ORB Pommes Fritz (Island)

It's been a rough year for aficionados of "intelligent dance music" (not my terminology, I'm pleased to admit). First there was the Aphex Twin's, erm, minimal "Selected Ambient Works Volume 2", which most listeners felt proved nothing apart from the fact that Richard D. James had his head stuck up his ARP (I liked it, honest), and then Future Sound Of London's mildly received "Lifeforms" - twenty intros in search of tunes. But here come The Orb (or Orb, as they now like to call themselves), purveyors of fine quality ambient house, the genre they invented as a joke - they won't let us down, will they? Will they?

"Pommes Fritz" is their first proper studio album since the sublime 1992 work "U.F.Orb", and they describe it as a "little album", presumably alluding to the fact that it doesn't take up 18 sides of vinyl like most of their albums do. In fact, at a shade over 40 minutes it's almost the same length as the "Blue Room" single! Available at a "special price" (i.e. the sort of price all albums should be) and with that Orb seal of quality on the cover, it shifted enough units to enter the charts at number one (as did it's predecessor) before anybody had heard a note of it. So what's it like?

Um. New direction. They've stopped the "Lost In Space" schtick, and now appear to be trying to corner the Masterchef market with track titles such as "Pomme Fritz (Meat 'N Veg)", "More Gills Less Fishcakes", "We're Pastie To Be Grill You" and, er, "Bang 'Er 'N Chips". The music's changed too: having spent their entire career reversing into a sample-laden cosmic cul-de-sac they've now evolved a fresher, lighter, certainly less beat-laden approach that apes some of the people who started off by aping them - in places it sounds a lot like The Irresistible Force, with a calming voice stating that "You've just had a heavy session of electro shock therapy, and you feel more relaxed than you've been in weeks. All your childhood traumas have been magically wiped away, along with most of your personality" on almost every track. And strangely enough, that appears to be exactly what's happened to the Orb. This is difficult, challenging music - how could a track that consists of little else but a chorus of deranged dalek's chanting "We're happy to be with you, our listeners" be anything else? - and it's certainly alienated a fair proportion of their fans, but it's also different. Like the Aphex Twin's newish album, it's progress, and for that they should be congratulated. But only time will tell whether "Pommes Fritz" will turn out to be their "Led Zeppelin III". Brought to you by Island Records, incidentally - the label that dropped Julian Cope for being "too uncommercial". Ha!

FFWD>> FFWD>> (Inter Modo)

Ambient supergroup alert! FFWD>> features the combined talents of The Orb, longtime collaborator, and member of Berlin techno collective Sun Electric, Thomas Fehlman, and genuine "I've worked with Eno therefore I can instill instant muso credibility on your project" rent-a-rock-God Robert Fripp. A fine idea on paper: the thought of Dr LX and Thrash's top quality ambient noodlings being ripped apart by Fripp's jagged and ragged guitarwork is certainly tempting. And in practice?

With their, erm, experimental last album, "Pommes Fritz", The Orb appeared to be moving, with the dexterity of a wounded crab, admittedly, towards the lighter, brighter, mellower, quieter sounds of The Irresistible Force and his ilk, and FFWD>> takes another sidestep in that direction. Tracks like "Hidden" and "Lucky Saddle" are pleasant, drifting affairs that take about 10 million plays to recognise the riffs (but if you could remember what they went like it wouldn't be ambient, would it? Discuss). "Drone" is two minutes of exactly that; "Collossus" and "What Time Is Clock" are welcomely jarring percussion and clock destruction workouts respectively. The second album, however, is too ambient for its own good: it begins, it goes on for a bit, then it ends, leaving no impression, favourable or otherwise.

The questions prompted by FFWD>> include: What did Robert do? Credited with "guitar and treatments" on the sleeve, he seems unusually reticent (or absent) throughout the proceedings. Would you obtain the same effect by playing the second side of "The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld" and Fripp & Eno's "No Pussyfooting" simultaneously? Probably, except it might be more exciting. Has ambient music actually progressed since Eno (and Fripp & Eno) invented it over twenty years ago? Not on this showing. FFWD>> sounds a lot like both a missed opportunity and just another step on The Orb's journey to ambient nirvana.

