The Orb COW / Chill Out, World!

[Kompakt; 2016]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: nostalgie concrète, minimalism, Music for Films
Others: The Dice Man, Steve Reich, La Monte Young

Throughout their almost three decades of existence, The Orb have seen very few consistencies. With a rotating cast of members including Jimmy Cauty, Martin Glover, Kris Weston, Andy Hughes, Simon Phillips, and Andy Falconer (in addition to regular involvement from Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann), the act has flirted with dub, Big Beat, trip-hop, and psychedelic music, all with the sort of ceaseless productivity that’s given rise to 21 full-length releases and a seemingly infinite number of singles and EPs. Throughout the era, The Orb have always felt defined by a certain frenzied entropy, jumping between aesthetics and traditions, a limitless outgrowth in all directions.

If any regularities can be said to exist, they lie in the act’s ability to pull the somber, restorative qualities from a bleary variety of sources into tracks that look outward, wide-eyed and blissful against the madness of contingent trends. From the gentle chimes of U.F.Orb’s “The Blue Room” to the skittered synths of Pomme Fritz’s “Alles ist Schoen,” they have always shied away from dance music’s heaviest moments, opting to instead engage with a milder, more detached impressionism more akin to rhythmic ambient house. It’s a contrivance that’s earned them a place in every “chill-out room” since the term came into fashion and helped in part to put the “I” in “IDM.” But most notably, it’s a style of production that’s set them apart as a certain type of downtempo DJ, one that prioritized the comedown over the massive heights of house music’s grandest moments.

Following last year’s Moonbuilding 2703 AD and their Alpine 12-inch this past March, COW / Chill Out World! is arguably The Orb’s most mellow record to date, marking a shift from the techno button-pushing toward minimalism’s most conspicuous composition. With a sullen, studied restraint, “Wireless MK2” babbles over the sounds of wind and water, with soft synths weaving over warm, restorative drones, reverse piano, and phased dub horns stretched to a time-shifted breaking point. A sort of deconstruction of the sounds that have dominated early singles since the act’s beginning (think “Asylum” or “Perpetual Dawn”), the track scrubs each element to its most essential essence, slowly assembling an acoustic collage more indebted to Fripp & Eno than anything from their back catalog.

A careful survey of all that makes drone resonate beyond the studio, “5th Dimensions” hits new highs for The Orb, channeling gelid auras into a subterfuge of static-y bliss. The track’s tempo and pitch edits are done without regard for the meter of an additional looped sequencer, veering into a sort of R Plus Seven terrain that transcends rhythmic classification and cadential intonation. With a metered Reichian dissonance that forces together sampled inconsistencies, the track feels tame, sterilized from its roots in the avant-garde to still deliver a well-sculpted, almost New Age composite. “9Elmos Over River Eno (Channel 9) crashes with a similar conflict, layering shuffled drums and a Fantasia-worthy orchestral loop over a stereo split between flat, familiar forms.

As the limits of tape music (or tape-imitation) feel near, COW makes no claims to reinvent the wheel. Yet its heightened attention to detail marks a new focus for the duo, who, with less tools than ever before, manage to find a sound that’s wistful, wide-eyed, and surprisingly full of sounds new to the act, if still par for the course within the wider realm of contemporary composition. Far from the wonky origins of London’s drugged-out dub, COW finds the pair settling into Kompakt’s adult contemporary roster: far from foreign terrain, yet now with more mellow objectives. And for a pair this prolific, a little bit of “chill” might for once do them good.

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