Switched On – The Orb: Abolition of the Royal Familia (Cooking Vinyl)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The Orb need no introduction of course, being long familiar to admirers of ambient music since 1988. Theirs is an ever-changing line-up, orbiting the one constant of the equation, Dr Alex Paterson, and on this, their 17th studio album, Michael Rendall is elevated to the top table. He joins Paterson at the controls for a record including a number of starry guest turns.

Regular collaborators Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy (aka System 7) and Youth appear, alongside Roger Eno, David Harrow of On-U Sound, and – this being The Orb – a four legged friend, the Paterson pooch Ruby.

The album takes as its lead the royal family’s nod to the East India Company and its opium trade – both an inspiration and a protest against a movement causing two wars between India and China in the 18th and 19th centuries.

What’s the music like?

Lovely. There is little sense of explicit protest, and the guests all fit in to the overall mood seamlessly. The Orb have a very happy knack for matching quantity with quality, and even though it is barely a year since their last outing, Abolition of the Royal Familia sounds fresh and very much at ease in its own company.

At 77 minutes it’s a good stretch, but that gives the listener even more room to drift in and out of focus if required. Working together as Paterson and Rendall do means the door is never closed to a variety of styles and, very happily, humour too.

The speed with which Daze slips into a comfortable groove might surprise, a lead on which House of Narcotics and Hawk King build with their chugging beats. The latter displays The Orb’s familiar ambient house credentials as well as paying affectionate tribute to one of their most famous fans.

Gradually the tracks pan out and we experience more horizontal musical thoughts. Spacious intros provide warmth on a Californian scale, the listener allowed to bathe in consonant harmonies that drift back and forward like the ebbing of the tide. Shape Shifters (In Two Parts) goes further, adding a dreamy trumpet solo from 17-year old Oli Cripps, who Paterson met in his local record shop.

Also easing into the long form bracket is The Weekend It Rained Forever, a spacey, piano-led number towards the end, proving the ideal foil for the clattering breakbeats of The Queen Of Hearts preceding it.

Happily the band’s trademark collage of samples will make you smile, despite the inevitable rejection of a Prince Charles number. “We are WNBC”, begins Afros, Afghans and Angels, “the West Norwood Broadcasting Corporation. Streaming live to you whoever, wherever and whatever you are.” Yet a surprising and devastating payoff is saved for the finish. “Stay in your homes, do not attempt to contact loved ones or attorneys”, runs the key refrain of Slave Till U Die No Matter What U Buy, the Jello Biafra homage unintentionally marking itself out as an isolation anthem for our time.

Does it all work?

Yes. It is arguably too long, but with music like this duration is much less of an issue, especially with plenty going on around the perimeter on headphones. Certainly seasoned Orb followers will not see it as a problem. It could also be argued that Abolition of the Royal Familia does not introduce anything particularly new – again, not a problem, since The Orb always know how to reach those ambient parts few others can reach.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Abolition of the Royal Familia falls seamlessly into line alongside the recent additions to The Orb’s cannon, and has many moments of genuine bliss. It is like a sonic warm bath at either end of a trying day.

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Switched On – BVDUB: Ten Times The World Lied (Glacial Movements)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Life begins at forty, goes the saying – but that is the figure on which Brock Van Wey, or BVDUB as he is better known in musical circles, is closing in. That’s forty albums, too, an astonishing achievement when you consider the consistency of his ability to write pure musical ambience that also touches the heart.

Van Wey’s fifth for the Glacial Movements label has a provocative title, especially in these testing times for the world against which he rails. It has a powerful order to it as well – ten tracks, each of them recorded on the tenth of the month, recording ending ten months after it began.

For the first time Van Wey dispenses with vocals, letting his electronics and sound files do the talking.

What’s the music like?

Ten Ways The World Lied is incredibly descriptive, and also profoundly moving if heard at the right time and place. The slow moving musical motifs are often cast in the midst of thick, ambient clouds, yet there is a deep set feeling too that connects them closely to the earth.

Van Wey’s layered approach has a keen sonic beauty on headphones or on big speaker systems, the textures swirling closely around the listener but also allowing for an expanse of vast space.

Despite the titles there is no obvious protest element to the music, though it does feel very closely connected to primal and natural forms. Not Yours To See is underwritten by a lovely piano line, while Not Yours To Give sounds like a distant choir. Not Yours To Find is very richly textured, the sounds floating, while Not Yours To Keep pans out further, moving slowly but surely before a warmer swirl of sounds near the end.

Not Yours To Take keeps the soft harmonies but adds a lovely heat haze, and while Not Yours To Rule is similarly warm Not Yours To Break provides the ultimate resolution, a warm breeze that gradually settles on a beautifully held note.

Does it all work?

Yes. Once again BVDUB secures the deceptively difficult combination of simplicity and powerful expression, through musical content that moves slowly but can prove to be completely hypnotic and calming.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. An excellent collection of a producer who has been a deserved mainstay of electronica’s top table for more than two decades, and whose music can cover a wide selection of dancefloors. It should encourage listeners to delve even further into his considerable early output. I know I will!

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Switched On – Various Artists: Velvet Desert Music Vol.2 (Kompakt)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The idea behind Velvet Desert Music is to present a modern alternative to those wide-open vistas created in the 1960s and 1970s by so-called ‘Acid Western’ films. Jörg Burger is the man Kompakt have tasked with this musical vision, and after a successful first instalment he broadens horizons further with this follow-up.

What’s the music like?

