The Orb has long been one of the most reliable enterprises in electronic music. With stalwart producer/musician Alex Paterson at the helm, the group has consistently released new material since Kiss EP dropped in 1989. And from that first release, The Orb’s template was set: infinitely danceable tunes cut through with cheeky humor and a sharp political edge.
By the same token, there’s no reason to expect any surprises or radical changes in The Orb’s aesthetic on album No. 17, Abolition of the Royal Familia. In fact, the only flicker of controversy concerning this record was, according to the press notes, the band’s failed attempt to use an unauthorized sample of Prince Charles’ voice. Other than that, the only notable change in The Orb M.O. is the arrival of sound engineer Michael Rendall as a new collaborator alongside Paterson.
It surely helped that Rendall worked closely with Paterson on a tour celebrating The Orb’s 30th anniversary. What better way to get a full immersion into the group’s mindset? In other words, Rendall doesn’t make his presence known on this album, instead intermingling with the core Orb sound of dub reggae breakdowns, dancefloor bangers and widespread ambient explorations best showcased on the final two tracks: the gorgeous 12-minute epic “The Weekend It Rained Forever” and the glimmering and slightly vicious closer “Slave Till U Die No Matter What U Buy.”
At this point, though, a serious shakeup might be what The Orb needs. The sociopolitical messages that the duo serves up feel truly necessary, especially in the very strange time we’re living through. As the title of the album—and its somewhat provocative cover art—reveals, Paterson and co. are fed up with the horrors that the British and American Empires have wrought on the globe and the U.K.’s seeming indifference to the long-tail effects of their policies. The funk-house song “House of Narcotics,” for example, is an apparent reference to the nickname that other countries gave England’s Royal Family due to their backing of the opium trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. And “Slave Till U Die” centers on a bit of ironic spoken word from Jello Biafra that sounds unnervingly prescient: “America is now under martial law. All Constitutional rights have been suspended. Stay in your homes.”
But will anyone listen? The commercial heights the band scaled, landing multiple top 10 singles in the U.K. charts, are behind them. And their sound and ideals have been adopted and updated by modern practitioners like Clark and Tycho. The best Paterson and Rendall can do at this point is preach to the converted and their core group of fans.
For those kind souls—and I count myself among them—Abolition is another solid entry into The Orb’s expansive discography. The duo is settled into their comfort zone, a place where a spacey, trumpet-dappled track gives way to a luxurious reggae groove over the course of the nearly 11-minute long “Shape Shifters,” and where a string-soaked interlude named after the proto-crystal meth that German soldiers were fed during WWII (“Pervitin”) can nestle comfortably alongside the bubbling house of “Honey Moonies.” The Orb are deep in their own pocket here and welcome all to join them in their warm depths. Whether anyone will heed their call after all this time remains to be seen.