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Music Review: The Orb featuring Lee “Scratch” Perry – The Orbserver in the Star House

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I was more than a little excited when I heard that there was to be a collaboration between The Orb and Lee “Scratch” Perry coming this year. On paper at least, The Orbserver in the Star House sounded like a dream come true. Perry is a living legend in the world of dub, and The Orb basically invented the “ambient-house” genre. For fans of the various forms of “chill-out” music, The Orbserver in the Star House looked to be the ultimate blend of talent.

Obviously my expectations were high, probably too high. Star House is a very good record, but it is quite different from what I imagined it would be. For all intents and purposes, this is a Lee “Scratch” Perry album, with just enough of The Orb to justify their names being on the cover. I love Perry’s music, and I believe that he just gets better with age, so I am quite happy with the results. My only question is, what happened to The Orb?

It is a question I have been asking for years though, going all the way back to the disappointing Orbus Terrarum album from 1995. Since their inception in 1988, The Orb have been through enough personnel changes to fill a book, and are now down to Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann. No matter who are calling themselves The Orb though, I have been waiting for something approaching the brilliance of a track like the 15-minute “Towers of Dub” from U.F. Orb for a long time now, and thought this might be it.

The album opens with the distinctive voice of Perry intoning the words “I’ve got something to say…” on “Ball of Fire.” There is a mild trip-hop beat underneath, which immediately threw me. I did not expect to hear what sounds like Tricky or Portishead backing “Scratch” here.

It is not until “Soulman” that the combination really clicks. Both artists seem to be working well together on the song, and it is a highlight. This is followed by “Golden Clouds,” a re-imagining of the classic “Little Fluffy Clouds” from The Orb’s Adventures in the Ultraworld album. The vibe continues on “Hold Me Upsetter,” which again feels like a true collaborative effort between the two.

The heaviest dub track is “Go Down Evil,” which has the strength of some of Perry’s early work. This is the type of music that The Clash was so inspired by in their Sandinista! days, and it is refreshing. Speaking of The Clash, one of their greatest covers was a version of Perry’s “Police and Thieves.” The song appears here with a very interesting arrangement. The opening segment is almost a “Scratch” rap. Actually, it is more in the style of the precursor to rap, “toasting.” It is a very cool version, and adds a lot to the album.

It closes with two very strong cuts. “Ashes” is really only a fragment of a song at 1:25, but it is incredible. The sound-sculptures that Paterson and Fehlmann have created are a thing of wonder, and Perry’s voice is perfect. Much the same can be said for the final tune, “Congo.” Once again, The Orb and Perry have found a way of expressing their unique talents in a way that blends together very well.

My mixed feelings about the record may be a matter of programming. Instead of front-loading the CD with the finest tracks, they are sprinkled throughout. I would give the album a B grade I suppose, and that could very well be based on what my own high expectations were. As previously stated, I believe that Lee “Scratch” Perry just gets better and better—check out his Revelation (2010) album and see for yourself.

With The Orb, I have a hard time moving past 1992. I don’t think they have recorded anything approaching the timeless beauty of Adventures in the Ultraworld or U.F. Orb in the past 20 years. So maybe it is just my problem in the end. I still think that the trip-hop stuff sounds far more dated than something like “Blue Room” though.

Fans of both artists need to hear The Orbserver in the Star House and draw their own conclusions. If you liked Orbus Terrarum or Orblivion, you may really like this one. And you can never go wrong with “The Upsetter” himself, Lee “Scratch” Perry anyway.

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About Greg Barbrick