“What is the magic that makes one’s eyes, sparkle and gleam, light up the skies”
I knew that The Orb used this sample (from Raymond Scott’s “Lightworks”) somewhere, and it bothered me for a long time because I could never quite work out where. I thought for sure it was on either Cydonia or Bicycles & Tricycles but I listened to both of those and came up empty. Turns out I was wrong; it was used by the Transit Kings, an Orb offshoot that I had completely forgotten about. I guess I can’t really be blamed for that – despite their marketing as a “legendary supergroup”, the Transit Kings never really gained any traction. Maybe because they weren’t really a supergroup, but rather The Orb’s B-team, featuring main Orbman Alex Patterson, founding member Jimmy Cauty, bassist/comedian Guy Pratt, and occasional collaborator Dom Beken. Granted, Jimmy Cauty was still kind of a big name, given that he had been rarely heard from since the KLF so spectacularly exploded in 1991, but in true Jimmy Cauty tradition, he split from the band before they’d had much of a chance to record anything.
The main problem with the Transit Kings is that they came at the wrong time – ambient house and electronica were still somewhat alive when the group formed 2001, though both were clearly on the way out. Not to mention the Madchester sound, which heavily informed their style, had been dead and buried for nearly a decade. Living in a Giant Candle Winking at God was released five years after that, five years that were not particularly great for The Orb, with each subsequent album rallying little but cries of nostalgia for what The Orb used to be. I guess the only people really paying attention were the diehards, and people like me who had recently discovered them. It’s a shame too, because this album is quite good – way better than the lukewarm reviews (to the extent anyone even reviewed this album) would have you believe.
First things first, this is not exactly The Orb by a different name. Not a lot of ambience here, in fact the tracks don’t really get a lot of breathing room at all. Most likely this is the result of a long gestation period – some of these tracks are remarkably busy, full of drum breaks and funk guitar, with guests on nearly every track. No clue how many samples there are – “Japanese Cars” lifts a bit from YMO’s Xoo Multiplies (which, above all else, is a reason to love this album), but apparently all the vocals on “Free Free” are original (which surprised me), and even the “Lightworks” bit on “Concourse” is a re-recording and not an outright sample. The question, then: who’s playing this stuff? Dom Beken seems to get a credit for everything: drums, guitar, harmonica, vocals, mixing and engineering, making me wonder if this relatively unknown chap is responsible for the bulk of this. Guy Pratt also handles a bunch of instruments, which is odd from someone I’ve primarily known as a bassist. Patterson’s influence can be felt; mostly through the samples of old sci-fi programs and news broadcasts, and Cauty…well who knows? Either way, it’s not just some sort of supergroup toss-off, but rather an earnest attempt at a new band.
That said, there is no “Transit Kings sound” – each track is its own thing. The opener “West End of a Duck Going East” starts as a soundscape but quickly transforms into frantic techno; otherwise there’s blues, funk, gospel and some trip-hop, all just sort of pieced together. In a sense it’s simliar to some of those Madchester records in the way they just pick and choose what works, but with a bit less cohesion. It very much sounds like an album that was completed a couple years prior, but dicked around with so much until it because stuffed with extraneous parts. I’ll be honest: I don’t actually mind this so much. It’s certainly at odds with the sort of looser, free-floating productions the Orb specialized in, but at the very least each track here is memorable. Granted, it does cause sections to drag – “Free Free” is burdened by a middle section full of breakdowns and ill-fitting bridges, which is unfortunate because the tune is otherwise fantastic – the clear centerpiece of the album.
As far as individual tracks go, there are some real corkers – “West End” and “Free Free” of course, but also “Oh Shit” (which drops an excellent hook out of nowhere) and “America is Unavailable”, which features Johnny Marr on guitar and veers extremely close towards My Life in the Bush of Ghosts territory (“Help Me Somebody”, if you’re wondering). All these tracks are rather chipper – the melancholy stuff doesn’t quite work as good, pleasant as it is (“Baby Don’t”, “Wagon Wheels”). There’s a single (“Boom”) which careens all over the place; half meditative trance, half big beat, I’m not quite sure how well that one works. But it is wrapped up by a rather great closer – “The Last Lighthouse Keeper”, which features Simon Day recounting a life story which starts out harrowing and quickly turns hilarious.
At the time, I remember reading that this album was banked too heavily on nostalgia – the sounds here mostly hearkened back to the early 90’s, even if the production sounded modern. I guess I never bought too much into criticism like that, since good music is good music, and about half of this is really great. But it does explain why the group promptly went nowhere – they’re still technically “active” but it’s hard to imagine them putting the work into another album like this, especially when you can just slap “The Orb” on it and sell a lot more copies. Of course, the Orb are still around and still pumping out some quality stuff (that is generally being ignored), but I wouldn’t mind seeing them take another leap like this someday.