Somewhere in London, 1991; Alex Paterson and Kris Weston are brainstorming ideas over tea and illicit substances: “I’ve got it! We’ll make an album of near-formless glacial soundscapes, mid-tempo house rhythms along with the meandering and unpredictable structure of the mood-swings of a pubescent manic depressive! That’ll reach number one in no time!” “You’re a genius! Throw in a flute solo and you’ve got yourself a deal!” No, seriously. I care more about the social lives of the moths in my basement than chart positions, but the fact that ‘U.F.Orb’ reached number one in the UK charts is both refreshing and lightly bonkers. Of course there’s more to this record than what I described above; in fact there’s a lot more. I’m sitting here, at 1:37 in the morning and can’t sleep because of an unwise caffeine intake and absolutely nothing sounds better than ‘U.F.Orb’ right now. It may be the perfect insomniac’s record along with The KLF’s seminal ‘Chill Out’. It’s unconventional as hell; the melodies and beats themselves share the limelight beside intriguing/bizarre samples, trippy/bizarre production and enveloping/bizarre atmospheres. Only two of the seven tracks are under ten minutes long and yet somehow it doesn’t outstay its welcome. The opener ‘O.O.B.E’ with it’s glinting background off-key melodies and its meandering sleepy flute solo sets the listener up for the rest of the record: it seems to build and build so gradually that you think it must be reaching some massive climax but then it tails away and you realise, it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination; the destination is over-rated. It’s like going on the best cruise ship you’ve ever been on… to Lithuania; why would you want to get off the boat anyway? The tracks are usually separated and peppered with spatial ambient sounds and out-of-place samples which make the whole thing even more unfocused as if you’re slipping in and out of consciousness between vivid dreams. The superb 17 minute epic ‘Blue Room’* appears here in a shortened (!) edited form; the original single edit is just under forty minutes and remains the longest single of all time (it reached number 8 in the UK charts. What the effing hell??). Over-blown garbage you might think? Fortunately, ‘Blue Room’ is transporting, subtle and overall brilliant and trippier than a fleet of purple hippos falling down the stairs. Quirkiness invades in the form of ‘Towers of Dub’ with harmonica solos, cheap barking-dog sound effects and a prank call by Victor Lewis Smith; once again, it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. Neither does the almost-danceable ‘Close Encounters’ and the sun-burnt drift of ‘Majestic’. The reason why is that they don’t expect you to pay close attention. Play it in the background and drift in and out when you see fit and it rewards more and more with further spins. Prog-rock-ambient-house-techno… It’s near indescribable and sounds totally ridiculous on paper and yet it works so well.
You have to pick your moments as to when you listen to ‘U.F.Orb’. Once you’ve given up trying to sleep; when you’re lying on a cold sofa recovering from sunstroke; when peacefully drunk with a few close friends: these are some tried-and-tested methods but there are plenty more out there. It’s something of an aquired taste for some, but it is a superb, daring record that reveals new depths and levels play after play, plus it side-steps pretentiousness by adding an over-riding sense of humour. One of the best dreams you’ve never had.
Key Track: Blue Room
Listen to this: when you don’t feel like sleeping.
*The Orb also performed ‘Blue Room’ (the 3 minutes short version) on Top Of The Pops. The band thought it was pointless, so, during the performance, the song played in the background whilst they played chess.