Whether you prefer to enjoy music in the privacy of your own home or surrounded by thousands of other people at a gig or in a festival field, one undeniable fact about the allure of the best and most timeless music is that it should have the power to transport you out of your everyday existence and into another, more enlightened and liberating realm.
Progressive rock has long been devoted to the notion that music should be much more than mere background murmur and that listeners should be willing to embrace a challenge or two along the way, and so there is a certain twisted logic to the way that prog found its most natural bedfellow during the somewhat fallow 90s, in the seemingly distant world of dance music and club culture.
Widely heralded as the ecstasy generation’s very own Pink Floyd, ambient techno pioneers The Orb blew countless minds with their startling and laudably indulgent debut album, Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, back in 1991, as they gleefully mixed the atmospheres, dynamics and limitless explorations of prog with the taut, precise and disciplined rudiments of dub, dance and wickedly inventive sample manipulation.
Tracks like chillout room staple Little Fluffy Clouds and the sprawling A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld slowed the momentum of dancefloor fodder to a soporific but beguiling pulse, coaxing knackered ravers into a seated position and offering them some much-needed down time as the sun rose. If you were stoned during the 90s, there was a very good chance that you would, at some point, have The Orb in your ears.
“We started off DJing in an acid house club,” says Youth, revered producer, Killing Joke bassist and a regular creative partner of Orb founder and driving force Alex Paterson. “It was me, Alex and Jimmy Cauty (also known as a member of pop-art terrorists The KLF), and that first Orb album was a little bit like our DJ sets. We’d be playing Steve Hillage’s Rainbow Dome Musick, and we’d play Marshall Jefferson under it, and we’d get other proggy stuff like Tangerine Dream, bits of Floyd and Jimmy managed to sample little bits of Dark Side Of The Moon and we layered them in.
"The whole concept of The Orb was using found music, and it was all sample-based and then it developed into being sample-enhanced. The whole idea was influenced by the Floyd’s sound and light philosophy, the show being as important as the band. It was ecstasy psychedelia instead of acid psychedelia, but there were really strong parallels between what we were doing and prog rock.”
“When we were DJing, it was an ambient thing,” adds Alex Paterson. “There was a new generation of kids out there and they didn’t grow up listening to Floyd or Free or Neil Young, so we figured we could give them something of their own. The ambient thing is a part of my upbringing, and my ambient schooling is Eno, definitely. Without sounding too intense, he’s my hero, in so many ways! Blimey, that bloke’s mind-blowing in what he’s doing. He’s so left-field.
"But because we were adding all this other instrumentation and we had a live drummer and the whole light show, people thought it was more like the Floyd. We didn’t want to be the main focal point on stage. We wanted something else going on around us, because we’re a bunch of ugly old bastards really! Ha ha!”
Across a series of highly experimental and imaginative records, The Orb became accidental figureheads for a vast wave of ambient or chillout music that was hungrily embraced by both the rave generation and many disenchanted fans of prog, space rock and electronic instrumental music seeking new ways to relax and drift downstream.
It also helped that Paterson and his cohorts seemed very fond of the grand but tongue-in-cheek gesture, with releases like the near-40-minute ‘single’ Blue Room (which was celebrated as the longest track to enter the UK Top 40 singles chart) and the quietly deranged Pomme Fritz EP showcasing a clear desire to mess with people’s heads and offer something a little more daring and mischievous than most mainstream pop and rock music.
“In our own little way, we’ve had a few Floyd moments,” laughs Paterson. “We’ve done the arena in Nimes with Underworld in front of 15,000 people. Floyd did Live At Pompeii, and we did a show in Copenhagen harbour, when we got a giant ghetto blaster on a boat and parked it in the harbour on an island and got the crowd to come out and watch us playing on another boat offshore.
"The lighting was so good that it closed down Copenhagen International Airport for six hours! We were national news the next morning, in all the Danish papers, because no one could fly out! That’s quite prog, I suppose! Ha ha ha!”
Fast forward to 2010 and it seems that after years of being regarded as the Pink Floyd of the ecstasy generation, The Orb have finally made the move that should forever cement the relationship between electronica and progressive rock; a collaboration with no less a figure than David Gilmour. Clearly a match made in prog heaven, this meeting of minds has resulted in a full album which is due for release this coming autumn.
“It was a little sneaky job, really,” says Paterson. “It was a bit like the record we did with Robert Fripp. Robert was supposed to be playing on a track on an Orb album and we ended up with so many parts that we formed a new band around it, and put out a record under the name FFWD.
