Thursday, March 10, 2016
So last November I discovered the 33 1/3 books — a series of chapbook-length reads, each deep-diving a single album. The works they cover run the gamut from the Beatles’ Let It Be to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros soundtrack — just perusing the list on their website makes for an interesting read. Christin and I spent Thanksgiving tucked away in a cabin out in the middle of nowhere near the Catskills and had nothing but time to kill, so I read a couple: Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II (by Marc Weidenbaum) and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless (by Mike McGonigal). Each felt like a long magazine feature, offering up back story about the artists, bits of interviews with key players, track-by-track discussions of the albums themselves, and cultural/historical context. Good stuff.
(A quick aside: I found it interesting just how little I knew about the artists behind these two albums. I know each pretty much note-by-note, beat by beat, from start to finish. I love ‘em — and they were both integral to my adolescent formulation of what good music was. But Richard D. James? Kevin Shields? Ambient music scenes in the early 90s? Noise rock in the late 80s? I grew up in Austin, which has a lively music scene, but this stuff might as well’ve been happening worlds away. I picked up some broad strokes about these people and scenes — stuff I’d gleaned from the occasional article that would crop up or bit of biographical information a friend was circulating — but not much detail. I mean, I got into SAW2 soon after it came out and got into Loveless in 1996 (relatively late for that 1991 album) — both times (essentially) pre-internet, pre-social media. Obviously pre-Wikipedia, pre-Twitter. Fan sites existed. And magazines. But musicians and artists weren’t yet the hyper-accessible trans-media properties they seem like today. It’s easy to argue that a little mystery about the individuals and scenes these albums sprung from might’ve actually made them more compelling and interesting. Not having details lets the mind go wild. But. Lately I’ve also enjoyed pulling the curtain back a bit and getting a taste of the Official Story.)
Anyway, it turns out the guy behind the 33 1/3 series, Marc Woodworth, teaches writing at Skidmore College — including classes such as “Writing Rock.” And in 2015 he released a book called How to Write About Music, a collection of readings, writing assignments, and little educational/inspirational bon mots from other professional writers, all organized as one might organize a writing class. So I’ve been chewing through that. And really getting into some of the pieces. Some highlights: Charles Aaron’s live review of Hole performing their first show after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Kim Cooper’s track-by-track review of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Luke Turner’s article culturally situating (and defending) the albums of Enya, Thomas Sayers Ellis’ interview with Bootsy Collins, and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s profile of Axl Rose. That’s a long list. It’s a good collection.
And so. I actually think it’d be fun to try to write one of these short 33 1/3 books. But I’ve never really attempted to write about music before. Odd, maybe, given my backgrounds in both creative writing and creative, uh, musicianing — I used to run live digital music events and performed “laptoptronica” (as the kids called it) regularly while living in Austin, if you weren’t aware. But the two disciplines rarely intersected for me. And I’m not really a music historian or anything. When I listen to stuff, my musician’s ear always has me picking apart why the sounds work together, what creates the energy, the mood, etc. Cultural context, artist biographies, funny stories about the recording process — that kind of stuff sometimes flies over my head. Maybe that’s my programmer’s mindset: trying to understand things by disassembling them into their atomic functional parts. Or maybe I’ve just been blind to a major element of the musical-cultural experience. Regardless, I’ve decided to try something new, here, and tackle a writing prompt and write a track-by-track album… review? Not really a review. Reaction. I’m picking out and album and listening to it a few times straight through while I write.
I selected an album that fit three criteria:
The title of this post gives it away, doesn’t it? Okay: Orbus Terrarum by the Orb. (Dear Spotify, “Orbvs Terrarvm” looks silly and makes the album hard to find.) The album came out in 1995, my junior year of high school — just as I started becoming seriously interested in electronic and ambient music. I read a quick review of it in Rolling Stone magazine, I recall quite clearly, and bought it soon after at Waterloo Records down on 6th and Lamar — my neighborhood record store. I actually found it quite opaque at first, but stuck with it and eventually it grew into one of my favorite albums. I mean, here we are.
