Astronaut’s Report: It feels good
Consider this: 25 years before The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld was released, Pink Floyd were an R&B act who had yet to release a single record. The Orb’s status as “the Pink Floyd of the 90’s” certainly gathered them a lot of attention – I suspect their label loved it – and the group themselves were more than happy to play along. 25 years on and Ultraworld feels just as classic as the good Floyd albums do. Granted they never sounded a whole lot like Floyd, but they did hit the same vibes. Mellow, psychedelic, and trippy, they were the band of choice for strung-out teenagers and exhausted ravers alike.
In retrospect they were brilliant; not that they were particularly talented, but they had a great idea: ambient music that you could actively listen to. Not plinky-plonk notes to put you to sleep or a soundtrack for a deep-tissue massage, but rather something with character and depth. And samples. Lots and lots of samples. Certainly there is a lot of original music on here, but at the same time, The Orb were cribbing from everything they could get their hands on, including nature documentaries and interviews, sound clips from NASA, news reports, and little pieces of movie soundtracks. Plenty of religious overtones, though nothing specific. It all gives Ultraworld a bit of freshness, something that makes it sound a little different every time you hear it. You remember the way the tunes go but there is something nebulous about them. Nothing with a distinct beginning, middle, or end, but rather pieces of a long DJ session, full of decisions that nobody remembers making.
Through it all, there is a sort of narrative which ties everything together. Woman lies on the ground staring at the clouds, and soon through some sort of drug or magic sees herself floating above the Earth in all its glory. She gets launched off the surface and hurtles into outer space and beyond, past beautiful landscapes and enormous Spanish castles, eventually crossing into the Fourth Dimension. Once there she meets the ruler of the Ultraworld, a gigantic floating brain which starts going haywire. Also, at some point she joins a reggae band. Or something. Maybe this is all just an afterthought, who knows. But it’s a journey, which is exactly the point. It is the rare CD-era double album, with two full hours of music. Even in the age of electronica this is quite long, but rest assured that it is an easy listen. Like most ambient music, you don’t really have to pay attention; unlike most ambient, it helps if you can. Worried that a 2-hour ambient excursion might not exactly fly off the shelves, Universal cranked out a single-disc edition, with a couple of tracks yanked and a couple others replaced with their more single-friendly versions. Don’t buy this one – get the original and the Perpetual Dawn single which contains the alternate mixes. Ultraworld is the sort of album that needs to be heard in full, even if not all at the same time.
Like a lot of classics, the circumstances that produced this album are a bit hazy and not exactly easy to replicate. What started as a joint collaboration between Alex Paterson (The Orb’s one consistent member) and The KLF’s Jimmy Cauty wound up a sprawling effort that included a member of Killing Joke, an 18-year old studio engineer, and collaborations from Steve Hillage, Trevor Horn, Andy Falconer, and Guy Pratt. They were young, they were brash, and they didn’t care if they got sued. Hell, they probably didn’t make any money from the damn thing, even though it sold quite well for a double album. At the time there were a bunch of difficult, drugged-up Brits making music beyond their talent (think Happy Mondays, Primal Scream, or The Stone Roses) and frankly The Orb were no different. They were on to something and they knew it, and more importantly the labels knew it too. The industry dicked ’em over and The Orb dicked ’em right back. As it should be.
Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld still holds up, which is great because electronic music from this era ages in dog years. A lot of that is because it focuses more on the samples than the beats, which are mostly the same sort of tick-tock 808 rhythms that everyone else was using, plus a bunch of sampled drums. But mostly it’s because the thing still feels like an adventure, the rare album that not only justifies its two-hour runtime but actually shines because of it. Back then it must’ve felt like we were about to get a deluge of albums like this, but even in The Orb’s own discography, Ultraworld stands alone.
For the most part that’s because the tunes here are formless; outside of the kick-off track, the ready-made single “Little Fluffy Clouds” (still a wonder in its own right), there’s not a whole lot of structure. Most of the tracks just float around, repeating some motif over and over against a barrage of samples phasing in and out. It’s effective since the melodies they come up with are often shimmering and gorgeous (“Back Side of the Moon”, “Star 6 & 7 8 9”) or remarkably chill (the upright bass line that fills “Spanish Castles in Space”). Even the stuff that resembles house music falls within the dub side of the spectrum (“Supernova at the End of the Universe”, “Perpetual Dawn”).
But make no mistake, the money’s in the pure ambient tracks; specifically the last two on each disc. Though a number of electronic artists were making similar music it took some guts to abandon the beat like this. Granted they’re still there, but they’re usually minimal or just phase in and out (“A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From the Centre of the Ultraworld”). It works because they give you so much to hold on to – though there’s plenty of space in these tracks, they’re deceptively complex, with so much going on in the background that you can devote your full attention. For example there are something like seven different threads running though “Back Side of the Moon”, but no clear structure. “Spanish Castles” and “Star 6 & 7 8 9” are more like actual tunes, even featuring a good deal of repetition, but they work because they have a certain meditative quality to them. And then you’ve got “A Huge Ever Growing Brain…”, the album’s grand finale, which is almost something else – a long piece that somewhat wildly careens around several different disparate sections, always threatening to break into a four-on-the-floor jam (and at some point it actually does). But that’s what The Orb do so well; they blur the lines simply because they’re willing to throw so much into the mix.
It’s those blurred lines which really turn this album into a classic – unlike a lot of their contemporaries, Ultraworld doesn’t really focus on a specific sound, mood, or style. The Orb’s vision of ambient is so much different than the soft, propulsive beats of Aphex Twin or the minimal note clusters of Brian Eno – rather it’s often a full-on sound college, punctuated by some actual tunes here and there. The lack of focus is what makes the album; while many of the groups influenced by this attempted to parse something more concrete out of it, they wound up losing the important part – the journey. Certainly it doesn’t all work – the “Europe Endless”-imitating “Outlands” strikes me as particularly droll – but I like the immediacy of it all. It plays more like a live set than a studio album, in that nothing gets overthought or too planned out. 25 years and dozens of plays later, there is still an unpredictability in this album that you just don’t find in their contemporaries. Sampling law being what it was (instead of what it is now) certainly allowed a lot of creative things to happen, especially in the hands of groups that had nothing to lose. Luckily The Orb have stuck around to the present day (in some form), and though I’d argue they’ve made albums better than this one, Ultraworld is always going to be their moment beyond the sun.