"We’re almost like a part of the extended Floyd family anyway, because me and Youth went to school with Guy Pratt and he’s married to Rick Wright’s daughter Gala. People were putting The Orb up against Pink Floyd in the 90s all the time, even though we didn’t much want it at the time! Working with David just seemed to make sense somehow.”
Co-conspirator Youth has a similar connection. “Basically, I know David Gilmour through Guy Pratt, who went to school with me and Alex and has played with Floyd and on David’s solo stuff,” he explains to Prog. “I met David on a number of occasions and really enjoyed meeting him. He rang me up for some advice about a charity record he was doing for Gary McKinnon [the Glaswegian computer hacker who successfully infiltrated NASA and US military computers and currently faces extradition to the States and a lengthy prison term].
"He was going to do a cover of Chicago by Graham Nash, with Chrissie Hynde and Bob Geldof and some other big names. I was wondering how I could help him out with the whole thing, so I said ‘Why don’t we do a collaboration with you and Alex from The Orb? We could use samples of Gary and do a track for him that’s for the wired generation, rather than for the 60s generation!’ I’d written this Vangelis-type track and got Alex to put some samples and sound effects on it, and it was all perfect for Dave because it’s not too Floydy and not too Orb.
"We spent a day with David at the studio with his guitar, and he just plugged in and started playing and it became this 25-minute track. After Dave left, I thought ‘There’s so many twists and turns in this jam, we could stretch it out, put a few things in and turn it into a 50-minute album”, so that’s what I did!”
Due to be released under the banner of The Orb Versus David Gilmour, the album looks certain to be a high profile exercise in uniting the tribes and, with until further notice on any Floyd activity (see previous feature), arguably the closest that fans are going to get to new material imbued with the prog legends’ ageless spirit.
“As always with The Orb, it’s about mixing different elements together,” says Paterson. “It’s very ambient. It starts off very progressive and ends up on an electronica vibe. As experimental as The Orb is, to do an album with David Gilmour right now is a very good thing for us. It’s so different from all the other things we’ve been doing.
"I prefer to think of this record as more techy, more techno, but with very, very big sounds and Gilmour’s guitar, so there’s another umbrella of music going over the techno side of it all. Not many people have done that, except maybe System 7 and Hillage has pretty much got that thing in the bag, really.
"Someone said to me the other day ‘What a dream it would be to get Steve Hillage and David Gilmour on stage together with The Orb!’ and I said ‘Okay, but could we add Jimmy Page to that too?’ Ha ha ha! The first time I saw Steve Hillage he was on stage with Sham 69 at the Reading Festival, which was very strange! I was off my tits. Ha ha ha!”
In some ways, the collaboration between Gilmour and The Orb seems so natural and perhaps even inevitable that it’s hard not to wonder why it has never occurred before. For years there have been rumours floating around online that Paterson and his cohorts were to embark on some kind of wholesale revamping of the Floyd catalogue; an idea likely to enrage the purists but one that would thrill an even greater number of people. Sadly, despite the obvious kinship between all concerned, no such plans have ever been made.
“No, that’s never been on the cards,” says Paterson. “We’ve been through all that stuff years ago when there was an Orb remix album of Floyd stuff done by someone completely different who was raking in lots of money. You can Google it and see what I mean. It was a bootleg album and basically it was just mixing Little Fluffy Clouds over Wish You Were Here. There you go. But c’est la vie! It would be nice to do that properly, I must admit, but I can’t see it happening somehow.”
Of course, until anything to the contrary is heard, the prospect of live shows featuring David Gilmour and his new creative partners could turn out to be the most Floyd-like live spectacle to take place in the very near future. And given the reputation of both parties, when it comes to putting on a live show that delivers on every conceivable visual and sonic level, it’s no wonder that The Orb are salivating at the thought themselves...
“There were a few ideas about doing a big gig with a UFO angle and getting Gary McKinnon involved,” adds Youth. “We thought about maybe doing it at Roswell and getting David and Alex curating a festival line-up with The Orb and David Gilmour headlining. That would be amazing, so the doors are very much open for that! It’s a surreal situation for all of us, but it’d be great.”
“The whole thing is very much entirely down to David and the ball’s in his court!” says Alex Paterson. “We’d like to do some gigs. It’s up to him and there’s no pressure whatsoever, but ideally we’d like to do at least one gig somewhere special. We’ve thought of a couple of crazy places and so it’s just a matter of whether we can do it and whether David’s up for it or not.
“David, if you’re reading this, me old mucker, what do you reckon? Ha ha ha!”
This article originally appeared in issue 10 of Prog Magazine.