Anyone who's ever paid the slightest attention to popular music in these United States has long realized that the record industry's response to an economic slump is to manufacture a trend. There's no shortage of examples: The birth of rock and roll, the British Invasion, the singer-songwriter era, the disco movement and the grunge assault all were fueled to a large degree by business types primarily interested in expanding markets, moving units and reinvigorating consumers. If the result was good music, fine, but that was hardly the main goal.
When viewed from this perspective, it makes perfect sense that music-biz heavies would cook up something new to excite masses left cold by recent releases from R.E.M., Hootie & the Blowfish, Pearl Jam and other alleged superstars. But the one that they're propagating--electronica--has left many observers scratching their heads. For years now, the underground rave scene has been a fertile breeding ground for technologically oriented dance music--so many years that the sudden embracing of it strikes Alex Patterson, the 35-year-old leader of England's Orb, one of electronic music's most long-lived acts, as comical. "The most absurd side of it is that this music has been under your noses since 1985," he says. "All it does is show you the power of the media and the music industry. And it is no reflection whatsoever about what's really going on musically in America."
True enough--but that's no surprise. After all, fealty to the essence of a musical form has never had much to do with breaking a new genre in this country. Take the failed attempt to push punk rock into the American heartland in the middle and late Seventies. The real stuff, like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, proved either too corrosive or too outrageous to survive in the mainstream, so the musical menu planners at the labels smoothed it out until it became something else entirely: new wave. A lot of this music was enjoyable--even ditties like "My Sharona" were not without their charms--but its connection to punk was tenuous indeed. The same could be said of the neo-punk that finally hit big in the Nineties; the stuff that sold best, like Green Day, was about as anarchic as Al Gore.
Whether the same thing will happen to electronica remains to be seen, but the early signs are not good. Take, for instance, the artistic and financial failures suffered by those veteran artists who've lately been slapping modern dance music's sonic signatures onto their songs. David Bowie's Earthling was a shallow excursion into jungle grooves that tanked almost immediately, while U2's much-hyped Pop, which layers electronic textures atop yet another recycling of its trademark sound, is a sales disappointment of epic proportions. But these efforts are works of genius compared with Retail Therapy, a CD credited to T.D.F., an aggregation built around well-known technophile Eric Clapton. The onetime god of guitar is not the first performer from his era to anonymously dip his toe into electronic waters; Paul McCartney did so--to surprisingly good effect--with Strawberries, Oceans, Ships, Forest, a 1994 release credited to the Fireman. But Clapton's offering, which is dominated by somnolent, quasi-new-age picking decorated with undeniably slack dance beats, is so jarringly tepid that even Grammy voters might accuse him of being a dilettante. Keeping his name off the liner was the smartest move he could have made.
As for more organic electronic groups, they remain an acquired taste that America in general has yet to acquire. Despite frequent appearances on MTV, whose championing of electronica via increased airplay and persistent promotions is proof that the labels are taking the style seriously, worthy acts such as Underworld, the Future Sound of London, Goldie, Orbital and Aphex Twin are selling fewer recordings than "Weird" Al Yankovic. The sole exception to the rule thus far are the Chemical Brothers, whose new Astralwerks opus, Dig Your Own Hole, entered Billboard's Top-200 album roster this week at number fourteen--an all-time electronica high. In some ways, this achievement is predictable: The album includes "Setting Sun," a single whose appeal has a great deal to do with its conventional pop-song structure and the vocals of Oasis's Noel Gallagher. But this is no sellout, despite what naysayers claim. While "brothers" Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons have put together a concoction that's hookier and more immediately attractive to electronica novices than the average techno-platter, they can't be accused of abandoning the music's precepts. Tracks like "Block Rockin' Beats," "Piku" and "Don't Stop the Rock" combine prominent, relentless rhythm patterns with astutely chosen samples and electronic "instrumentation" ranging from sirens to power chords to effectively break up the repetitive figures that are electronica's greatest strength and most profound liability. In short, it works like a basic rock album without actually being one.
