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.

Stream and Buy


On record: BE – One (Rivertone)


Ben Hogwood writes about the first release from an environmentally conscious label.

The first long playing release on Caught By The River’s Rivertones imprint, Be is the simply-titled moniker used by a group of musicians assembled to highlight the importance of the honeybee, their aim to provide a soundtrack for the UK pavilion at Expo 2015. The musicians, headed by Wolfgang Buttress, include the Sigur Rós string section Amiina, Jason Pierce of Spiritualized, Youth and cellist Deirdre Bencsik.

What’s the music like?

Extremely restful. The musicians of Be make their points with great subtlety, using field recordings to aid the imagination of natural sounds as they might be heard by the honey bees themselves.

The Journey, the first extended piece of nearly twenty minutes, begins with the clicking sound of the wren, the chirp of a singing robin and the buzz of the bees. Gradually shimmering strings come into view and a pure chord of C major is established, and then sits suspended in mid-air. The music is deceptive, for although it moves very slowly closer inspection reveals a lot of activity – rather like a beehive.

Bencsik’s cello comes into its own on the following piece Into, given expansive freedom over a soft, consoling piano phrase. Each piece of music is lovingly prepared, but given all the room it needs.

Does it all work?

Yes – this is music for the hazy atmosphere of a sunny early morning, requiring absolutely no effort to enjoy. For background listener it provides an ideal and lasting ambience, while closer inspection reveals the detail of the honeycomb in lovely technicolour. As you might expect from anything headed by Caught By The River, there are some beautiful images in the accompanying booklet, given the love and attention the music deserves.

Is it recommended?

Yes. A set of music that will calm even the most anxious of minds!

Listen on Spotify

You can judge for yourself by hearing the album on Spotify here: