During his pre-gig interview, in between puffs on his herbal cigarette, Alex Paterson digresses in his thick cockney accent:
“I much prefer the idea of worshipping a stream or tree.” At the event, fan James McKenzie of Inverness explains the Orb’s enduring appeal whilst head-nodding to warm-up local DJ Fraser Smith: “You’ll hear plenty of animal noises…like sheep and that.”
The Orb at Ironworks was never going to be just another club night . . .
Orb epicentre Alex Paterson returned to the Highland capital on Saturday night for a wee set in his favourite country before jetting off to Germany to complete an album with Jamaican reggae king Lee Scratch Perry. Paterson has played Scottish clubs and festivals on countless occasions during his 22 years with the ever-evolving ambient house collective.
Paterson and KLF member Jimmy Caulty formed The Orb while DJing ambient and dub records in London during the acid house explosion of the late eighties. Their blissful, sample laden sets, combined with hallucinogenic light shows and visuals, were a soulful comedown from the harder repetitive beats of the ecstasy generation.
Green spinning laser lights scan the dance floor during the warm-up set as a lone rave warrior carves invisible shapes, ginger dreadlocks flying. Fraser Smith’s trippy, ambient beats – like the happier side of Aphex Twin – coax a mixed crowd on to the floor beneath the canopy. A few thousand-yard starers catch flies waiting for “the happening”… “the electronic Pink Floyd”… that is The Orb . . .
Paterson and current touring partner Thomas Fehlmann announce their return to Ironworks with enough bass to SHATTER the doors. The venue’s system is made for the multitude of soundscapes and samples to come. Space ships, aeroplanes and helicopters fly overhead as The Orb take off, launching into their single ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld’. Featuring a Minnie Ripperton sample from Lovin’ You, the sweet vocal soars through the reverb.
Ironworks is ready for a journey through time and space…
Currently on their tenth album, the group hit their critical and commercial peak in the early 1990s with ‘The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld’ and ‘UFOrb’. Singles ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ and ‘Blue Room’ broke the charts and brought The Orb in to the mainstream during a surreal period that saw Paterson appear in your average living room playing chess in a space suit on Top of the Pops. He vaguely remembers BBC producers taking offence at The Orb’s drunken challenges to a young Take That to a game of football in their corridors. Paterson also refused to conform to the BBC’s ideas of how to present electronic artists – as keyboard playing rave monkeys:
“They couldn’t get their heads round us in the beginning…you know we were just like fuck off, what’s your problem? We’re playing chess.”
Talking from his Bermondsey flat, Paterson reveals his father was Scottish and he’s proud of his roots:
“I’m not called Duncan Alexander Paterson for nothing sunny boy! I’ve had a few Glaswegians giving me the eye when I say I’m Scottish like “Aye right, you fucking bas” and I’m like “Have a drink and I’ll tell you about it” and by the end it’s like “Alright, you’re fucking Scottish!”
The Orb are happy to return to Ironworks having last played there in 2009. Their anglicised mad scientist of sound also has fond memories of Rockness 2008:
“Yeah we played there a few years ago and had a really good view of the loch. I’ve got this brilliant photo of me and four policemen there. I started taking photos of the loch and there was four old bill just standing there so I said “Alright mate, do you mind if I have my picture taken with you?” It looks like I’ve got a band of police…well; we’re all as human as each other!”
The Orb’s unique blend of house, techno, synth, dub and obscure sampling is loosely termed as ambient house. Paterson took his inspiration from experimental forefathers such as Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream. But reggae influences – King Tubby and The Abyssinians – are also evident in dub-infused Orb singles. Paterson was quoted in a previous interview as saying:
“I like John Bonham, I like Sly Dunbar and I like Brian Eno. I wonder what that all sounds like together? That’s what The Orb is.”
The current Orb performance is very un-ambient – it’s not just space music to sit tripping to. It’s definitely dance music and Ironwork’s floor is dotted with freaking groovers all night. Vocal samples and nature recordings creep in and out of the set – dreddy Haile Selassie quotations and early morning birdsong anyone? But a rhythmic thread runs through incorporating a melange of musical styles.
Paterson and Fehlmann are just visible behind their bank of electronic tools. Big screens above them project sky lines, fractals, rolling shapes and swirling patterns. The duo is as animated as the crowd, feeding off their energy, dancing as they are.
The music morphs from heavy dub to 303 big beat to out-of-sync techno while Native American chanting and cartoon themes drift in and out of the shared conscious. Hip-hop break-beats mix with rumbling steel drums before the sound is dragged through a tunnel until the familiar warbling sample from Orb single Perpetual Dawn brings everything back to dub. Definitely not a set for purists.
The hip-hop feel may be a surprise for a supposed purveyor of ambient-house. But less so when Paterson reveals he was a roadie on the UK Def Jam Tour of the late eighties, hauling equipment for Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys and Run DMC:
“I was a really big fan of all that as well. That really came out in the first Orb album where you can hear the hip-hop influence. Very subtly but it’s there. The rhythms are hip-hop. It’s almost like; by the way you lot were doing trip-hop before it was even invented…but never mind!”
Paterson’s music can be goofy, is often uplifting and always entertaining. However, having been a muso himself for over forty years, he is deadly serious about how it has evolved since back in the day:
“It’s progressed in a horrible fucking way. It’s mainly music for thirteen year olds. It all comes down to how beautiful the girl is dancing on the video nowadays. That’s the sad thing about music, it’s just sex music and the songs are sold by people who should really be doing things that are better than that.”
He is also critical of commercial artists that The Orb toured with early in their career:
“I don’t see what the Chemical Brothers have done for the world except make very happy music which you can dance to when you’re completely off your tits. That’s my own personal opinion. I saw them rise and rise and rise and my jaw was just falling more and more open. When you see things from an earlier perspective and you see them develop but they’re not really developing they’re just nicking the same ideas and putting them on their records. And they’re getting away with it!”
The anarchic feel to the Ironworks performance takes another twist when a cross-legged sitar player adds far eastern Bedouin rhythms to the mix. More snippets of speech can be decoded as what appears to be a woman chattering on a radio phone-in emanates from the speakers. Pink strobe lights and the Western movie harmonica hook from ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ indicate the start of The Orb’s biggest hit: Little Fluffy Clouds. And everyone is on the dance floor floating above the thumping beat.
The Orb’s Ironwork’s set ends with an anti-commercial explosion of gabba-esque thrash beats and coma-inducing flashing lights. A sample of a warplane circles the sound system before diving in for a final attack…but no one runs for cover. The hall lights come on instead and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain brings the performance to a close to rapturous applause.
Ironworks suffered in terms of attendance on Saturday night, partly due to a lack of promotion for an act that has fans across the generations. There was also the competition: Scottish techno outfit Clouds playing at Cake, and a far more commercial attraction on offer at the Northern Meeting Park in the shape of Boyzone. Those chosen few who did make Ironworks had fun with a band who have never been interested in corporate acclaim…and they were treated to an audio-visual set like nothing else on our own spinning orb.
Alex Paterson himself is unsure how to put a finger on his outfit’s enduring success:
“The Orb is engrained in the dance world and we’re not frowned upon as some kind of 1980s retro techno band or something. We’ve got a certain je ne sais quoi…which is nice.”
The Orb have still got it, whatever “it” is. You should have been there.