With Moonbuilding 2703 AD, the Orb makes a full circle back to the long-form conceptual terrain of 1991’s game-changing Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld and its follow-up, U.F.Orb. The album sustains a progressive composition over four distinct parts, forgoing instant gratification for slow builds and subtle variations, culminating in the Orb’s most cohesive work in ages. The album also marks the group’s return to Kompakt Records. The jokey title of their first full-length on the label, 2005’s Okie Dokie It’s the Orb on Kompakt, conceded the aptness, even inevitability, of the Orb’s residency; the Cologne label’s house style, a sort of thinking man’s trance, is deeply indebted to the innovations introduced by Orb founding member Alex Paterson and his shifting cast of collaborators. Yet ironically, Okie Dokie played down Paterson’s input, hewing closely to the muted, hypnotic pulsations Kompakt and Thomas Fehlmann, an Orb mainstay since the mid ’90s, are known for.
Moonbuilding, then, strikes a balance between Paterson’s psychedelic roving on one hand and Fehlmann’s streamlined focus on the other. One effect of this compromise is decidedly abstract ambience. There’s very little concrete sound anchoring Moonbuilding aside from the spoken-word that bookends “God’s Mirrorball” and “Lunar Caves.” Instead, the moon is built musically: Modulated synths and distorted string samples rise and fall in the mix, accenting and echoing each other under the moderato guidance of deep house beats. The atmosphere is balmy, as if portending a storm that never comes. Flashes of genuine unease, like the sudden lurches into blown-out industrial smog on the title track, are among Moonbuilding’s most arresting moments. Otherwise, Paterson and Fehlmann sustain a sleek sci-fi suavity.
The result is often pleasurable, but a little static. The melodic range is narrowly limited; rather, the focus is on steadily shifting rhythmic strata. Already minimal lines are more often stripped apart than built upon. This deconstructive impulse haunts the smoky, seductive title track, periodically slackening its slinky trip-hop momentum nearly to a halt. When the nimble hi-hats eventually affix to sunny funk guitars near the song’s end, like a skeleton finding its flesh, it’s teasingly short-lived. Indeed, Moonbuilding is almost tantric in its avoidance of climaxes. A soul sample—clipped at the point of rapture, multitracked beyond recognition—that overtakes the hook on the second half of “God’s Mirrorball” hints at the dance-floor transcendence suggested by the title, without ever quite fulfilling it.
The album’s strongest cut is “Moon Scapes,” an immaculately paced bit of progressive euphoria. The rhythm is heavy but dexterous, voluptuously textured while moving at the sweaty speed of acid techno. Melodic flow is maintained more assiduously than anywhere else on Moonbuilding, and not a second is wasted climbing to an ecstatic four-on-the-floor peak by the 10-minute point, followed by a denouement of clattered percussion and sinister Moogs. On the opposite end is “Lunar Caves,” a sonically rich but aimless Frankenstein of tribal drums and “Echoes”-like space rock that never quite achieves liftoff. As a piece, Moonbuilding lives between these extremes. It’s never quite a tour de force, but as a union of the Orb’s heady roots with their spiritual ascendants’ minimalist ethos, the album is a consistently satisfying groove machine, and a worthy entry to the upper ranks of the Orb canon.