Psych album of the week: The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (1991)

The double-disc is jam-packed with guest players, mind-altering samples, and the Orb’s comedown, chill-out vibe

orb

The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld is a heavily influential electronic tour-de-force. The album is the group’s full-length debut, coming after a well-received 1989 EP, Kiss.

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The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld is a heavily influential electronic tour-de-force. The double-disc is jam-packed with guest players, mind-altering samples, and the Orb’s comedown, chill-out vibe.

The album is the group’s full-length debut, coming after a well-received 1989 EP, Kiss. The Orb is best known for pioneering the genre of ambient house and maximizing the impact of their live sets with Koyaanisqatsi–style imagery.  

Main spherical object Alex Paterson is the only constant member of the Orb over the years. However, the group has always fostered a collaborative atmosphere, with many high-powered friends and colleagues coming and going. These colleagues include members of postpunk dark lords Killing Joke, techno enigmas the KLF, prog masters Pink Floyd, psych popsters Gong, and perennial indie darlings the Smiths, to name a few.       

As producer and Killing Joke bass player Youth said in 2016 when talking to the Guardian: “The Orb essentially emerged from Alex Paterson’s record collection, morphed through a mixing desk, with beats added. This came out of many, many long sessions DJing in the backroom of Paul Oakenfold’s Land Of Oz club and at the KLF’s Trancentral studios.”

Paterson’s unique spin

London-born Paterson’s unique spin (ahem) on his vinyl collection proved ideal for chill-out rooms where club kids and weary DJs could seek relief from loud and pounding dancefloor vibes. And so was born Paterson’s blend of Eno-style ambient calm with hip-hop and house beats.        

The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld was programmed and recorded at six different studios over three weeks. Over two discs and 10 songs, the average track length is just under 11 minutes and the average tempo is a mellow 105 beats per minute.  

Opening track “Little Fluffy Clouds” is an instant classic. It prominently features a sample of a very spaced-out-sounding Rickie Lee Jones, describing the picturesque skies of Arizona. This sample resulted in an out-of-court settlement between record companies. The settlement was worth every cent for the Orb, mind you. The American songstress’s childlike ramblings create a compelling foundation for Paterson to work over. He adds acid-approved bass sequences, insistent proto-trip-hop beats and altered synth hooks and pads to knock this track out of the atmosphere.  

Biblical snippets

“Earth (Gaia)” also makes creative use of spoken word samples, this time with Biblical snippets from the book of Amos “…and they shall plant vineyards and drink the wine of them” over a Massive Attack–style beat and synth string accents.  

Beginning with the sound of a rocket lifting off, “Supernova at the End of the Universe” flows along narcotically with interjections from NASA mission samples. Meanwhile, shimmering synths percolate gently over a minimal rhythm track as the song leads you on a bucolic trip through space and time.  

Pink Floyd–referencing “Back Side of the Moon” is 14 minutes of peaceful, bubbling serenity, perfect for isolation-tank enthusiasts everywhere.  

Speaking of Floyd, the final track of Disc 1, “Spanish Castles in Space” floats along on little more than PF touring bass player Guy Pratt’s spare fretless bass calls, the narration from a Soviet field recording, and some barely there ethereal synth wind.  

“Perpetual Dawn”

Disc 2 begins with “Perpetual Dawn”. The track cruises along at a tempo and feel somewhere between reggae and ska and welcomes the sun with an insistent island wake-up vibe.  

“Into the Fourth Dimension” opens with a sample of Renaissance-era “Miserere”, all chanting and religious invocation. A busy (for the Orb) beat and dub-style bass line carry the arrangement from there. A breakdown three quarters of the way through introduces some robotic vocalizations. The loping synthetic groove then resumes. It takes us to the end of the dimension with a final old-world sample, this time of a Vivaldi concerto.  

This leads us into “The Outlands”. This region is a sparsely populated desolation until around the 1:30 mark where things pick up with a cheaply tight organ figure and booping arpeggiator beeps. At 2:30 a deep, thick groove kicks in. At that point, the track throws in a wealth of samples from a variety of artists. We then hear Miss Jones and her clouds again, along with Kraftwerk, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and White Noise. Together they create an intoxicating brew that keeps our heads bobbing.  

A pastoral valley

 “Star 6 & 7 8 9” is a pastoral valley where chirping birds and fresh air fill us with tranquility. A light calypso feel eventually emerges with clean-toned guitar vamps, dubby bass, and funky hi-hats.  

Finally we come to “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From the Centre of the Ultraworld”. Its nearly 19 minutes of disorienting musical passages come together to form a suitably addled ending for the epic trip.  The backbone of the arrangement, in fact, borrows from Grace Jones’s “Slave to the Rhythm”. Pulsing, resonant synth sweeps come and go. Wild portamento glides take us heavenward. Disembodied sirens summon an unearthly choir. Gently pinging breakdowns, clanging church bells, and insectile bass pulses bring us closer and closer to where the action is.  

By the time the track, and album, have wound down, the listener is satisfied and untroubled. We are finally ready for sleep after completing our long journey.  

With this album, the Orb was just getting started. To date, Alex Paterson and co. have released 16 studio albums and a treasure trove of EPs, remix albums, and assorted compilations.  

Sonic psych-out

All seems calm and distant in the “Outlands” with calm drones, planes passing high overhead and waves lapping on the shore until at 1:33 a fractured and distorted robotic countdown breaks the spell . 

In their own words

“Weed should be legal & hash oil should be on the nation health service” (Alex Paterson, taking to Magnetic Magazine in 2018)

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