The Orb - featuring Lee 'Scratch' Perry - The Observer In The Star House Album Review
On the face of it, a collaboration between ambient techno pioneers The Orb - these days in reality only Alex Patterson - and Lee "Scratch" Perry sounds like a recipe for complete joy. The Jamaican's influence on British electronic music has been slow to assert itself after he pioneered the arcane studio-as-a-performer innovations that became dub reggae in the 1970s, but, along with Kraftwerk, without either you reckon we'd still be talking about getting our revolutionary dance floor kicks from the likes of free jazz, or The Ramones.
The other side of the equation was that Patterson's music has, from its inception, owed a heavy debt to Perry's Black Ark years, via their ability to create dense, bass-heavy atmospheres and cosmic, dream-like passages that were signatures throughout their '90s heyday. We all sat agog then, if you can sit agog. There is, however, a 'but' and that but is that, despite everyone's most sincere efforts, The Observer In The Star House is a whole heap of underachievement.
Problem #1: Perry barely sings anything here; it's more a case of contributing vocals, incantations that can frequently sound a bit in tone like an elderly relative at Christmas doing a Yoda impression after a sherry too much. It's all a bit inane really. Profoundly inane on occasions I think we accept, but the listener is made to work far too hard to make any real sense of what the veteran is going on about.
Problem #2: Rather than create a towering, post-post-pre-post dubstep opus using their combined gravitas and production nouse, Patterson, Perry and other notable contributor Thomas Fehlmann prefer instead to leave things musically inferred rather than dominated by much in the way of erm. 'riddims'. The idea for the whole project supposedly came to Patterson in the form of a DJ set and this is very much the right way to approach it; less a traditional album and more archetypally an exercise in seizing a mood and then keeping the dial there. The thought's inspired, but none of the subjects appear to be bothered much about chemistry and, although Man In The Moon and especially Hold Me Upsetter escape the all-consuming event horizon of general dullness, from Perry's perspective, it's far from the cathartic exercise delivered on the late Gil Scott Heron's sublime I'm New Here.
Perhaps that's not the point, but an awkwardly sterile cover of Junior Murvin's Police & Thieves grates, whilst Soulman and Congo both sound like disconnected, unfinished ideas. The day is nearly saved by a bonkers versioning of The Orb's signature moment Little Fluffy Clouds (Retitled Golden Clouds) whilst the lush vintage funk samples and classic hip hop flecks of Thirsty point to how things could've been, but they're not enough to save an enterprise stuck for too long in neutral. Sometimes it's best if the granddaddies just let the kids go and do their own thing, and The Observer In The Star House proves that whilst the disciples of their root works are still shaping new forms out of it, the originators need to figure out whether their legacy should now be just immovably that.
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