Going into this, I actually know few of the official details of the history or production of the album. Or even who, exactly, made it, apart from the fact that “Dr.(?)” Alex Paterson was (and remains) the key member of the Orb. And I actually kind of prefer it that way, for now. Maybe if I land that lucrative book deal with 33 1/3 to write a short book about Orbus Terrarum I’ll dig into that stuff. Here I’m just taking the album at its sonic face value. Reacting to it. Playing around with it. And offering maybe a slightly different way of thinking about how to listen to it yourself — maybe how to deconstruct it into something more manageable if this kind of music isn’t really your bag. Or maybe this’ll just be a silly failure of an experiment and I’ll just wind up embarrassing myself.
The Orb’s 1995 ambient/dub album Orbus Terrarum is clearly about “place.” The Latin name (“The World,” roughly) alludes to global maps of the Renaissance, the time when rudimentary medieval mappae mundi were giving way to cartograms with increasing detail and realism that actually made their blank spaces that much more interesting and mysterious in contrast. Orbus’s cover art is exactly this: Renaissance-era maps with a golden optical illusion that spells out “Orb” if you squint right. I love this packaging (but then I’ve always been a bit of a geography nerd). The tracks titles are all relatively simple place names (apart from the final oddball, “Slug Dub”). And the overall sound is obviously quite naturalistic, in spite of the computers and synthesizers used to create it. Wetness. Marshes. Frogs. Animals. Sunlight. Nature, of sorts. But tempered with the harsh and mechanical. Gears. Metal. Robotics. In actuality the album’s quite subtle, maybe even a bit self-same — it waffles between a few distinct moods, but I actually find it kind of tough sometimes to pinpoint exactly which track is which. The big vocal samples are signposts (“Get back in,” “Listen to the radio,” “The slugs!”), but otherwise the album’s tracks kind of blur together. They’re long, for one thing, averaging eleven or twelve minutes a pop. And there’s certainly very little that could be considered catchy or melodically memorable in the pop music sense, except maybe a couple of the dub bassline grooves or the chintzy piano sequence that kicks off “Oxbow Lakes.” You can’t exactly hum these tracks. But if put your head into that sound (literally: use headphones) a rich, layered landscape opens up —peaks and valleys, rhythmic alignment and disjointedness, sonic expansion and contraction, abrasion and moments of calm. And the overall arc of the piece becomes clear: From serenity and anticipation. Into motion. Tensions between the natural and the mechanical. Clash and explosion. Aftermath. Epilogue.
The whole idea of an album that could create a cinematic, environmental experience was a bit mind-blowing to a teenaged Josh. Obviously I had been very exposed to pop music and various flavors of electronica (which in the early-mid-90s was still mostly fairly simplistic beats/synths/samples stuff). I had been getting interested in more freely formed ambient or “sonic wallpaper” albums, psychedelic chill-out stuff like Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 and more “academic” thought music like Brian Eno’s Music for Airports — stuff that could really be anything, structurally, and often worked best as a kind of soundtrack for other activities. Despite often wearing the “ambient” tag, Orbus Terrarum sounded the opposite of this waveform wallpaper: It’s intensely textural, but the sound fills everything. It’s sound as environment. As light. As objects in space. Filling space. The Orb certainly weren’t the only ones forging this path — the Future Sound of London’s Lost Cities, for example, offered a similar but more urban post-apocalyptic sort of experience. But Orbus really stands alone, as far as I’m concerned. It’s an important album. And not just for me personally, but also as a work that pushed forward and opened up the possibilities about what this new electronic music for the 90s and beyond could be. Not just throbbing, repetitive dance music. Not just weird experimental tone poems and background frequencies. A cinematic world of sound.
Hit play now.
