The KLF are one of those bands that are often more fun to talk about than to listen to; they acted in nothing but grand gestures, and if not for the people who were actually there, you’d think their entire history was made up. Like everything else in their discography, Chill Out is the stuff of legend; recorded with nothing but two DAT machines and a tape recorder, it was supposedly done in one continuous take, with the band starting over from the beginning each time they made a mistake. It relies heavily on samples from all kinds of disparate sources, including an Elektra sound effects disc, news reports, an evangelist, Tuvan throat singers, and a couple of songs you definitely know. And it singlehandedly invented a genre that hadn’t really existed before: music for the morning after, when your brain’s still conked out and scattering all over the place, but you still gotta get home. It can be broadly defined as ambient, though I won’t mince words there – Chill Out is one of the very best ambient albums ever made, the sort that’s made for the wandering mind yet manages to capture your full attention. Conceived as a journey from Texas to Louisiana (two states The KLF had never been to), it is an entire day’s drive in 44 minutes, scanning the radio dial with the windows wide open.
The coolest thing about Chill Out is that it throws out the ambient guidebook – in a genre that usually seeks to restrict itself, Chill Out is wide open. Most of the original music is electronic, but it gives a lot of space to Graham Lee’s pedal steel, the sole reason being that Bill Drummond liked the sound. There’s a floaty, ethereal vibe through the entire thing, yet most of the individual samples are harsh – trains passing by, loud boat horns, or the bleating of sheep. There are plenty of obscure “where’d they get that from?” vocal bits (thinking mostly of the preacher/televangelist on “Madrugada Eterna” and “Wichita Lineman”), but the most prominent samples are from Elvis and Fleetwood Mac. It even gets some strange “4th wall” type moments; bits of all three of The KLF’s “stadium house” hits show up at some point (along with a few other well-known KLF tracks), and Bill Drummond himself appears briefly in a “voice of God” moment. Even the (subtle) sampling of “Pacific State” toward the album’s end is odd, given that 808 State was one of The KLF’s main competitors and “Pacific State” was still very much a big hit at the time. The album feels as random and breezy as a drive through the countryside, yet there is a progression there – beats start to creep in as the album goes on. It all culminates in “Wichita Lineman Was a Song I Once Knew”, the album’s heaviest moment and climax, incorporating large sections of “Last Train to Trancentral” – though the album is clearly meant to be listened to as a whole, this is the money track, the one that gets me a bit choked up inside (“…and then I hear…”).
Where does Chill Out fit in The KLF’s discography? Though the album has a reputation as being an obscurity, a few cursory searches show it being arguably their most popular album now, alongside their smash hit record The White Room. I mean it’s not like you really hear the KLF’s big singles anymore, not to mention the whole deleting their entire back catalogue thing. You can make a good argument as to Chill Out being the first ambient house album, sort of a precursor to The Orb. But if you’re going down that route you’d have to mention the album Space, a Cauty/Patterson collaboration, though Patterson had his contributions removed through his insistence that The Orb was not viewed as a KLF-offshoot. Still, there is some lineage there.
Whether or not The Orb’s 14th album, COW or Chill Out, World! is supposed to be seen as a reference or possibly a sequel to the album is up for interpretation. Certainly there are some references to The KLF there – “4 AM”, “Moo Moo”, and of course the album title itself. The sound palette is quite a bit different – less “driving through the countryside” and more “floating around in a space station”, like everything else The Orb does. But the technique was much the same; finished quickly and full of thrift store LPs and field recordings, COW brings back the live, unencumbered feeling to their work that’s been slowly lost over The Orb’s career. Much like Chill Out, it’s a bit over 40 minutes, and works best when treated as a single piece, with the separate tracks doing little but divide the album up. Rather than trudge the depth of dub techno (as they’ve been doing since 2003), COW is designed as a straight-up ambient album, the sort which The Orb have never really done. It is the first Fehlmann/Patterson duo album that gets Fehlmann out of his comfort zone, and the change in thinking does him well. Without the pulsing kickdrum that dominates most of his work, he’s forced to create rhythm out of other elements, stringing together bits in different time through the use of clever loops. This leads to some interesting moments – a bass line in place of the kick (“4 AM Exhale”), repetition of lopped off musical phrases (“5th Dimensions”, “7 Oaks”), or acoustic instruments being treated in strange ways (“Wireless MK2”). Perhaps he’s not quite as creative as Cauty and Drummond were at their peak, but he’s got way more technical skill, and understands things like rhythm and cadence in a way they never really did.
It’s still effectively a collage though; samples of babbling brooks, birdsong, and crickets do make their way in, and the lush orchestral passages and Hawaiian guitar bits that The Orb have always been fond of make a number of appearances. It all gets a bit sappy sometimes (“9 Elms Over River Eno”), but the group never lets anything run too long – in fact this has got to be one of the least repetitive Orb albums, with most tracks moving through a number of phases. In that sense, it really does feel like a sequel to Chill Out; not only do the records have nearly the same runtime, but they both benefit from the sort of spur-of-the-moment decisions that keep the album fresh. If they feel short, you can easily play them twice for double the chill, or just listen to them back-to-back like I’ve been doing.
The fact that they’re making an album like this 25 years on from Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld is rather astounding – this is a group that’s been left for dead several times by the critics and many of their fans. Even when they’re good, they tend to draw reviews like “it’s their best since the 90’s, but who cares?”, and while that’s a bit unfair, you can understand where they’re coming from – The Orb were really special in the 90’s, which unfortunately puts a damper on their output of the 00’s, which was merely “good” (most of the time). That said, there’s a sense that The Orb may actually be making a real comeback here – they’ve had three releases in the last two years (including the Alpine 12″ released in March), and all three are well worth your time. In fact I thought Moonbuilding 2703 AD was one of 2015’s most slept-on records; usually well-reviewed records by 90’s legends get a bit more hype. If calling Chill Out, World! a sequel to a 26-year old KLF album gets people to listen, then so be it.