The Heavens marks a triumphant reunion for Alex Patterson and Andy Falconer, who last teamed up on The Orb’s Adventures in the Underworld 30 years ago. It’s also the first release on Orbscure Recordings, an imprint of Cooking Vinyl. Yet as nostalgic as this reunion may seem ~ and it does conjure memories of that seminal release ~ the album looks back further still, to the early days of the space race. The samples trace a history that was heated as it unfolded but in retrospect seems quaint.
But first, the album draws a line back to 2016’s Alpine, the cold air and cowbells a continuation of that chilled winter release. Patterson has earned the right to self-reference, and the cows are a comfort; in this context, the cows beneath the clouds, oblivious to the drama unfolding above. A religious chant is embedded in a soft drone, the sense of drift apparent. The Orb has never been in a hurry, and time has produced no new urgency.
The impetus for “Toi 1338b” seems to have been the discovery of the new planet last year; don’t pack your bags quite yet, it’s in the Pictor solar system. While out of reach, the planet is not out of sight, and such excitement pairs well with sci-fi sounds. The BBC makes an early appearance with the mention of a milkman, setting a bookmark in the calendar. The pings take a few minutes to emerge through the aqueous layers, but when they do, they herald the appearance of Sputnik, the triumph or threat in the stratosphere, depending on one’s nation. As the satellite is accompanied by beats, we hope Patterson won’t mind a mention of Public Service Broadcasting’s The Race for Space, which covers the same topic in a more mainstream vein. Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing technical difficulties … please stand by. The track continues to traverse time, tracking the Apollo mission through astronaut observations. Our only quibble: why include an f-bomb in the closing seconds of an otherwise gorgeous track? Now we can’t play it for our mums.
The space theme continues in “Unknowable,” and the timbre returns to ambient for the first five minutes of the eighteen-minute track. On the cue “Godspeed,” the beats reemerge. (We wonder if Patterson is familiar with the BT track of the same name.) Older fans will remember the chill-out buses, often parked under an open ceiling in the back porch of a club. We eagerly await potential remixes that will break this track into component pieces, chill and club, one for each room.
Last year’s Abolition of the Royal Familia may have been overly ambitious; the tour was toppled by COVID, which arrived simultaneously. The more modest reunion of The Heavens is a better tribute to the talents of the ever-changing collective. It’s been a while since we’ve been able to write, “If you liked Adventures, you’ll like this,” but now we can. Three decades in, The Orb may no longer be revolutionary, but in the guise of Sedibus, these long-time collaborators remain relevant. (Richard Allen)