The history of electronica just wouldn't seem complete without The Orb, impossible to imagine even. This 3 CD collection offers highlights from the pioneering output they produced throughout the 90's, and tells a fascinating, although incomplete story. Although the personnel has changed over the years, mastermind Alex Paterson's ideas form a thread between all incarnations of The Orb, an evolving collective who played a major hand in the evolution of dance music itself, pretty much inventing ambient house. The first disc of this three part collection shows off the pivotal singles released at the peak of their creative power. As well as a story of Alex Paterson's output over the 90's, it also tells of how dance music changed over the ten year period, beginning at the height of rave and ending with polished pop numbers featuring female guest vocalists. In between however, we are reminded that The Orb stood by themselves within the genre and followed a dramatically different path to all the others.
The opening 'Brain' begins the decade in a post acid house landscape with the hypnotic groove of the Orbital mix, very evocative of the era. After this mind bending piece of music and all the many accompanying remixes proves a success, Jimmy Cauty leaves to concentrate on KLF activities and Paterson teams up with Kris Weston for a string of singles that redefined what a dance hit could be. With its bubbling, hazy groove, the picturesque 'Little Fluffy Clouds' remains one of the most trippy chart hits of all time and still sounds just as mind-opening as it did back then, as does the infectious, bass-heavy ambient dancehall of 'Perpetual Dawn'. The nearly 40 minute 'Blue Room' became the longest single to ever reach the charts, and the snappy edited version here ran in the background during the most bizarre Top Of The Pops performance there ever was, as millions of viewers sat watching Paterson and Weston playing a game of chess. The hypnotic pulse of 'Assassin' showcases their ability to drop elements in at the most effective points, while classical, avant-garde moods float through the aquatic piano patterns of 'Oxbow Lakes' before a rhythm emerges, throbbing dangerously like a washing machine with a serious electrical fault. Following Weston's exit, Paterson continued to work with Thomas Fehlmann and Andy Hughes, the latter remaining until his departure in 2001, the former still present years later.
The Detroit techno shapes and busy, minimal beats that characterise the glowing 'Asylum' exhibit a major contrast to the fat, thumping groove of 'Toxygene' that follows it. Disc one is closed by the more conventional 'Once More', which along with the sleek electro trip hop of 'Ghostdancing' marked a move into almost traditional song-based ideas. As a 'best of' collection CD1 does slightly lack compared to the 1998 'U.F Off', which also included the first 8 tracks here, along with four album cuts that were inarguably greater than the two singles that close the first of these 3 discs.
The second consists of a variety of remixes, of which there were many accompanying each multiformat single release. Here we get a good selection of the most interesting ones, ranging from the beatless acid ambience of 'An Ever Growing Pulsating Brain...''s 'Aubrey Mix Mk II', Coldcut's electrified funk 'Heavyweight Dub' reworking of 'Little Fluffy Clouds', and the mighty Ultrabass 1 mix of 'Perpetual Dawn', where Andrew Weatherall underlines the dubbed-up groove with a fat Jah Wobble bassline. Elsewhere are the globe trotting, percussive magic of 'Majestic''s 'Heavy Mix', a trancey reinterpretation of 'Close Encounters' and a relentless drum n bass re-do of 'Toxygene' by Ganja Kru.
However, the highlight of this whole package has to be the third disc featuring mind blowing live interpretations of key tracks, which with the exception of the final number, are taken from a glorious 1993 set at Denmark's Trekkoner festival. Capturing The Orb at the height of their sonic powers, further possibilities are explored as songs are expanded and reworked into epic works of transcendental magnificence. Using tape machines and mixers to trigger off a wealth of extraordinary noises, samples and entrancing beats, they created a mesmerising, stratospheric live experience that transported audiences into new orbits. Only listen if you're prepared to go on a journey. On an incredible 'Towers Of Dub', Eno-like vibes collide with barking dogs, reggae rhythms, as the pair brilliantly utilise an arsenal of sounds from all corners of the globe and beyond. It's truly music to lose yourself in. 'Little Fluffy Clouds' is stretched into 11 minutes of stomping euphoria, and during an 18 minute rendition of 'Blue Room', we get squelchy watery noises laid over tablas, major helpings of thick, rumbling bass, and filters that make you feel as if you're being sucked through a cosmic tunnel, before venturing into a dreamworld towards the end. Again, it mostly dispenses with the familiar beat and increases the focus on the song's other elements, of which there were certainly many to choose from.
'Star 6 and 7 8 9' mixes birdsong with tranquil soundscapes and delirious oriental melodies, putting the listener into a trance-like state. The wilfully experimental 'Valley' winds through Indian sounds, telephones, flutes, slowly shuffling dub percussion and even alarming echoes from 'A Clockwork Orange', and with its clock chime intro recalling Pink Floyd (who they were often compared to), the live 'Assassin' is far too weird and disturbing to be labelled 'chill out' music, as it gradually builds into violent thundering beats. Along with a fourth disc containing promo videos and a couple of those classic Top Of The Pops, it's a nostalgic reminder of how far dance music had come in the 90's, and for others a superb introduction to the musical mindset of Alex Paterson. Although it's a 25th anniversary set billed as "a collection of landmarks from their first two decades", there's nothing here from the last half of that period, which means that 'A History Of The Future' doesn't entirely fulfil its purpose. However, as a document of their glory years, this is superb stuff. Worth it just for the live disc. 8.5/10