The Orb - Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld
Have you ever had the feeling that someone may have been pulling your leg but you just weren't sure. For despite the earnestness with which The Orb approached their first two albums - Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld and UF Orb - the gigantic stuffed sheep that floated above Battersea Power Station that adorned their live album suggested otherwise.
It is this picture of the four white chimneys that rise above the abandoned power station at Battersea that connects the cover of that live album to imagery on this, their debut and on back to Animals, the 1977 Pink Floyd album that is but one example of how the sixties band crept into late-eighties dance music. For, there on the cover of The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld was a grand shot of the power station that stretched into an image of what one assumes to be the spaceship as piloted by The Orb far into the Ultraworld.
The Orb had come out of the same London-based dance music scene as superstar DJ's like Paul Oakenfold. Dr Alex Paterson, being the only member of The Orb to have remained within the band to its end and, one suspects, entirely free of medical qualifications, was the resident DJ in the chill-out room during Oakenfold's residency at Heaven. It was within this atmosphere that Paterson formed The Orb, which began as a loose collective of artists but soon stabilised around Paterson and Jimmy Cauty. Cauty, however, soon left to form The JAMM's with Bill Drummond, who later renamed themselves The KLF and Paterson hooked up with a number of like-minded artists/producers once again, still under the name of The Orb. What this album did was to bring those songs produced during this time together on one album alongside later, yet similar material.
The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld opens with the crowing of a cockerel, the rich tones of a Radio 4 announcer declaring that, "Over the past few years, to the traditional sounds of an English summer - the drone of lawnmowers, the smack of leather on willow - has been added a new noise...", which could refer either to the fictional testing of The Orb's spaceship or to the 120bpm music that burst out of warehouses in the late-eighties, before the hazy sounds of Rickie Lee Jones fondly recalling the summer skies of her childhood drifts in. So begins Little Fluffy Clouds, the still wonderful opening track on the album. Although this is often erroneously called ambient house, there is little of Brian Eno's Music For Airports here - Little Fluffy Clouds is a glorious flashback to the acid house boom of a few years earlier and the familiar burbling of a Roland 303 underpins Jones' story. Rickie Lee Jones claimed that her suitably influenced tones were the result of a heavy cold and sued Big Life, The Orb's record company settled out of court with her, but Little Fluffy Cloulds provided Jones with her most memorable song in many years and even after twelve years, it still sounds fantastic.
The album then continues through Earth (Gaia), during which Ming The Merciless, appearing in a speech sampled from Mike Hodges' Flash Gordon, steps aside for the voice of God before The Orb continues out of Earth orbit and into one around the Moon. Sounds strange, no? Well, The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld is a two-hour concept piece broken into four parts and takes the listener on a trip from Earth into orbit, from there to a lunar orbit before launching a series of probes to the Ultraworld and, finally, steering a craft into the centre of that world. Given the nature of concept albums, there is always the feeling that the entire venture will fall apart some distance before it was due to end but Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld holds true until its final moments through the intelligent use of samples. Therefore, where one would expect the journey from the Earth to the Moon to be full of radio chatter, the album does not disappoint with the final song from part one and the opening song of part two - Supernova At The End Of The Universe and Back Side Of The Moon (note one more reference to Pink Floyd), respectively - folding into one another as recordings from NASA missions fade in and out and Steve Hillage's guitar, given new life following is exit from English prog-rock band Gong, drifts about the songs. Disc one, which contains parts one and two, ends with the quiet Spanish Castles In Space, where Paterson's keyboards ebb-and-flow over supple basslines provided by Guy Pratt, the bassist who took over from Roger Waters following his exit from Pink Floyd.
Disc two and part three - Ultraworld Probes - begins with the dub reggae of Perpetual Dawn, goes through the euphoric Into The Fourth Dimension before closing with Outlands, which brings in the listener with the reggae toasting of, "Welcome to Blackpool jungle...don't you fumble; just be 'umble". Unlike most of the first disc, Ultraworld Probes is much more full-on - if this is ambient house, it's been pumped-up beyond its origins - and closest to what one would expect of acid house once clear of Little Fluffy Clouds.
The highlight of Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld comes at the end of disc two/part four following the skip of Star 6 & 7 8 9 with the bubbling patterns of A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld. Surprisingly, this 18-minute song lives up to the challenge of that title, being a series of samples that spill into a looped motif that gently circles the track and that includes the sound of aeroplanes, a male choir, pounding drums and the wash of waves as well as the drifting sound of Minnie Ripperton's Loving You from 1975. For those fans of 2001: A Space Odyssey, this final song concludes the album much as the spectacular display of psychedelic effects accompanies Dave Bowman's final trip from Discovery and is a wonderful song with which to close this album.
My own experience of The Orb began with a much delayed flight one winter from Belfast to Manchester, arriving too late for public transport. In finally getting to a cold house in Longsight, I switched on BBC Radio 1 to hear John Peel introducing The Orb's first BBC session, which included A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain The Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld. That one song was utterly unlike anything I had ever heard and made such an impact that the purchase of this album followed a day later. Surprisingly, the album still holds up due mainly to it being sufficiently innovative at the time of its release so as to still sound fresh twelve years on. Fans of dance music, chill-out compilations, reggae, indie and even progressive rock will find much that appeals to them within the two hours of music included here and is a fantastic example of what The Orb did when they still appeared to be entirely serious and before the faded into puns and bad in-jokes - The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld is a truly essential album and continues to sound great even today.