Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Album Of The Week: The Orb- Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld

I suddenly got the bug to check out all the electronic music I've been neglecting all these years, so the other night I was asking a friend his opinion of various artists. Somehow this developed into me realizing two things: 1) the big, popular singles by electronic bands are kind of boring 2) a lot of electronic music sounds terribly dated now. Ironically, since I don't keep up with electronic music, you'd think I wouldn't feel this way. Yet here we are. This is the danger of being on the cutting edge of a new musical genre: sooner or later you're no longer the edge, and are just the dull center of a lumpen metallic mass.

Still, there are those who lead the way and their music still holds up years later. In The Orb's case, well, they don't have nearly the cache that they did in the early to mid 90s, thanks to a mostly spotty career after Orbus Terrarum. Yet I think the reason they aren't quite as interesting today is that their offspring have overtaken them. The Orb almost singlehandedly defined the ambient techno genre with Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, but compared to modern day masters like Boards Of Canada they seem like a quaint reminder of days gone by.

That said, Adventures has several things going for it that help it remain brilliant even by today's standards. The first is the album's sense of scope. By creating a pseudo-concept album that departs Earth for the distant stars, The Orb make a great case for sprawling song lengths, not to mention eerie or mesmerizing vocal samples and psychedelic synthesizer washes. Secondly, the album also borrows from dub, which helps to, every so often, bring the proceedings back down to earth with throbbing basslines and clattering percussion. This and the long song lengths are why I think latter day Orb albums are mediocre, coming off as oddly generic and constraining themselves to pop song lengths when previous Orb masterpieces had personality in spades and hazily stretched to the horizon. Lastly, the album manages to be memorable despite featuring no real melodic hooks or "songs."

While I like U.F.Orb and Orbus Terrarum, their song lengths become more of a liability than an asset because everything bleeds together. Most of Adventures is similarly continuous, but thanks to the unique samples and 'feel' of each track, it remains more distinct throughout. From the trance inducing opener 'Little Fluffy Clouds' to the lengthy film soundtrack-like ambiance of 'Spanish Castles In Space' to the dub reggae excursion 'Into The Fourth Dimension', the album manages to do something that Boards Of Canada also excel at: sounding the same but always changing. There's an indefinable flow, sweep, and sense of scale to Adventures, yet even if any random 30 seconds from any song may sound nothing like 30 seconds of another, they all work together to produce one incredible, well, adventure. From a reductionist standpoint, all Boards Of Canada and The Orb albums are effectively the same thing for an hour or more, but the details and the small or wide variations are the key. Moreover, many of the song titles of Adventures reference classic psychedelic touchstones and sci-fi tropes, helping give the album another added bit of flavor and personality.

Unless you're really into electronic music these days, it's easy for Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld to be overlooked. Which is a shame, because not only is its influence on a lot of music that came out since its 1991 release incalculable, but it still holds up today as a brilliant journey through nascent ambient techno, dub, unexpected samples and effects, and trance inducing psychedelic textures. Highly recommended.

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