A rocket engine igniting, a sleek train disembarking, a dreamy submarine plunging into the deep — or some combination of the three… “Valley” launches us on our voyage into the mysterious terrae incognito of our yellowed and time-worn map. A hazy voice from mission control chimes in authoritatively over the intercom: “Get back in.” After a couple of minutes we slip the surly bonds of the mundane world and the sonic space opens in a shimmering metallic and burbling dub rendition. This is our first introduction to the pulsing alien landscape in which we’ll spend the next hour or so. Over the next few minutes we get plants and animals. A jungle. Dripping leaves. Whistling birds. “We are in complete harmony,” a new voice informs us about three minutes in. “We have learned patience in 200 million years.” (Leonard Nimoy, fun fact.) Then a thrum, our bridge into a chunky departure from the sleek sound of the first half of the track — mud, heavy wood. And then after a minute or so, a return to the original silky dub groove. “Valley” world-builds, sets the scene. It paints a portrait of a clockwork world. The Orb extends the comfortable laid back sound and groove of traditional dub, erecting around it an electronic scene in which those dub elements can live like a characters. The insects, frogs, and bird warbles allude to Lee “Scratch” Perry’s habit of vocalizing animal coos over his warm, smokey tracks. The sound is happy. Content. So far, so good. Eventually the sound fades into sparkles and light looping melodies, the bass line that’s held us together so far loosens up and we fade into an old familiar favorite…
A jaunty announcer breaks in like a big band leader on Mars, amplified by a club sound system half underwater. Even if you’re not familiar with the Orb’s oeuvre, you’re hopefully becoming aware that they don’t take themselves completely seriously. I mean, they’re serious from a production standpoint. (Alex Paterson is a doctor, after all. (Not really. (I think.))) Each sound on Orbus feels meticulously crafted. But the Orb ain’t above producing the sonic equivalent of dorm room black light posters or weird kitchy psychedelic shit you’d find at your neighborhood 90s-era head shop. The Orb’s productions of this era are oddball stoner whimsy at heart. Stacked on top of meaty beats, of course. Anyway, after the vocal aside we’re dropped back into the world introduced in “Valley.” But now in a clearing, an open space. (A plateau?) It’s lush and beautiful, but on an edge. Flashes of light. Froggy sounds in a distant marsh or bog. We can see quite a distance. The rolling dub bassline from “Valley” rejoins us three minutes in and catalyses the disparate sounds into a soft-edged groove. The world shines. We’re going somewhere. Silvery hi-hat and metallic samples fill in the gaps — our sleek silvered future train, again — along with the dub bass and delay-echo drum patterns that characterize the whole album. Over the many minutes of “Plateau” the looping textures come and go and twist around in relatively subtle ways. You can lose yourself in the detail of the sounds that occur in the very background, behind the overt bass and percussive mix. The layering and depth of sound in Orbus is incredible. (And I sure-as-hell hope you’re listening along on good headphones. For heaven’s sake, this is not an album to be enjoyed on your little Jambox Bluetooth speaker thing.) We’re traveling, as if on a train made of the lightest metals — a machine of percussion and bass coursing through wet and hazy nature — nature which exists on its own but is also uncannily in resonance with the rhythm of the machine. The scene slowly mutates, transforms. Then at nine minutes in we get chopping vocal samples and the whole effect becomes more tightly constrained sonically. More mechanical. A touch claustrophobic. A tunnel? A factory? Transition. Was the halcyon picture painted earlier to be trusted? Should we be alarmed at the ramping intensity and wailing voice refracting through the scene? “Plateau” ends with a somewhat deconstructed version of the basic rhythm of the track. This angular, robotic version of the previous dub bass sequence hangs around until the last 45 seconds or so and then we’re open back up into sunny synth string stabs and light-weight metals. Back to peace.
