The 1990s was a decade that saw electronic music reclaim its undeground status while at the same time exploding in popularity. It was rapidly becoming the vehicle of choice for club music and just about anything music that had to be booted up via computer. In many ways it was a time when R&B had passed the torch to hip hop and it’s many electronic offshoots as sources of inspiration.
The band partly responsible for the initial explosion of electronica in the early ’90s was the London, England based Orb or The Orb. The single “Little Fluffy Clouds” with its innocent dialogue about reminiscing on the big skies of Arizona during childhood connected well with fans of eco nostalgia and the drug fueled rave music scene. The song became a huge hit as it dominated the dance and new modern rock charts. It would be the first track on a musical adventure otherwise known as The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld.
Created in the late ’80s as a means to push the boundaries of live performances (i.e. make it as studio-like as possible), The Orb was never so much a band as a collective built around original members Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty. The duo would change over time with Paterson being a constant.
In this first iteration of the band ambient house music was mixed with samples, usually from ’70s rock acts and odd TV snippets, in much the way The Boards of Canada would a few years later. The dense layered sound reached its peak commercially and critically after a series of singles in 1989 led to The Orbs first full-length album.
If the songs on The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld sounded familiar it was because a few of them made the rounds on the club and college radio scene as minor hits. Songs like ‘Loving You” which was changed to “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld” (due to licensing issues with a sample from the original ’70s era song) and “Perpetual Dawn” were already successful singles in 1989.
When all the songs were put into context it became a sprawling 2 CD set with all the conceptualism of a ’70s prog rock album. Sci-fi themes involving movement and progression through time and space wove through the album, brilliantly linking songs that were in some cases might have sounded like closed ended singles if listened to separately.
The Paterson Cauty duo would not last long as Jimmy Cauty’s ties with KLF would create issues, forcing the two to split (presumably on good terms). This was my favorite variation of The Orb’s sound, playful, funky and trance like – it would never be quite duplicated again in future versions of the band.
I was never part of the rave scene, but it was easy to see how The Orb helped define the movement with this album. The spacy themes coupled with trance inducing beats were the perfect complement to those seeking higher states of consciousness. Of course I knew nothing of that first hand, but the dense production encouraged escapes via headphone listening.
It would not be long before the some of those who may have been influenced by the band like Richard D James (Apex Twin) would come along and redefine electronic music again during the fast-moving electronica scene of the 1990s.