Available on: Cooking Vinyl LP
It has been a very long time since The Orb produced an album that was genuinely influential. Indeed, in the fifteen years since Orblivion, arguably the group’s last decent (and underrated) LP, main men Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann have ventured into not-particularly-inspiring techno on Kompakt, God awful pop music and even worse collaborations. However, with their latest effort, The Orbserver In The Star House, a long-playing collaboration with Lee Scratch Perry, one could (hesitantly) suggest that the prospect is not yet off the cards.
The Orbserver In The Star House is essentially an electronic dub pop album. This has been explored a lot by the group sinceOrblivion, yet nothing has matched its compacting of the sprawling, epic journeys of Orbus Terrarum into thick, richly layered and bubbling sci-fi pop. By contrast The Orbserver… is built of a much simpler palette, but more successfully executed than their experiments of the ’00s. In fact, title and Perry’s occasional musings aside, there is a distinct lack of The Orb’s cosmic preoccupations on this album, the duo having almost entirely removed this style in the course of collaborating. Instead, combining the organic and the electronic in a manner similar to DJ Olive’s Bodega and Flying Lotus’ Los Angeles, this is a reasonably narrow-view modern dub affair.
Throughout the record rich, loping percussion and blocks of vintage reggae samples are subjected to digital stretching and chopping, giving a subtle crunch, buzz and clatter to snippets of material and what are often field recordings of Perry striking wood, stones and metal. Successfully applied to a distinctly rural sound in places such as ‘Hold Me Upsetter’ and ‘House Of The Orbs’, it shows The Orb keeping up with fairly current trends. The construction of tracks in shorter, pop-length numbers turns out to be hit and miss, however, with fractious, blocky arrangements causing songs to unexpectedly lurch into new territory that is sometimes confusing or a poorer choice.
The group’s dated nature does also, predictably, make itself known. The majority of this is in dated rhythm samples, often quite reminiscent of mid-’90s trip hop. ‘Go Down Evil’, for instance, an otherwise engaging example of haunted dancehall, is entirely betrayed by its simplistic hip-hop beat. The similarly cheesy-beat-and-guitar-chop pairings of ‘Thirsty’ could quite easily have been juggled in a different way to make it more interesting.
More than anything, these unsuccessful elements are found when The Orb decide to lean heavily into pop clarity, always, it seems, to the music’s detriment. So while containing some nicely chosen contemporary synth chops, for instance, ‘Golden Clouds’, a dubbed reworking of the group’s seminal ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’, sounds too friendly – friendly enough to be used on a mobile phone company advert kind of friendly. This bright, Mr Scruff-like tone recurs often through the album’s bursts of samples and arrangements of rhythm tracks and it is hard not to wonder why they do it or whether they are even aware of it.
As it stands, however, The Orbserver In The Star House is honestly the best record The Orb have produced in over a decade. Lee Scratch Perry always provides a genuinely enjoyable, relaxing presence, bumbling his way throughout the record in a way so agreeable you often forget that he’s there. However, what the project really needs is more of the vibe of ‘Congo’ – a satisfying, lo-fi approach to rolling, African drums with hi-fidelity, hi-register synth pads and subtle, shuffling chords – or the simplicity and darkness of penultimate track ‘Ashes’ (ironic, given it is the shortest track on the album).
The Orb and Lee Scratch Perry could aim much higher, and get much deeper and more serious than this; some kind of Orblivion or Orbus Terrarum meeting the latter artist would have been more captivating and fitting for the three men concerned. However, it is satisfying – almost a relief – to see potential in this record for something more from the group.