The Orb’s return to S.A.T. on Friday, under the auspices of the annual Pop Montreal festival, was one of the most anticipated electronic shows in the extremely busy month of September. That night I had a difficult choice to make between The Orb and Giorgio Moroder—a true pioneer of disco and electronic music, who, at the age of 75, rarely performs live. I’ve been following The Orb since the 1990s, so my decision was an obvious one: I boarded the Métro, destined for S.A.T. and the dreamy, ambient dub-house sound of The Orb.
Mateo Murphy started off the night properly, with a deep and experimental mix of gorgeously-textured techno. This guy is one of the top electronic selectors in Montreal for a reason, and it was pure genius to include him on the program. Murphy began with slightly abstract and minimal beats as the crowd streamed into the venue. While S.A.T. was slowly filling to capacity, Murphy was progressively dropping more energetic, beat-heavy techno. By the end of his set, the DJ had the crowd on its feet (although admittedly, this is not a great accomplishment since there is barely any seating at S.A.T.). It was a textbook opening performance—Murphy didn’t immediately hit people with high-energy bangers, but the crowd arrived eventually and the big-tunes came in at the end.
Mateo Murphy may in fact be a mad-scientist. That’s the only way to explain how he’s figured out how to make the system at S.A.T. sound decent. This is not an easy task, as this same equipment has made some great electronic artists sound like amateur bedroom DJs or worse. It’s consistently too loud, volume being an unfortunate and painful compensation for a lack of warm bass and quality high-ends. It’s just not enjoyable to listen to for an entire evening, and this is the key reason that the crowd usually seems bored or annoyed at S.A.T. shows.
The Orb’s set was a perfect example. Sure, these guys have been around forever and some of the young EDM fans may not be familiar with their sound. Moreover, The Orb’s music is peppered with long, trippy ambient sections and dub breakdowns that aren’t ideal for continual dancing. At times, the performance felt exactly like a “chill-out-room” at a mid-90s U.K. rave. But genuine classic tracks, like “Little Fluffy Clouds,” should get the crowd moving more than they were on this occasion. The problem could also be the space itself, which is a big, cold, cavernous room, with horrible acoustics, no seating, and long line-ups to buy a drink.
The Orb were good, but slightly predictable, and they didn’t have many exciting or unexpected moments. At least they didn’t play a game of chess during their set—which famously happened during a performance on “Top of the Pops.” Their music has varied over the years since the release of The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld in 1991, but the sound has consistently remained true to the ambient dub-house genre. Notably, The Orb produced a fine album with veteran reggae-master Lee “Scratch” Perry. Their new album Moonbuilding 2703 AD continues in the ambient-techno vein, but with updated instruments and cutting-edge electronic sounds. It is a really great album that I strongly recommend, and it sounds much better in a good pair of headphones than at the S.A.T.
The last DJ of the night, Vosper, started out with hard beats and techno to keep the party going after the headliners left the stage. Unfortunately, the dismal sound and lack of seating at S.A.T. was getting me anxious, and I soon headed for the exit. Although the night wasn’t perfect, I was satisfied that I made the right choice to see The Orb rather than Giorgio Moroder, whose performance Friday received mixed-reviews. Perhaps some of those great artists we remember from the past shouldn’t try to keep the magic alive. As Neil Young said “it’s better to burn out than fade away.”
Written by Rob Coles
Photography by Courtney O’Hearn
*edited by Kate Erickson