The Orb and Orbital have been vaguely conflated in my mind for as long as I’ve been aware of the two groups. Thinking back, I’ve owned Orbital’s 1996 In Sides and the Orb’s 1997 release Orblivion, but can’t seem to mentally reference much beyond a few tracks from either. All the same, the Orb’s 1990 “Little Fluffy Clouds” and Orbital’s 1993 track “Halcyon and On and On” are two of my favorites within the electronic genre, being uniquely different in their approach—one distinctly dance, the other ambient-leaning—while each holding a similar space in my mind.
Those two songs speak to a very distinct period within my life where I transitioned away from the dance music that I first got into as a kid (largely techno), and into what was generally referred to as “electronica.” It was then, in the late-’90s, where acts like the Chemical Brothers and Moby began to have an impact on me, and where I also started exploring other similar sounding artists via compilation mixes, magazine articles, and best of lists. I haven’t the slightest clue how the Orb and Orbital made it onto my radar, but there were a few albums along the way that introduced the latter, specifically, into my frame of awareness. The 1997 soundtrack for The Saint (which featured Orbital’s track of the same name as its theme) was a small milestone in that process; second only to the Spawn soundtrack which came out the same year.
The Spawn soundtrack is something so in-step with its time—remarkably absurd when looking back at it through today’s lens. The entire compilation features tracks blending hard rock, metal, and industrial acts with electronic artists—the results pairing the likes of Orbital with Metallica’s lead guitarist Kirk Hammet, Atari Teenage Riot with Slayer, and the Sneaker Pimps with Marilyn Manson. It’s truly a product of its age. In reading about the Orb in the Trouser Press, however, it becomes clear just how distinct the creative divide between the groups has been.
As Jason Ferguson writes, the group was founded by one-time Killing Joke roadie Alex Paterson and one half of the KLF, Jimmy Cauty. While Paterson moved on and the Orb quickly evolved from that of a KLF side project, the group’s history maintains a connection with the KLF’s early anarcho-leaning ideals. Take for example the landmark track “Blue Room,” which was created as boundary-pushing snub of tradition. As the song’s Wikipedia entry recounts, “Chart Information Network, who compiled the UK Singles Chart, had recently extended the permissible playing time of a chart-eligible single from 25 minutes to 40 minutes. The Orb thus decided to record a 39:57 version of ‘Blue Room’ for a special release.” Amazingly, the album-length track made it all the way to the number 8 position on the UK’s singles chart. To capitalize on its success, the duo appeared on Top of the Pops with a controversy-stirring performance where “Instead of performing, Alex Paterson and Kris Weston—holding a toy sheep—played a chess-like game whilst passing a globus cruciger back and forth.”