Just as Burger would have wanted, the music for Velvet Desert Music is wide open and easy on the ear, but it is also refreshingly off beat and unpredictable at times. He operates with a freedom that allows him to introduce grooves like Paulor’s WE two thirds of the way through, bringing a chunky ’80s beat to the bottom of the big horizons.

Occasionally the percussion does get quite congested, but not in a bad way, as Michael Mayer’s opening track Not So Far Away confirms. After that the musical camera pans out, establishing an easier, four to the floor beat with The Velvet Circle’s Vertigo, before the soothing vocal of Charlotte Jestaedt wraps around Mount Obsidian’s Ride.

Elsewhere the offbeat grooves of Fantastic TwinsBetween The Dog And The Wolf and Sascha Funke’s In Der Tat have a glint in the eye, while a second appearance from Mount Obsidian brings maximum bliss with the Cubenx edit of Casa Delfines, before some attractive Krautrock-style noodling from Lake Turner/WEM/Hand and East County Lines. Burger weighs in with his own Velvet 77 mix of Pluramon’s Dragon Slayer, showing a metallic edge to the steel guitar and flecks of piano, before The Novotones close with the starry-eyed Angel of Doomsday, and its sotto voce vocals.

Does it all work?

Pretty much. Burger keeps things ticking over nicely, and there are several moments where the inner ear loosens up very nicely. The track choices are good, and the blend of contrasting grooves keeps things interesting.

Is it recommended?

Yes, especially if you found the first volume to your taste. The second Velvet Desert Music works equally well on headphones or on surround sound, positioned ideally as a collection to offer easy going respite. And that, after all, is what we all need right now.

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Switched On – Jimi Tenor: Ny, Hel, Barca (1994-2001) (Bureau B)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

NY, Hel, Barca are the abbreviations of the three cities Finnish producer Jimi Tenor has called home at some point in his life. They also form the title of a retrospective looking at his early career, a double album bringing together music made largely before signing to Warp. That means pride of place for Take Me Baby, the track that got him signed – but which we find is not typical of his output of that period. It is therefore up to Bureau B to give a balanced overview from his first six albums in total.

What’s the music like?

In a word, eclectic – but many more words are needed to do justice to the sheer variety of the sounds here. When Tenor (real name Lassi O. T. Lehto) embarked on his solo career in the early 1990s the presence of jazz was strong in his music, but this selection shows how he has used it to infuse a variety of genres.

Tenor can be something of a master in deep house (A Daughter Of The Snow), but thinks nothing of more wild, experimental musings like Tesla, where the saxophone takes centre stage. There is chunky and cheeky house, the best of which is a genuine anthem, Age Of The Apocalypse – and uncomfortably suitable for the present day, facing its demise but having a great time while doing so! Spell casts off its cares for a few funky choruses, Rubberdressing is as elastic as its name implies, while Sugardaddy throws a few glam rock rhythms into the mix. Then there is Take Me Now – still a deadpan winner 26 years on.

Does it all work?

Most of the time. Some of Tenor’s earlier productions show their age, especially the more salacious house tracks – but overall this is a really rewarding and stimulating collection of music. It is well chosen and well programmed, but shows off his original instincts. None of this music is routine, and a lot of it is really good fun.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. An excellent collection of a producer who has been a deserved mainstay of electronica’s top table for more than two decades, and whose music can cover a wide selection of dancefloors. It should encourage listeners to delve even further into his considerable early output. I know I will!

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This Spotify playlist very helpfully brings together all the tracks on Jimi Tenor’s collection:

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You can buy this compilation from the Rough Trade website here

Switched On – Caribou: Suddenly (City Slang)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Suddenly may well be an ironic title, given that it marks the reappearance of Caribou as a long playing solo artist for the first time in five years. The artist – aka Dan Snaith – has bewitched us with a number of solo albums blending instrumental electronica and a warm vocal. The last two under the pseudonym of Caribou – Swim and Our Love – were also released at an interval of half a decade, suggesting Snaith has a relaxed rhythm about his music.

What’s the music like?

There is a lot going on in the twelve tracks of Suddenly. Snaith loves to write layers in to his music, so that even the vocal tracks have a collage of instrumental riffs and colours backing them up. A lot of love and care has clearly gone into them, and a good deal of soul shows through too, Snaith coming across as a warm-hearted writer generous with his riffs and hooks. There are deep personal references, too, with Snaith’s mother appearing briefly on the opening Sister.

On occasion, however, he can be too generous. Some of the tracks start to get going but get chopped up and don’t get a chance to fully flex their muscles. It is possible that Snaith has included too much from his reported 900 experimentations that led to the album, as though desperate to cram as much in as possible. There are moments of real beauty in tracks such as Sunny’s Time, with the freedom of its meandering piano, or New Jade with its dappled textures, but they prove fleeting rather than constant.

Never Come Back is a definite exception, a warm and heartening synth-driven piece of positive energy, up there with Caribou’s best tracks. Ravi is up there too, as calming as the blue cover, while there are soft, rounded vocals with a rueful edge on Like I Loved You.

Does it all work?

See above. When Caribou nails a good track it certainly stays nailed – but on occasion there is a bit too much going on. The feeling persists that some of the more driven beats –  Ravi or Never Come Back for instance are where we see some real punch to the rhythms.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Even on an album that proves a little frustrating it is impossible not to be impressed or moved with what Caribou can achieve. He is a fine producer of some very optimistic and affirming music. Fans will lap it up for sure – but newcomers might be better directed to some of the albums further back in the canon.

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You can buy Suddenly from the Bandcamp website here