As I voyage through the 1537 I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that I am really obsessed with space. You wouldn’t know this from any other aspect of my life, I’ve no real interest in astronomy*, I like sci-fi novels but no more than so than lots of other stuff, I’m not a Trekkie (unlike my parents!), I’m not a hugely techie person and I can only identify about four constellations. However if you have a good root around in my records, filtering out the rude stuff, then it’s space, space, space. I put it down to the fact I was part of the Star Wars generation, that film literally fried my 6 year-old imagination and until I later discovered AD&D, was all I played at/with thereafter. The Orb U.F.Orb seems to have come from a very similar place; or at least having been informed by space as a concept, either in the sense of the spaces between beats, or the big star-spangled thing above where the TIE fighters lived.
Their first LP The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld completely passed me by in 1991, it just wasn’t what I listened to but following their release of their monumental single Blue Room, timed at 39:57 as British chart regulations deemed anything over 40 minutes as an album and their appearance on Top of The Pops where instead of dutifully miming to the single they sat down and played chess with the record on in the background, I started to like their style. So when U.F.Orb was released I bought a cassette copy of it in Swansea in August 1992, shrugging off my gently mocking friends to do so. So did a lot of other people it seems as U.F.Orb briefly hit the #1 spot in the UK LP charts.
What I got when I got home I loved immediately, it was like an ambient dub Pink Floyd with all their stentorian seriousness stripped away and replaced with an edge of chaos and Monty Python-esque humour. The band of course being big Floyd fans, check out the Animals referencing cover of their first LP and the (sadly, not very inspired) Metallic Spheres LP they recorded with Dave Gilmour. The tracks went on for ever, waxing and waning, picking up a rhythm here, dropping it there and cutting in and out of various sampled dialogue. The opening tracks, ‘O.O.B.E’ (which stands for Out of Body Experience, by the way) and ‘U.F.Orb’ are my favourites, building up with fragments of speech about pseudo-scientific sounding states of being, ambient space textures, Russian vocal snippets, water, what sounds like rotor-blades and, eventually, a pulsing driving beat. Ignore the rather dated visuals which do rather resemble Windows XP screen savers (this was 1992) but if you like the music below you’d dig the LP.
I like this because the beats are too uncouth to let this LP fall foul of most of the usual ambient clichés, there is a real energy pulsing through this LP – after all The Orb did record a punked-up version of Hawkwind’s ‘Silver Machine’. Jah Wobble crops up to play bass on a few of the tracks and Steve Hillage plays guitar, although it’s not easily recognized as guitar at the time. There is an aeon’s worth of detail and some true sonic excellence to explore here. I do like the way that the LP is infused and enthused by heavy 70’s dub reggae, most explicitly in ‘Tower of Dub’ it wasn’t a sound palette that was being used at all at the time – although I don’t rate the track overmuch – the smug prank phone call at the start of the track always did raise my hackles a bit. In fact this track and ‘Blue Room’, are the LP’s slightly weaker links, still by no means bad though – ‘Blue Room’ being a reference to the supposed alien holding room in Hangar 18 at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. But I digress, it is this use of beats and dub which stop this LP sounding trite and clumsy like so much of what followed as ambient music.
‘Close Encounters’ is the spaciest track here, featuring another insistent keyboard and beat combo, that just will not leave you alone, which cuts straight into ‘Majestic’, another tune which always makes me think of twinkling stars in the vast majesty of the fundament. I suspect the influence of herbal remedy somewhere down the line…
About five years ago I bought a copy of the original Ltd edition double vinyl version of U.F.Orb, which featured two art prints, a thick blue vinyl protective sleeve and a live LP, which is basically a ramshackle 12″ featuring a couple of bits of noodling which the band used to accompany visuals on their tours. I never did bother going to see them live, the people I knew who did swearing that an altered state was essential to, ‘like experiencing the whole experience, experience-wise man’, this didn’t put me off per se but I just didn’t really see the point of seeing something clever and well-realized, but passionless live – this was the sort of music that thrived on clarity and production; not sure if I regret this now, or not; truth is I was a bit unsure what to do, my usual routine of getting in when the doors opened, hanging on the front rail, waiting for ever and then mindlessly headbanging until the loud noises stopped, would probably have needed some modification.
But that’s all by the by, 21 years later we’re left with an excellent LP that I think stands the test of time very well and one that I do play quite a lot. Of course, like all the other bands I like who sang about space it was all a big metaphor about exploring inner space through the medium of outer space and that’s groovy enough for me. It still makes me dream about spaceships though and I hope it always does.
*the maths involved in serious astronomy whereby people prove that the universe is saddle-shaped and/or predominantly ochre, make my brain convulse unpleasantly.