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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The Borrowers – The Orb: Little Fluffy Clouds

 

What tune does it use?

The third section of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint.

Ask any electronic musician worth their salt who their greatest influences are and the chances are it won’t be long before they come round to mentioning Steve Reich – which our interview with John Tejada has already confirmed!

Reich’s talent for taking pop-friendly melodies and looping them almost to breaking point (a technique often labelled as minimalism) has been one of the single biggest influences on electronic music up to this point, especially in techno, which often uses similar principles of repetition and expansion.

How does it work?

The Orb use a direct sample of the first recording of Reich’s Electronic Counterpoint, a piece written for guitarist Pat Metheny in 1987. He recorded it by setting down seven channels of guitar loops and two of bass guitar, before playing along as a tenth ‘person’. Yet The Orb place this music in context with a beautiful dub bass line and a host of ambient sound effects, most notably a clip of an interview with Rickie Lee Jones. The section of music they lift from Reich comes from the third section of Electric Counterpoint:

The Orb sample it directly here, as the beginning of their ‘chorus’:

and again nearly a minute later:

Here is the whole of the third section from Reich and Metheny, sat in the same key of A major:

 

What else is new?

Little Fluffy Clouds came to symbolize a lot of what was right about the so-called ‘ambient house’ style of the early 1990s, which acted as a springboard for Aphex Twin and a number of today’s leading electronic producers. Reich himself got involved later on, commissioning a remix album from such electronic luminaries as Coldcut, DJ Spooky and Four Tet. Here’s a remix of a section of Reich’s masterpiece Drumming by Mantronik:

The cross-over between Reich and techno goes back a long way too – and one intriguing spot is that Japanese producer Ken Ishii – now a widely respected techno artist – played cello on the first recording of Music for 18 Musicians, made for ECM in 1978. Now if you haven’t heard that particular piece, I suggest you stop what you’re doing right now and watch this!

Or you can go some way to sharing one of the great live experiences in music in this live performance:

Likewise if this is your first encounter with the music of The Orb, I should direct you towards their Top of the Pops performance of the wonderful, peerless Blue Room, heard in edit form below. Definitely the first band to play chess on the program!