ORB Orblivion (Island)

Trumpeted as the first half-decent Orb album in living memory (i.e. since 1992’s "U.F.Orb") and preceded by the shiny top-ten success of the "Toxygene" single, does their fifth studio outing live up to such titanic expectations? Well, the sleeve imagery would certainly suggest a return the other-worldly concerns: after the Heath Robinsonesque mechanicals on the cover of "Pommes Fritz" and the ancient maps that adorned "Orbvs Terrarvm", "Orblivion" comes dressed in a strange, sun-like design that on closer inspection appears to be constructed from eerie green portraits of Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and other such landmarks. The music within is certainly an improvement on the frankly bizarre, and often awful, muddle that Paterson and his alumni have been peddling in the recent past, being a return to the tinkling tinkering and occasional beat outbreaks that made (and makes) "U.F.Orb" such a compelling listen, and there are moments, such as "Molten Love" (which, like the Aphex Twin’s "The Waxen Pith", shoves a delightful melody deep in the background whilst all manner of clattering occurs on top of it) that border on lovely. But, in the hour or so that spans the opening "Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?" speech to the closing chorus of "The youth of America on L.S.D." that constitutes "72", with the exception of David Thewlis’ rantings sampled from the Mike Leigh film "Naked" that punctuate "S.A.L.T", there’s nothing that really engages. "Orblivion" sounds like the sort of work an Orb tribute band might produce if they tried their hand at writing their own material - all the little triggers that made "The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld" and "U.F.Orb" so fantastic - the goofy samples, the tinkling tunes, bass in abundance - are present and correct, but what’s missing, paradoxically to the ardent dance music detractor, is a sense of soul, a unifying purpose that whips all these ingredients into something truly great. Enjoyable as it may be to hear the Orb making music that’s actually worth listening to more than once again, they’ve still got a long way to go before they completely manage to synthesise their former greatness.

THE ORB U.F.Off - The Best Of The Orb (Island)

Like the Tindersticks album raved about below, here we have another unexpected but predictably wonderful compilation from one of the decade’s truly innovative bands. Unlike the Tindersticks, however, it’s some time since any Orb product has had more marketability than a blown fuse, which, along with seemingly the entire ambient movement currently looking like an elaborately unfunny joke, makes this reminder of what they once did very well indeed particularly timely.

In the light of a continuing stream of almost completely duff albums seems hard to remember that The Orb were once a pretty fantastic band, who in "The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld" and "U.F.Orb" have two deserving contenders for when the end-of-the-decade top 100s start rolling in in about twelve months time. Selections from both albums wisely feature prominently on "U.F.Off", but cleverly the compilers have usually selected rare mixes from singles rather than their more easily obtainable long playing equivalents, thereby making "U.F.Off" essential for both the beginner and the hardened Orb enthusiast.

Commendably, the whole 12 track shebang kicks off with the seminal "A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Underworld", the tune that debatably launched the ambient house phenomenon. Presented here in the very fine abridged Orbital Dance Mix (which, naturally, has nothing at all to do with Orbital whatsoever...) and co-created by KLF/Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu alumnus Jimmy Cauty (and coincidentally very similar to the sort of thing The KLF were doing at the time on their terrific "Chill Out" album), it also samples great swathes of Minnie Ripperton’s "Loving You", guaranteed to bring a smile to every right-thinking "South Park" enthusiast. As the sleeve notes, this one runs at 3,153,600,000 Beats Per Century! Next up is the Dance Mix 2 of "Little Fluffy Clouds", their second ambient house anthem, and the one that features Rickie Lee Jones discoursing on the subject of what the night skies were like when she was a child, it’s a wonderful tune that sounds as fresh now as it must have done in 1991; maybe even fresher, given that popular music seems to have been subsumed under the relentless sludgefest of Noelrock in the intervening years.

Other highlights include the inevitable "Blue Room", here tragically featured only in an abbreviated 7" mix rather than the fullest (of many) 40-minute version, but you’ll get the gist, and (again, unfortunately only in a radio-friendly foreshortened version) "Assassin", their entirely successful 1992 attempt to create something harder, scarier and squidgier a la the Aphex Twin. It’s unfortunate that they chose not to pursue this direction, as the weaker, wibblier moments from the later "Pommes Fritz" and "Orblivion" albums show. (The dismal "Orbvs Terrarvm" is wisely ignored completely). But you’ll still find here the original LP mix (from "Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld") of "Outlands", the uncharacteristically good newie "Mickey Mars" and the fab original version of perpetual Orb classic "Towers Of Dub", lifted from the ultra-rare "The Orb In Dub" EP.

So, in charting their wavering progress through almost a decade of fads and fashions "U.F.Off" maintains a steady but always interesting course that makes it effectively self-recommending for both the fan and the curious beginner. But don’t be put off by the tone of the packaging - including the drivel that purports to be sleevenotes of some kind, the decal on the back which lists the band members as "Paterson, Hughes, Fehlmann", ignoring the many others (such as long-time member Thrash) who helped push the Orb sound towards perfection in the early years and the defiant credit "U.F.Off U No Who U R", not to mention the cover photo of a giant index finger that looks as if it’s about to be launched into space by NASA. The work of bitter and twisted men? That surely can’t be what ambient house was meant to be all about, can it?