It’s been a long and successful year for The Orb; one that’s seen them tour extensively in Australia and the USA, whilst also consolidating their relationship with Koln-based label Kompakt, releasing a second album in the space of 16 months on Michael Mayer and Wolfgang Voigt’s imprint. The 10th of December marks their last UK date of the year and takes place in The Marble Factory, a warehouse space in an area of Bristol that’s become a paradise for music lovers, given the adjoining warehouse is the nightclub Motion, currently attracting some of the world’s biggest underground DJs to the neighbourhood.
Like many modern Orb shows, the gig is billed as a performance of existing material – in this case, debut album Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld and this year’s COW offering. Most of the crowd, a little older and more alternative than at other similarly-sized Bristol gigs, have seen the duo before and know what to expect… live, The Orb improvise.
Taking to the stage unusually early, the duo quickly settle into their groove: precisely, one underpinned by spherical beats, quirky samples, dubby basslines and tribal percussion. At times, it’s a little too close to house music for some in the crowd, who perhaps were expecting to hear facsimiles of their favourites on record. But for most, the band’s fluidity and the sense of the unexpected outweigh any downsides of ignoring a note-for-note run through.
The first half focuses on their classic album. It’s not the first time in recent memory the band have played …Ultraworld “in its entirety”, a treatment also recently given to U.F.Orb, their other early-career highlight. Predictably, the standout tracks are the best known: ‘Perpetual Dawn’ snakes in and out of the mix with its juggernaut, half-step Jamaican inflections; whilst the biggest cheer of the night is reserved for ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’, sounding surprisingly light and airy amongst its dubbier counterparts.
The Orb’s live set-up these days seems to rely on Thomas Fehlmann’s laptop to do the heavy lifting, providing a regular barrage of micro house clicks and congas. This frees up Alex Patterson to work the mixer and dedicate himself to adding textural elements from vinyl: we’re predictably treated to Minnie Ripperton’s ‘Loving You’ during ‘Huge Ever Growing Brain…’; less expected is the Beach Boys’ close vocal harmonies during ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’. At one point in the second half of the show, Patterson really surprises the crowd when, second-time of asking, he actually mixes in his source material (in this instance, Eminem’s ‘Without Me’ acapella) in time with Fehlmann’s pulsating grooves. Quite why Patterson’s use of samples in the live environment is so chaotic is something of a mystery, given this author has seen him perform solo DJ sets that attest to his abilities to beat match.
The interval sees the pair exit the stage, leaving a stripped back, streamlined beat, capable of soundtracking people’s trips to the bar in their stead. The Orb return, indicating it’s time for a run through of Chill Out, World! alongside some classic material. Billed as the band’s most ambient album for years, in reality, COW sounds as in thrall to J Dilla and hip-hop as it does to the KLF’s Chill Out and other ambient opuses. Favouring the meatier moments from the record (‘7 Oaks’ being one standout) the pair again weave a mesmeric four to the floor kick throughout their set and the crowd respond with whoops and cheers to each new bassline, hi-hat part or space echo effect.
The sound engineer provides sympathetic mixing that has the venue sounding more like a living room than the brick floored, brick walled shed that the Marble Factory has sounded like at times in the past. That illusion is furthered by immersive visuals that marry kaleidoscopic, psychedelic imagery with, amongst other things, replicas of The Orb’s own orbs – Fehlmann and Patterson’s bald heads float around the screen and emphasise the sense of humour at play. Such a risk-taking approach to live performance surely loses the band fans from time to time. This evening, it’s safe to say that the band have converted more curious onlookers than they’ve disappointed fans favouring a more conservative strategy.