Orbus Terrarum oftentimes gets categorized as “ambient” — understandably. But “Oxbow Lakes” is the second track in a row that starts with a jarring scene change (and it won’t be the last). Ersatz piano, this time, which stands out as simplistic or child-like against the detailed mix that characterizes most of Orbus. As a genre, ambient generally avoids these sorts of jarring moments. But that’s not what this album’s about. Whatever else they may be, the Orb have always been first and foremost in my mind a dub outfit. The basslines. The echoed drum tracks and stoner silliness. And the best dub kind of plays at being both “ambient” music and having textures and sounds that pop up in the forefront and give you elements to actively listen for. I mean, you can put on Orbus quietly in the background and it won’t necessarily distract you (I’ve on many occasions done homework to this album), but unlike most ambient it requires a close listen to truly appreciate (yes, reiterating this point for the jillionth time). And beyond that, as a “concept album,” it rewards deep listening and experiencing the overall structure of the piece. And I think these attention-grabbing bursts a part of that. Listen up! Here are some cheesy fake piano sounds. Or a strange sample of speech. They definitely give your brain something to latch onto when first listening to the album. They divide the work into chunks. And while the Orb might not be taking themselves totally seriously, they are making an effort to craft contrast and drama as we transition from this drugged out synth piano strain into a more complex sound almost like the rumble of internal organs. Digestion. But, again, robotic. And not sexy Ex Machina robotic: These are massive pneumatically-powered constructions moving as if just barely under control of themselves. Wobbling iron giants. Although soon enough — around five minutes in — the scene begins to change once more. Another passing threat? A bassline begins and the piano makes a return, but softer. A blinking counterpoint melody takes the foreground this time. Something very much like computers. Logical sounds floating in the haze of the world.
Montagne D’Or (Der Gute Berg)
We’re jarred aware with another sample — “…leaving for Constantinople tonight…” — ear-ticklingly flanged and phased. And then the curtains open to a sparse and burbling pond of sound with little more than a twangy county guitar to keep us connected to civilization. We sit for a minute and then float into a lush, symphonic wash of pads and synth strings. Voices echo around, hard to understand. But adult. Male. Vaguely paternal. We sit in this still place for a few more moments — sounds ebb and flow, more digital bayou than mountaintop. But we’re not yet going anywhere. About four minutes in: A bit of quiet, then something like a clock-radio alarm or an electronic phone ringing (but not a cell phone — it’s 1995). A starkly urgent mechanism in contrast with the languid scene we’ve seen so far. It compels us to move. With determination, but not afraid. Into battle. The previous two tracks have offered soft-edged previews of conflict between the natural and the mechanical, but now we’re going into the shit. The sound becomes a pulse of focus washed over with vectors of echoes and delays. And then. Around six minutes into the track, a monstrous relative of our friendly dub bass co-traveller from tracks previous pounds into the scene. It runs alongside our fleet metallic train with an entourage of burbling flies and insects. This bass isn’t threatening, necessarily, but it is massive. Seven minutes in, war drums signal another change in mood. Then warm horns of alien mysticism. A reprieve. Calm yourself. Before the voices. And then the bomb drops: It’s war. At eight minutes into “Montagne d’Or” all hell breaks loose. The dub bassline plays the role of enemy machine, not just out of control but smashing and stomping beats over everything else in the sonic frame. The silvery metals are harsh and banging. War horns blast from the sides. Machine parts beat against one another. Noise. Stress. The machines begin to come apart, rhythms break down. Iron limbs flail. Collapse. Until we’re left with an abrasive and almost entirely inorganic feedback loop squealing in our heads. Are we done? Is it dead? Are we dead? Are we safe? Cables snapping. Acceleration. One final release of energy: A damaged, lopsided missile launch into up into the night sky. A harsh metallic explosion far above the land.