Orblivion, a subtly entertaining disc from the Orb that hit stores earlier this year, has practically nothing in common with Dig. "Delta MKII," "Molten Love" and "Log of Deadwood" work best as chill-out music--gently undulating waves of sound that reward close attention but function just as well as all-purpose stress relievers. "Ambient" is the term most often used to describe this format, and in the case of the Orb, it's especially appropriate. Patterson began his career in the professional music universe as an A&R man for EG, an imprint founded by Brian Eno, whose Another Green World long-player is widely regarded as the first ambient album. He founded the Orb in 1988 and made an impact stateside with "Little Fluffy Clouds," from the 1991 opus The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. Since then, Patterson and a shifting crew of associates have put out five more Orb extravaganzas. While some of these followups (notably Pomme Fritz--The Orb's Little Album, from 1994) were spotty, the majority (including 1992's UFOrb and 1995's Orbus Terrarum) sound as fascinating now as they did then. Still, none of them sold well to fans lacking membership in the electronic-music cognoscenti. You might expect this to bother Patterson, who, like most "influences," seems destined to see others make money off music that he developed and nurtured. But you'd be wrong.
"I've seen the Chemical Brothers come along," he says, "and never in a hundred million years would I tell you that they've taken what we could have had, because we're coming from completely different directions. But the direction that they're coming from was brought about by us, and that gives me pleasure."
It also gives Patterson the hope that some fans of the Chemical Brothers and hot properties like Prodigy can be induced to check out the Orb, whose work he describes as "a niche where people can go and relax to something that's modern and their own, and not fall back onto somebody else's culture." And in the electronica feeding frenzy that's risen to the fore, he may get his wish. Suddenly, he says, he and his Orb partner, Andy Hughes, are receiving more attention than they have in ages. "It's quite bizarre," he admits. "I guess we were too far in the future in 1988. We were ahead of the game. I didn't know nine years ago that we were pioneers, but I suppose we were. Some people may have overtaken us on the record charts, but nobody compares to what we've done. I'm immensely proud of all of our albums, and to me, they still sound very current. I'm honestly thinking, why not stick out an old greatest-hits album and be done with it?"
Of course, Patterson acknowledges that the electronica uprising is not without its negatives. Some misinformed commentators have even suggested that Orblivion's relative accessibility is a result of the Orb trying to cash in on the genre's higher profile. The truth, Patterson points out, is that Orblivion was completed, with the exception of one track, at the beginning of May 1996, long before the domestic record companies decided that electronica was in every American's future. "People who haven't understood what we were doing have patronized us and criticized as since the beginning," he allows. "And that's fine, because it's a reaction, and it's always better to get a reaction than to get no reaction at all. So when we see reviewers saying, 'Oh, they're trying to be a drum-and-bass band now,' it doesn't bother us. We just say, 'Where's the drums and bass?' Because there aren't any."
Indeed, the Orb, which has been among the rare electronic bands to tour with a live rhythm section and supporting musicians (documented on its Live '93 package), is going out on the road in 1997 without such props; Patterson and Hughes will be on their own. By doing so, Patterson is leaving himself open to the charge that his group, like the majority of electronica combos, does not make enough of an attempt to connect with an audience in concert, settling instead for light displays hardly different from the ones that can be seen in neighborhood dance clubs. Patterson shrugs off such grousing. "We're an experimental band," he says. "We're constantly changing and striving to put on a different kind of performance each time. We've managed to find a lighting director who is in tune with us all the way down the line, and he's been feeding us his ideas and bleeding us for our ideas, and it's come together very well. When we played a gig in London recently, even our old drummer and bass player were blown away." What's the key visual image? "Well, we've been performing under a pyramid," reveals Patterson, a numerology buff who believes that, because of various calendrical errors, the millennium is actually occurring this year. "I don't know what kind of energy we get out of it, but we've had fun so far."
Listeners raised on windmilling guitarists, bare-chested frontmen and general rock-and-roll bombast likely won't view two guys standing under a pyramid as a fair tradeoff--and whether electronica practitioners like it or not, these are the sorts of standards against which they will be judged. Nonetheless, Patterson doubts that the anticipated electronic-music revolution will turn out to be nothing more than a blip on the musical radar screen. In his view, the groundwork for electronica has been laid too well for that to happen.
"There was a nice little scene in Denver and Boulder five years ago," he says. "There were young kids doing exactly what we were doing in the UK at the time, and maybe there were only 150 of them, but at least it was a start. And now there are people like my girlfriend, who just turned seventeen--but she was going to Orb shows when she was only thirteen."
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Suddenly, he pauses. "She was eight years old when the Orb started," he mutters. "And this is supposed to be new music?"
The Chemical Brothers. 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 29, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $18.50, 1-800-444-SEAT.
The Orb. 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 6, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $16, 1-800-444-