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‘Alpine‘: The climb to bring back The Orb

| Monday, March 14, 2016

Alpine_WebEric Richelsen | The Observer

We can play favorites all the live-long day, sure, but the more you implore me to agree with you that Chicago and Detroit were the cradles of modern house music, the more strongly I’ll retort that the fact that we’re in Indiana doesn’t mean that you can put on your blinders and pretend that the Midwest is the cradle of modern electronic music. In fact, the underground scenes of Chicago and Detroit, led by luminaries like Frankie Knuckles, Cybotron et al., were massively influential in shaping the sound of electronic dance music today, but if you don’t think that the British scene had much to do with it, then I don’t think we have much to do with each other. Because nobody disses London’s The Orb on my watch.

The Orb shaped ambient house as you know it, period. Of course, I don’t mean to erase the influence of the Japanese scene’s Ryuichi Sakamoto or Haruomi Hosono — though I admit to not being their most outspoken fan — nor even the influences of fellow Englishman Brian Eno or the products of American minimalism, both of which, au contraire, I talk far too much about. What I do mean to say is that in the early ’90s, it was The Orb that singularly consolidated these sounds into the scene-defining aesthetic that is an interesting juxtaposition of spacey yet earthly, alien yet simultaneously human. This aesthetic stretches its ethereal fingers into much of both ambient and house music today.

But the ’90s came and went, and so did the numerous follow-ups and novelty album titles. And though their influence was a watermark over many of the decade’s most groundbreaking electronic records — Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada, in particular, deserve mention here — so too did the duo itself seem to vanish from the collective consciousness.

Certainly, the duo has been around this whole time, but after a series of generally uninspired records over a decade and change, it’s no mystery that they’ve lost their buzzword status. In fact, it is along this slow decline into obscurity that their latest release, the vinyl “Alpine,” has gone virtually unnoticed.

But in spite of its short length “Alpine” is not to be missed. Even in its brevity this release feels perfectly well self-contained. Indeed the glassy, grassy ambiance of the three tracks builds upon itself throughout each track so well, with sonic motifs punching in and out and back again, that these three movements feel like just that: indivisible elements of a continuous whole.

The record begins with “Alpine Morning,” something of an electronic jam session that flits between house beats that sparkle like spring water, waves of earthy downtempo, and what sound like clips of yodeling mixed ad absurdum. It’s a calm wake-up call for the clubbier “Alpine Evening,” a more traditional house track yet one that never shirks the duo’s stylistic eccentricities; ever the kings of vivid aural atmospheres, this track marches along like the hike up a mountain inside Switzerland’s hottest nightclub. The final track, “Alpine Dawn,” would seem inappropriately placed at the record’s end, but its more spacey, uplifting ambiance wraps up the piece like the pleasant resolution to a long night, the mountain’s cusp reached, the journey ended.

But has the journey really ended? It certainly doesn’t come across as though The Orb is finished with their expeditions through electronic music — quite the opposite. In part due to its length, “Alpine” leaves one not only wanting more (in a good way) but expecting it. This record’s overall aesthetic, well-reflected in its sharp and modern cover art (compared to some rather dated ones in The Orb’s past), characterizes a duo that is ready to embrace a new, more modern world of sound. But though “Alpine” was a very satisfying release, it wasn’t exactly cutting-edge. Now that The Orb has caught up, it’s time for the duo to break some new ground.

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