White River Junction
…And the inevitable return to earth. The remains. Fragments. Chunks falling from the sky. Splashes in the soft marshy life. Quiet again. A paternal voice speaking with the calming authority of a self-help tape: “You have a deep and sincere respect for yourself…” Soon a new, female voice enters, providing a counterpoint: “Listen to the radio.” Looped over and over, eclipsing the male speech. (Both samples come from the track “Listen to the Radio” by plunderphonics band the Tape-Beatles, by the way.) This second voice is more enticing. Subversive. A bit sexy. But also artificial: Just a bit of tape playing through and then rewinding with a hiss. Given the abstract story of nature versus the machine that I’ve tried to concoct, we might interpret this as the machines taking another angle on winning the day. Their physical forms from the end of Montagne D’Or destroyed, they now resort to psychological warfare. Setting up one voice as clearly manipulative and fake, but then introducing a second voice as if to say, “That voice is just trying to manipulate you — listen to this second voice. It knows what’s real and what’s not.” A false flag. But we’re not buying either. After a couple of minutes we leave the voices and come upon another sonic clearing — serene with sunlight and burbling creatures, frolicking, splashing. Nature. Then the silvery hi hat metals from tracks past rejoin us. As does the “Listen to the radio” loop, faintly — more in the background this time, integrated with the beat. A precursor. About four minutes in, the halcyon groove mutates harshly. “White River Junction” follows the template of previous tracks: Starting easy and traveling into scenes of increasing violence and intensity. Flashes of harsh light forebode the change. The machine finds its body again. A fat acid bassline stabs into the scene amidst other tympanic sounds of factories and mechanical organs (stomachs and hearts, not Hammonds). The machine grows. But this machine feels somehow more friendly. By six minutes in we’re still bumping along to this awkward, lopsided groove, but it doesn’t feel threatening. Maybe because this contraption’s not out of control. Thick chunks won’t fly off and crush life. About six and a half minutes into “White River Junction,” the machine sort of stops. The acid bass belches are sill with us. The looping voice commanding “Listen to the radio” returns. Percussion drops away. And with two minutes left in the track, we transition again into a sunny synths chord progression. We’re safe for now — this excursion into danger didn’t go quite as deep as before. The track ends with a third vocal sample, an hypnotic description of a descent deeper and deeper into sound and sleep… “Each sound around you carries you deeper… Deeper in sound and in sleep…” Fade out.
“Occidental” initializes with a howl and machine rumble — a taste of the loud grind and rumble that comprises most of the track — washed over with wind and water, taps, and slices of voice. This holds for a moment and then revs into motion: A rave for forty-foot robots. Large banging beats. Size. Laced with rays of light and sunshine. The fits of industrial-digestive rumbling, again, as if our titanic dancers are also fighting to hold together their form. Three minutes in we get fragments of humanity — a plea for help, some loop referencing Mississippi. They last just a moment before dissolving into unintelligibility. And then the over-large rave returns. Although it remains both powerful and unstable, unable to keep its power up in face of the myriad competing sounds. Five-and-a-half minutes in and we’ve fully decayed into a banging sort of four-on-the-floor. And then a reboot back into our main groove. Given my “battle” theme, this track is odd. It’s machines pretty much straight through. The natural scenes elsewhere on the album — swampy frog-filled marshes, for example — don’t appear at all. About six minutes in, the rhythm fatigues and disassembles. For just a moment before catching a second wind. By eight or nine minutes in, though, the situation has clearly deteriorated. The aggressive, animalistic bassline thrums along — like a tiger pacing back and forth in a cage. Counterpointed with a processed guitar effect sounding almost like the bray of a large land mammal or dolphin on Venus. Has our new continent been scorched to nothing? Did the machines win? This new space sounds organic, natural — but not wet and lush like the jungles earlier. This is a dry and barren landscape. You can’t live here. The final few minutes of “Occidental” put a period the of the main sequence of Orbus with a final shock of sound that zips around and seems to finally rip the world apart. At the end of the track, the entire thing compresses violently to a single point. With one final creepy voice sample. The end.
