Richard Hell may have seen his as the blank generation, but it was Dr. Alex Paterson who assumed the mission of transforming his into the blankest generation with the ambient house soundscapes of the Orb. After roadying for Killing Joke, Paterson found his way into an A&R position at Brian Eno’s EG Records, where he somehow wound up merging Eno’s ambient systems with his own punk ideals and firm grasp of the burgeoning UK electronic movement to create-with the help of KLF-er Jimmy Cauty and an old Minnie Riperton record-a 23-minute genre-defining single, “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From the Centre of the Ultraworld.” With that, “ambient house”-as the single was cover-billed-was born. A seemingly lazy blend of Eno’s sound-as-wallpaper tactic, KLF’s frenzied sample theft, prog-rock’s meandering expansiveness and the effective dance grooves of the acid house scene, the Orb singlehandedly helped usher in a new, and surprisingly popular, way of thinking about music.
The partnership between Cauty and Paterson ended after the “Ever Growing” single (remnants of the collaboration — with Paterson’s parts deleted — were released by Cauty on the Space LP), yet Paterson carried the ideas of the Orb forward with Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, a double-disc set created with the help of Thomas Fehlman (Sun Electric), Youth (Killing Joke, etc.), Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy (ex-Gong, System 7) and Thrash (aka Kris Weston, the closest thing to a full-time collaborator Paterson has had in the Orb). Containing the surprising smash hit “Little Fluffy Clouds” (little more than a beat with an obviously wacked-out Rickie Lee Jones prattling on about youth in the desert: the song is also available on a six-mix CD EP) and the very house-oriented “Perpetual Dawn,” the two-hour set is filled with the sort of found sounds and homeopathic trippiness that had previously been the sole domain of new agers. Injecting danceable bits and electronic rhythms, Paterson’s creation became an entirely new beast. And, in keeping with the themes of sonic excess put forth on Ultraworld (ten songs in two hours), the album was followed by a pair of limited-edition reconfigurations, the most successful being Patterns & Textures, a CD that accompanied a live video of the same name.
Further upping the ante, Paterson (this time with help from Thrash, Jah Wobble, Hillage and Giraudy) released the mind-bending electronic space-rock of “Blue Room,” which, at 39:58, is the longest single to ever reach the top spot on the UK charts, and possibly the most amelodic song ever to chart anywhere. U.F.Orb continues on the course laid out by Adventures, containing both “Blue Room” and the stunning “Towers of Dub.” Although a live album may not seem like the most logical course for a techno artist to take, the four-LP, two-CD Live 93 is an amazing piece of work, showcasing Paterson’s remarkable hippie versatility and demonstrating that electronic music need not solely be the domain of pasty-faced computer programmers.
In 1994, Paterson abandoned the genre with both Pomme Fritz (subtitled The Orb’s Little Album) and FFWD (a collaboration between Paterson, Thrash, Fehlmann and Robert Fripp). The impenetrable gloom of the six vaguely angry Pomme Fritz tracks — all modifications of a central motif — and the modular systems-sounds of FFWD are neither danceable nor dreamable, and it is glaringly obvious that Paterson had grown weary of the music that he helped to codify. With the release of the nearly 80-minute Orbvs Terrarvm, the hippie electronica of early Orb seems to have given way to the onetime punk’s prior tendencies. All murky bottom end and sinister undertones, tracks like the piano-based prog swirl of “Oxbow Lakes” and the painfully psychedelic “Slug Dub” are merciless to casual listeners and certainly test the faith of even stalwart electro-experimentalists. And, even though Orbvs Terrarvm may not be the easiest ambient to listen to, it’s certainly refreshing to see the genre’s founder not content to simply rehash the same snooziness.