The music of The Orb plays like a dream. Vocals and samples float through the mix like phantasms. The songs feel like they could be hours or minutes long. The atmosphere they conjure is relaxing and mysterious. It’s music that could carry you if you laid down on the dance floor, bobbing along its surface like it’s the salt-heavy waters of the Dead Sea. For Alex Paterson, the huge ever-growing pulsating brain that rules from the center of The Orb, that dreamy feel is no accident.
Talking about his latest Orb-related side project on the phone, Paterson waxes lyrical about the relationship between music and dreams. “Music can conjure up different moments and sensations in your brain, even when you’re asleep,” he says. Collaborating with electronic composer Paul Conboy as Chocolate Hills, he wryly calls their sound “sleep music.” “It’s not entirely sleep music, but you could fall asleep to it quite easily,” the ambient music guru says with a chuckle.”
Performing for the first time at Orbfest in London, Chocolate Hills’ dreamy vibes hark back to the origins of Paterson’s long-running musical flagship. When the group dropped their classic debut The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld in 1991, Paterson and his collaborators beta-tested the record after going to bed. “Before we did the final mix,” Paterson says, “I said, let’s play it all back, and then go to sleep and see what happens.”
One can only imagine the kind of dreamscapes that The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld must have conjured up when it first hit people’s eardrums. A sprawling 109-minute masterpiece, it’s a sonic odyssey that takes listeners on a journey through psychedelia, electronic music, and ambient tones. It’s the Citizen Kane of chill-out music, synthesizing the innovations of ambient pioneers like Brian Eno, avant-garde composers like Philip Glass, the elastic spaciness of dub pioneers like King Tubby, and krautrock icons like Kraftwerk and Manuel Göttsching into a free-flowing mix of blissed-out music.
Listening to The Orb is like experiencing time dilation, that moment after you take psychedelics when your ability to feel the “normal” passage of time goes out the window, and perception accelerates or slows to a glacial crawl. Songs like “Little Fluffy Clouds” and “Spanish Castles in Space” capture the feeling of being trapped in a powerful high. You want to keep playing them over and over so you never have to come down.
While Ultraworld is a staggering achievement, Paterson hasn’t rested on his laurels. Working alongside an ever-shifting pool of collaborators that includes Killing Joke’s Martin “Youth” Glover (Paterson used to be a roadie for Killing Joke in the early '80s), The KLF’s Jimmy Cauty, Roney FM, Thomas Fehlmann, Roger Eno, and Jah Wobble, The Orb has released 15 studio albums over the last 30 years.
The Orb’s latest release, 2018’s No Sounds Are Out of Bounds, shows that Paterson hasn’t lost his knack for putting together heady ambient house tracks. While it still has the stoned cotton-candy melodies and nonsequitur samples that are an Orb staple, it also has allusions to more contemporary music (like J. Dilla homage “Doughnuts Forever”) and tackles broader political concerns and themes on “Ununited States.”
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“We have a certain bond with the Americans,” Paterson says, reflecting on The Orb’s enduring popularity in the U.S. “I’m not supposed to say anything yet, but we might be coming back to America next year in March, April, and May.”
Speaking of certain bonds: Paterson has a particular kinship with the Copper State.
“Our first show in the U.S.A. was in Phoenix, in 1999,” Paterson recalls. “My daughter’s middle name is Arizona.”