The Orb defies conventional classifications at nearly every turn. Less a group than an ongoing project headed by Alex Paterson, the Orb’s recordings weave textures taken from synthesizers, guitar, and drum machines into computer-generated sounds and sampled bits of other music. The result is compositions that are orchestral in nature, with singles that are notorious in length. Such tactics have made the Orb synonymous with the term “ambient techno,” and Paterson’s music remains among the most acclaimed and successful in Europe—though he has yet to achieve such accolades in the United States. The Orb sometimes evokes comparisons to Pink Floyd for its epic and arty opuses, as well as to the work of ambient-music pioneer Brian Eno. Paterson has spoken of both Pink Floyd and Eno as more than influential to his work. “Groups like the Orb…take seriously Brian Eno’s dictum that music can, and sometimes should, be as forgettable as it is thrilling,” wrote Frank Owen in the Village Voice.
Paterson began his career in the music business as a roadie for the influential English band Killing Joke,
Group is a collaborative effort led by Alex Paterson (born Duncan Robert Alexander Paterson, 1960, in England; son of a nurse), synthesizers, samplers; ancillary members have included Jimmy Cauty, guitar; Thomas Fehlmann; Steve Hillage, guitar; and Kristian “Thrashs” Weston, guitar, synthesizers, samplers, percussion.
Group formed in England in 1990. Paterson was a roadie for Killing Joke in the late 1970s; worked as an A&R (artists and repertoire) person for EG Records from the late 1980s until 1991; has also been a club DJ in England.
Addresses: Record company —Island Records, 400 Lafayette St., 5th Floor, New York, NY 10003.
signing on to their crew in the late 1970s when he was just eighteen. “This was the major turning point in my life,” he told Melody Maker’s Ian Gittins. “If Killing Joke hadn’t formed, The Orb would never have existed.” Afterward, Paterson became a DJ inside England’s thriving techno/house/rave club scene, and by the late 1980s was spinning records inside one room of a London club called The Land of Oz. This room was designed to soothe danced-out clubgoers in need of a break from the frenetic beats on the main floor, and Paterson’s airy, floating mixes soon earned a tag: ambient house. The ambient part had been coined by studio expert Eno, who created lulling, textured melodies under his own name between producing such bands as Roxy Music and U2. Paterson knew the Eno ethos well; at this point in the late Eighties period he was working as an A&R person for Eno’s home label, EG Records.
In 1989, Paterson’s interest in creating new sound forms led to the creation of his first single in collaboration with Jimmy Cauty, who was one-half of the equally successful DJ/remixers known as KLF; Paterson had done some uncredited remixes for KLF’s early LPs. The single was entitled “A Huge, Ever-Growing and Pulsating Brain That Rules the World from the Centre of the Ultraworld” and clocked in at an equally lengthy 24 minutes. A second single, “Little Fluffy Clouds,” followed in 1990, another dreamy and long track most notable for its overdub of Rickie Lee Jones waxing poetic about her childhood in Arizona.
“Little Fluffy Clouds” became the first Orb single to chart, and the success led Paterson to put together a full-length album, Adventures Beyond the Underworld. Released in England in 1991, the work paid homage to Pink Floyd with its cover photograph of the famous English power station at Battersea, which Pink Floyd had also used on the cover of their 1977 release Animals. One track was called “The Back Side of the Moon,” a reference to Pink Floyd’s enduring 1973 release The Dark Side of the Moon. The sound engineering difficulties involved in putting Paterson’s complex compositions onto vinyl or CD form forced him to take the master tapes to a German classical recordings production plant to achieve the perfection he sought.
Adventures Beyond the Underworld, which Melody Maker termed “the definitive ‘ambient House’ album,” was released as a a double CD in Britain, but sliced down to a single disc for American release. Both “Little Fluffy Clouds” and “Perpetual Dawn” became successful club hits. An essay on the Orb in the Spin Alternative Record Guide called the double version “an ambient opus—an exploratory space probe using the latest computer technology, incorporating elements of Chicago house music, Jamaican dub, television samples, and huge chunks of Brian Eno-like moods.” Paterson had originally planned it as a three-CD work, but instead released the extra tracks as The Aubrey Mixes: The Ultraworld Excursions.
Around this time Paterson quit his post at EG records. “I realised that I had to direct my efforts at my own career rather than at anybody else’s,” Paterson told Melody Maker writer Push in 1991. “It’s weird because a lot of what I do is just for [kicks], it’s just me and some mates having fun, so I never expected it to turn out this way.” Paterson’s next effort enlisted the help of legendary British bass player Jah Wobble. He also began a collaboration with Kristian “Thrash” Weston, a young mixing prodigy on the techno/house scene, as well as Steve Hillage, a guitarist from the band Gong. The result was the single “The Blue Room,” which Paterson named after a mysterious room at an Ohio air force base where alien remains are allegedly stored. The single was just two seconds short of forty minutes, which was the maximum length of time allowed for a song to be eligible for the charts. Melody Maker writer Mat Smith called it their “most subtle” to date, “a huge ambient meister-werk and the first to work entirely as a set piece rather than a mere series of clever effects.”
