I realize it’s an oversimplication to label this album a “dance record,” but for argument’s sake, stifle what you want to say and hear me out. This is the other important dance album of ’91, and it shares all the same problems with Primal Scream’s Screamadelica. I’ll get to those problems in a moment, but I’ll first speak to the few, key reasons why this album receives a fair bit of attention:
1. This has a concept album and everyone loves them a concept.
2. This one progresses and everyone loves them progress.
3. Like certain songs off of Screamadelica that ended up on the dancefloor, this one makes use of standard rock instruments – ie. guitars, organic drumming – thus making an electronic record instantly more accessible to the rock kids who would’ve otherwise have made complaints about the lack of guitars and artificial drumming.
4. Like Brian Eno, who always gets mentioned when discussing the album, these guys might not have the first ones at the scene, but they were the first to be acknowledged as such, which means that there are a slew of positive adjectives (ie. seminal, influential, etc.) that can be used to put The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld on a pedestal. Off the top of my head, “Wichita Lineman Was A Song I Once Knew” from the KLF’s Chill Out from the previous year is better than every track here not named “Little Fluffy Clouds.”
5. ”Little Fluffy Clouds” is such a good song that I went ahead and listened to the entire record (and ended up disappointed) and went ahead and dived into the Orb’s rather large discography (and ended up disappointed). Unlike the rest of the songs on this album, “Little Fluffy Clouds” manages to pack all its details into a bite-sized amount of time: the harmonica sample that wails in the background during the interview, the bubbling beat that muses itself into the scene, the drums that briefly pop in and out before finally settling into its ridiculously lyrical rhythm, the descending three note melody that’s a response to when Ricky Lee Jones says the title words (ie. at the 1:31 mark), and how the music manages to capture and convey the colors that Ricky Lee Jones talks about; the best sample on the album.
Back to my original trepidation, the Orb knew full well they weren’t as capable at making dance music as good as their contemporaries, so they hid this fact by slowing down every song not named “Little Fluffy Clouds” and stretching them out. The result was that The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld was no longer just a dance album; it was also one to lay down on the grass and look at clouds to. Unfortunately, at least Brian Eno had the good will of writing memorable melodies before he had the nerve of stretching them out in his ambient period; unless you are high on something, you’ll definitely be checking at your music playing device every few minutes, just to see how much longer you have to endure the track without skewering your playcount on last.fm or Itunes because you’re just unhealthily obsessive and compulsive about that. Also: does it sound like the drum samples / drummer is banging out the same rhythm (just on different drums) on a lot of these tracks here or is it just me?
Anyway, the redundantly titled follow-up to “Little Fluffy Clouds,” “Earth (Gaia)”‘s vocal sample isn’t anywhere near as interesting, and all we’re left is listening to a skittering keyboard line and a second, shortlived one that sounds like a faraway gospel try to drive us through 10 minutes. On the other side of things, “Perpetual Dawn,” makes use of a nice ska guitar, but you realize musically, there’s really not much going on other than the that. It doesn’t help that I’m not fond of any of the few samples being used ad nauseum; the one that sounds like someone’s running their finger up and down their mouth sounds like it should never have left the playground, the one that’s a brief cackle sounds like it should never have left the B-Movie and that extremely brief sweep that wipes the palette sounds like it should never have left the studio. If they were going for a mood here, the three contrasting sounds makes whatever mood they were going for absolutely unclear. (The single version, titled the “Solar Flare Mix,” adds vocals, and it is [i]not[/i] better because of it.) Meanwhile, “Star 6 & 7 8 9,” the second prettiest track, fails to give me any reason to listen to it over Ashra’s “Sunrain.” My favorite song after “Little Fluffy Clouds” would probably be “Into the Fourth Dimension”: there’s a thin Asian string line that shows up at the 3:14 mark and an equally good synth riff at the 4:55 mark, both operating against what loud drumming before getting louder (at the 6:18 mark).
Now, I took astronomy as an elective in first year and aside from psychology, it was by and far the most interesting course I had taken that year (everything else was either English or business), and afterwards, I chose to take it a second time around (though my video game-playing days saw to it that I dropped out of the course in a matter of weeks). I don’t want to romanticize space too much, but there’s something about the possibility of possibilities – Is there life on Mars? – that makes space one of the most fascinating things in the world (I’d also like to submit that certain nebulae are probably the prettiest thing ever, and when someone asks me what I think God looks like, I think of a nebula. Probably because of Futurama, but that might be because the bearded guy from The Simpsons was a little too Zeus for my tastes). The whole album is set in space, as seen from the subtitles (“Earth orbit” to “Lunar orbit” to “Ultraworld probe” to “Ultraworld”) and these suggests progress themselves if the music didn’t; we’ve officially left Earth to the moon (as seen in the shuttle launch at the end of “Earth (Gaia)”, sent a probe out to the Ultraworld (as seen in the countdown sample that opens the second disc) and have finally colonized there in the album’s final tracks. On that, I’m slightly let down by the Orb’s vision of a new world: “Stars 6 & 7 8 9” and the live mix of their first single that serves as the closer feature birds chirping and a rooster’s cry respectively. I understand the concept of “cognitive estrangement,” of which all science fiction is based on; you need something old (cognitive) and something new (estrangement) for it to work, but it just seems too Earthbound. If more birds is all that space has to offer, I see no reason to leave this piece of pie.
You know, that is, until we’ve used up all of the Earth’s resources.