Almost. Ah, the slugs. I consider this track an epilogue more than a denouement. We’ve had an intense experience. We got through it. Let’s get weird. Obviously this track stands out from the other tracks by it’s name: “Slug Dub” is merely descriptive (a dub track with some slug-related samples) and doesn’t point to a place on our map of Orbus Terrarum. Much of the general timbre and instrumentation matches what’s found all over the rest of the album, of course. But “Slug Dub” is framed by a single strange story about the eponymous slugs, seemingly (or maybe actually) taken from what sounds like a British radio show for young children. It’s cute, in that rather surreal way that makes sense for children but rings somehow sinister for adults: Babies, mothers, and grandmothers. Setting traps with Thomas. Sluggy laughs. Lettuce. Little Tim. And such. (I can’t find the original sample, but the Internet seems to think it’s from a radio play called “Billy Bobtail” from the BBC Home Service in the 1960s. Alex Paterson was born in England in 1959, so entirely possible he heard this as a youngster.) (Also, Miles Davis’ “Calypso Fremino” (from Get Up With It) is sampled underneath the vocals. Which I only mention because the Orb have noted Miles Davis as being a favorite and you can pick out his influences in their sound outside of actual samples. (Another fun fact: Parts of the bassline in “Calypso Fremino” sound very, very much like the underworld soundtrack from Super Mario Bros.) Anyway. This odd story continues for a minute or two, ending on an angelic and sort of mysteriously extra-terrestrial note. And then into the “Mariah” section, a light and airy segue that mutates into a bumbling dub march with synthetic kettledrums laying melodies on top — and our old friends the silvery metal hi-hat cymbals from elsewhere on the album. Four minutes in and we’re stripped down to a relatively tight and minimalist (for Orbus) groove — although we haven’t fully escaped the sea of background burbles that wash around even the lightest parts of the album. Halfway into the 16-minute track we’re still rolling on this copacetic dub groove. At 8:40 things begin to break asunder. The synth kettle drum still makes appearances, but the dub bass and percussion have gone gritty and distorted, maybe a bit bit-reduced. Until around ten minutes, when we really start dissolving into something else entirely. The beat totally fades out and the sunshine strings return. We reach the end of our slug tale. The slugs eat the lettuce leaves. “Sweet music while we eat.” A happy ending? Or not? Do you feel like reading anything into the choice of the slug sample? Would you like to make some bold interpretation? Is there any? Or is it just shallow weirdness?
We can ask this about the whole album, as well. Is there actually something deep happening in Orbus? Does the structure mean anything? Have I read entirely too much into it? Would the creators corroborate any of these images I’ve described? It’s entirely possible any unifying theme I’ve noticed just comes from the musicians natural ebbing and flowing of the sound — that any seemingly overarching “narrative” is just something I’m adding on my own, like a stoned teenager focussing in on some trippy poster and reading deep philosophy into it. “This means something.” But it doesn’t. Which is actually kind of besides the point.
So a couple of years ago I attended a conference here in NYC called “The Future of Storytelling.” I loved it! And I’ve probably told you stories about it, if you know me in person. But I remember one group conversation at one of the panels. About abstract narrative. Can a rollercoaster (for example) have narrative? Most people in the room seemed to argue “no” — without concrete details (character, place, conflict, plot, etc) narrative can’t exist. But I disagree (in a way that helpfully now defends my strange notion of spending time over-analyzing this album from 22 years ago): The power of abstract narrative is that it allows exactly what I’ve done. It provides a framework of emotion and energy — the human mind will want to fit concrete details to that. The brain can hardly help it — we see humanity and stories in damned near everything we experience. A rollercoaster (or an instrumental song) triggers your brain to fill in the blanks. Which is neat. And can be fun. So whatever: Maybe this is all a waste of time. But I think it’s a neat way to kind of pick apart the album. Even if my idea that the album kind of depicts a struggle between the natural and the mechanical is a bit forced, just going through the exercise has given me a chance to really give Orbus a close listen. And maybe it’s given you a new way of hearing the album. Or an entry point to hearing it for the first time. Which, even if you think I’m totally off-base, well, at least making that judgment requires actually thinking in detail about the sound.
At any rate. 12 minutes into “Slug Dub” and we’re back into a nice calm valedictory dub groove. We’re approaching the real end, here. With two minutes left the album begins its final descent into normalcy, sobriety. Fits of hallucination still attempt to loose themselves, dub bass, echo-delay drums. But nothing hangs together. Eventually the world of Orbus Terrarum breaks down. And it’s just us, again. Sitting around at home with the headphones on. Maybe in need of a snack.
I'm Josh Knowles, a technology developer/consultant on a variety of mobile, social media, and gaming projects. I founded and lead Frescher-Southern, Ltd. I grew up in Austin, Texas and currently live in New York City.
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