You probably couldn’t ask for a better time for a new Orb record than during a mass quarantine.
As much as the current pandemic has made music distribution and touring a harsh challenge for artists, you probably couldn’t ask for a better time for a new Orb record than during a mass quarantine in which one has nothing but time and pent-up anxiety to relax into one of their mammoth releases. Abolition of the Royal Familia, like so many of the group’s albums, stretches the limits of its formats, running nearly the length of a CD and well into the maximum allotment of a double-LP. Despite its running time, however, the album is as eminently listenable as The Orb’s best work, possibly their finest since 2005’s Okie Dokie It’s the Orb on Kompakt. Across its 78-minute runtime, it traverses a range of genres with a strangely cohesive logic that bridges house music, ambient, and various genres ranging from reggae to cool, noirish jazz.
Loosely divided into stylistically similar clusters, the record begins in pure house mode, with “Daze (Missing & Messed Up Mix)” and “House of Narcotics (Opium Wars Mix)” riding on shimmering synths bolstered by thick basslines that brace the melody like rebar as 4/4 drums pound a mid-tempo beat. R&B vocal samples make for rave-up good vibrations as the sound grows ever larger as more and more elements get added in. The Orb are best known for their ambient and chill-leaning music, but the first batch of tracks offers a reminder that Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann are every bit as shaped by decades of club styles.
This early stretch also introduces the album’s impressive ability to bridge wildly different tracks using samples and genres as connecting tethers. Consider how “House of Narcotics” maintains the opener’s house beat but switches up its synths into darting, staccato laser beams as the bass becomes colder and more austere. It’s still a dance track, but there is a new, futuristic element. That, in turn, leads to “Hawk Kings (Oseberg Buddhas Buttonhole),” which plays an excerpt about Stephen Hawking using a mimicry of the late scientist’s own speech program. And where “House of Narcotics” used some scattered samples of classical strings, here they become a core part of the composition, at first cut up into propulsive beats and then drawn out into full, legato passages.
“Honey Moonies (Brian Washed at Area 49 Mix)” manages to bridge old-school electro with ambient flourishes, at once kinetic and calming. The Orb’s long-standing puckishness with samples comes into full view for the first time on the record with an extended clip of one of punk icon Jello Biafra’s spoken-word comic monologues. Biafra’s ranting one-man show somehow transitions the record into its middle, ambient phase, starting with the gorgeous “Pervitin (Empire Culling & The Hemlock Stone Version)” using whirring vocal chants, gliding violin, scrambled field noise and blankets of synth tones to create a moment of chill tranquility that loses none of its relaxation even when a loud, extended sample of a woman speaking French is played over much of the track. “Afros, Afghans and Angels” sounds like someone surfing a radio dial, passing by static and talk radio until it stumbles across a station beamed straight from the cosmos, dragging in lilting strings and Blade Runner cyber-bliss into pure sunlit ecstasy.
Shape Shifters (In Two Parts) (Coffee & Ghost Train Mix)” takes the future noir into more explicit terrain, adding muted trumpet with oscillators and synth pulses for a mournful, starlit counterpoint to its predecessor’s shimmering joy.
If the final stretch of tracks shares any common aesthetic ground, it’s their unified unpredictability. “Ital Orb (Too Blessed to Be Stressed Mix)” blends reggae with zooming sound effects for an exaggerated, parodic approximation of being high that then spirals off into five different directions at once, blending harp trills, spacey ambient and house energy. “The Queen of Hearts (Princess of Clubs Mix)” samples tubular bell classical and weds it to classic jungle drum n’ bass, harking back to the genre’s early days as an anything-goes collision of influences over a mere show of speed. Yet despite looking to the past, the track is excitingly current, a reminder of how much long-abandoned or unrecognizably mutated electronic genres still have to offer.
There’s even an eerie bit of kismet in the final track, the ominously titled “Slave Till U Die No Matter What U Buy (L’anse Aux Meadows Mix),” an ambient outro that contains an extended, manipulated sample of another Biafra monologue that contains such phrases as “Stay in your homes” and “No more than two people may gather anywhere without permission.” The track’s burbling fade-out into hiss and tone clusters are blissful, but the title and samples allude to a coming collapse of order that may well be just on the horizon. The Orb have always been at the cutting edge of new developments, usually to be the first to tease them, but this is as uncomfortably prescient as they’ve ever been.