released the dance music revolution was in its infancy. It was just staring to break out of basements and tiny clubs and explode into what, for better or worse would become “the rave scene.” With the gelling of the scene the music started to adhere to rules, and fit specific needs - mainly to keep the dance floor throbbing until everyone stopped rolling. In 1991 the music was still wide open and somewhat unclassifiable. Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld is the realization of the promise that this music held. The Orb’s first album was experimental, highly ambitious and free from any genre restrictions. In many ways, because of its success it paved the way for a far less interesting form of music, but what pioneering album cannot be accused of that? If every droney, out of key, noisy rock band was laid at the Velvet Underground’s feet, they would need much bigger shoes. Doing it first often means doing it best, and Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld proves that notion as neatly as The Velvet Underground and Nico does for its era.

Opening with the single that would become their most identifiable song, “Little Fluffy Clouds” remains one of the most irresistible and unforgettable songs of the era. The title is derived from the primary sample: a clip of Rickie Lee Jones describing what the skies looked like when she was growing up in Arizona. Orb mastermind Alex Paterson builds a luscious soundscape around this sample that burbles and whooshes with interesting embellishment but never drops the beat for a moment. It achieves the seemingly impossible - it is the embodiment of intelligent dance music. I guess you could drop the “dance” and say it is just intelligent music. The fact that you can dance to it is icing. As the tracks unfold on disc one, one realizes that this music has as much to do with Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, Negativland or Mike Oldfield as it does with Paul Oakenfold or The Chemical Brothers. It is part of a long tradition of willfully avant-garde music informed equally by minimalist classical, popular rock and early experiments in electronics or what the French termed Musique Concrete. Each song on Adventures opens up a new world of sonic collage with a different beat structure beneath it. In fact, some songs have no beats whatsoever and are more akin to ambient experiments bringing together sweeping landscapes with a fascinating array of musical and spoken word samples. Much of the sampling on this album relates to human exploration of outer space, and the choice of subject matter is completely sympathetic with its surroundings. It almost feels like one is exploring uncharted territory while listening to this album. How many albums can you say that about? Amazingly, much of it still sounds pretty groundbreaking all these years later.

Much of the success of Adventures is based on Alex Paterson’s deft use of samples. Unlike much modern music, his samples never dictate what the melodic or rhythmic structure of the song will be. They act as poetic devices that give the songs depth - the music is created by Paterson, and he uses the samples as lyrical as opposed to technical inspiration. One never feels like he is just riffing off of someone else’s musical innovation. That is the big problem with sampling in a lot of modern music; it takes the place of a genuine idea. Not so with The Orb; there is clearly an artistic mind behind the music that is brimming with ideas of its own.

Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld closes a couple of hours later with the Orb’s second most renowned song; “A huge ever growing pulsating brain that rules from the centre of the ultraworld.” A seductive, snaky rhythm pushes its way through a barrage of cosmic synth waves lapping on the inside of your skull and gives way to a sample of 70’s songbird Minnie Riperton’s otherworldly voice singing her signature song “Loving You.” Instead of using Riperton’s song to inform the melody of his own work, Paterson just lifts her voice singing and it floats above The Orb like some angelic choir looking down approvingly. The song then shifts off into worlds that are alternately meditative and energizing. There are single mixes of this song that stretch to over 20 minutes, but the version on the album comes to a halt after about 18. The song did revive interest in Riperton, who died at a tragically young age, and it’s hard to imagine it would not have met with her approval. As the album ends the listener is left in a state of exhausted bliss, having figuratively traveled to other worlds. Not for the faint of heart by any means, Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld is a big glorious slice of dayglow pie that will fill you up to the brim with musical ideas and big beats. This album is neither a poppy dance confection, nor is it a mere vehicle for special effects, it is, rather, a serious attempt to take the listener on a voyage. The fact that Alex Paterson and company actually achieved this goal is monumental, the fact that it is such a good and enduring album almost 20 years later is miraculous. -- Paul Epstein

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