In response to the chart success of “The Blue Room,” Paterson made adamant to Smith his refusal to go along with the usual industry hype. “The last thing we want to do is go on Top of the Pops” he said, referring to a long-running staple of British television in which pop bands lip-synch to their chart-topping singles. “How degrading can you actually get?” Within time, however, the Orb did appear on Top of the Pops, with members playing a boring round of chess while the song played in the background. “The Blue Room” was included on another LP released in 1992, UFOrb, a record which explored the alien theme further. This release reached number one on the British charts, but after disputes with their British label, Big Life, the Orb moved to Island Records. In 1993 came their first release for Island as well as their first live work, Orb Live ‘93.
Late the same year, the Orb embarked upon their first tour of the United States, continuing their promise to provide concertgoers with an unusual experience. Previously, they had played in Denmark’s Copenhagen harbor and the nearby airport had to be temporarily shut down because the lights were bothersome to incoming planes. In the American performances Paterson and Thrash were sometimes obscured by a giant sheet hung just below waist-level, or by smoke and strobe lights. “This is what we want to put across,” Paterson told Push in Melody Maker concerning the live shows. “We’re not a band, we’re not four people onstage projecting a traditional image. We’re two people with all kinds of images around us.”
The 1994 record Pomme Fritz marked the entry of yet another collaborator onto the Orb roster, Thomas Fehlmann. The German techno artist contributed the track “Alles 1st Schon.” The record was much more industrial sounding than previous releases, and—perhaps buoyed by the success of the previous year’s tour—Pomme Fritz became the onset of some nominal success for the Orb in the United States. Jon Wiederhorn of Rolling Stone termed it “a jumbled, disorienting miasma of misfiring neurons and overloaded synapses.” Compared to other groups of the genre, Wiederhorn maintained, Paterson and company “inspire awe by splashing a profusion of unfocused noises and samples across a grid of billowing, textured synth lines.” Robert L. Doerschuk, critic for Keyboard magazine, also gave the recording a favorable review, noting that its melding of diverse musical styles yields “complex patterns glistened by textural showers.”
Paterson and Thrash eventually parted ways around the time of the Orb’s sixth release, 1995’s Orbus Terrarum. The work’s title reflected Paterson’s move away from the otherworldly, space-rock moods evoked on previous releases and a figurative return to the earth; its title came from a medieval map he keeps on his wall. Sampled bits were more often than not taken from nature. Musician’s Ken Micallef wrote that “the sounds tumble from one song to the next, building a seamless whole that leaves you in a dreamlike state.” Wiederhorn of Rolling Stone asserted that “much of the album is orchestral in design, with songs that ebb and flow like symphonic movements…. Orbus Terrarum is a dense, convoluted record, for sure, but it’s not difficult or pretentious. Credit this to the Orb’s oddball sense of humor—a quality that further separates the band from the horde of computer geeks that holds every keyboard bleep sacred.”
Writer Mark Prendergast of venerable British political journal New Statesman & Society contended that “the Orb’s approach—which links turntable to samplers to effects machines and mixing desk, then feeds in as many exotic found sounds as possible via computer discs—is the best electronic version of popular music for years.” Paterson, however, has said that he knows there are indeed limits to the Orb. “I’ll do The Orb until I’m 40, which will be the year 2000, and that will be it,” Paterson told Melody Maker’s Gittins. “After that I’ll run a label. I’ll let other people make music.”
Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, Big Life/Mercury, 1991.
The Aubrey Mixes: The Ultraworld Excursions, Big Life, 1991.
UFOrb, Big Life, 1992.
Orb Live ‘93, Island/Red, 1993.
Pomme Fritz, Island/Red, 1994.
Orbus Terrarum, Island/Red, 1995.
Spin Alternative Record Guide, edited by Eric Weisbard with Craig Marks, Vintage Books, 1995.
The New Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, edited by Patricia Romanowski and Holly George-Warren, Fireside/Rolling Stone Press, 1995.
Down Beat, September 1995.
Keyboard, April 1994; October 1994.
Melody Maker, April 20, 1991; June 6, 1992; October 24, 1992; March 27, 1993; June 4, 1994; June 25, 1994; March 25, 1995.
Musician, July 1995.
New Statesman & Society, April 9, 1993.
Rolling Stone, December 9, 1993; October 20, 1994; April 20, 1995.
Stereo Review, March 1994.
Village Voice, September 17, 1991; November 9, 1993.
Further information for this profile was obtained from promotional material provided by Island Records, 1995.