Electronic music, developed from the synthesiser experiments of the earlier twentieth century and refined by German band Kraftwerk in the 1970s, was at the peak of its popularity on the cusp of the 1990s, both in the pop mainstream and underground variants. Combined with the prevalence of mind-altering chemicals, different strands of 90s electronic music drew heavily on science fiction themes. In the UK, the ‘ambient’ instrumental soundscapes of Brian Eno and others were modified for club-goers ‘coming down’ from chemical highs as the basis of ‘ambient house’. The Orb, a partnership of Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty, a member of the Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu (or JAMs), were influential in refining the genre. Cauty eventually re-worked their collaboration Space into a solo recording, released in 1990; with nods to 1970s ambient pioneers Tangerine Dream and Pink Floyd, it was envisaged as “a voyage through the solar system from Mercury outwards”, with each piece named after a planet.
The Orb evolved into Paterson and a shifting cast of associates; their 1991 debut album Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld set the template for sci-fi-influenced themes and imagery. The album’s centrepiece, the side-long ‘A huge ever-growing pulsating brain that rules from the centre of the Ultraworld’ was directly inspired by an episode of Blake’s Seven, ‘Ultraworld’, written by Trevor Hoyle. Their live performances were accompanied by “a constant stream of psychedelic images… projected onto the screens about the stage” (another echo of Pink Floyd), typically featuring aliens, astronauts and futuristic cityscapes. Their next album, U.F. Orb, continued the sci-fi links with samples from NASA transmissions, science fiction references and ambient explorations of space travel, notably on the 40-minute 1992 single, ‘Blue Room’. The track is believed to reference a secret location at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, containing UFO evidence. An edited version was aired on Top of the Pops.
The Orb’s affinity with the progressive rock of an earlier era was illustrated by their connection to guitarist Steve Hillage, member of 1970s cosmic rockers Khan and Gong. He played on several sessions, was credited as a co-writer on ‘Blue Room’ and his 1979 solo proto-ambient album Rainbow Dome Musick was sometimes aired before Orb performances. Hillage, who was originally part of the influential Canterbury Scene and later worked with Hawkwind’s Nik Turner, pursued his own early 90s ambient/dance project as System 7 with partner Miquette Giraudy. Hillage’s burgeoning interest in electronica led to him programming the acts for the first Dance Tent at the Glastonbury Festival of 1995, at which System 7 themselves performed.
Paterson’s contemporaries, Cauty and Bill Drummond, had first recorded as the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, a name taken from a secret society in the counter-cultural 1975 Illuminatus! Trilogy of novels by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. The duo’s first commercial success was as the Timelords, whose single ‘Doctorin’ the Tardis’, incorporating the Dr Who theme tune, was a ‘novelty’ number one in the UK in 1988. They released an ambient house album in 1990, Chill Out, a term derived from an area called ‘The White Room’ (the title of their next album) at London’s Heaven nightclub, where Cauty and Paterson were DJs in the late 1980s. Later applied to various forms of “music of a trance-like nature”, chill-out was defined by slowed-down dance beats. Cauty and Drummond rose to international fame with a series of chart-friendly singles as the KLF, whilst earning notoriety for their post-modern pranks. Upon their retirement from music in 1992, they deleted their back catalogue and pursued situationist ‘actions’, art projects and media campaigns as the K Foundation. When they returned on 23 August 2017, it was with a novel, 2023: A Trilogy, a “self-referential dystopian tale” credited to the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, drawing both on the Illuminatus! Trilogy and their own self-created ‘mythology’.
Many of the original creative forces behind ambient house moved beyond its confines; Cornish electronic artist Richard James went by the name Aphex Twin, and explored the hinterlands of acid house, ambient, jungle and techno music in a bewildering series of releases with an other-worldly flavour. He enjoyed chart success in the late 90s, before promptly reverting back to more experimental forms. Another band rising from obscurity to mainstream success in the 90s were the Shamen, initially a psychedelic guitar band who embraced new technology and sampling. An interest in mind-expansion and dance culture saw them emerge as pioneers of multi-media performance whose ‘Synergy’ concept was intended to dissolve “the boundaries between rock gigs and warehouse parties”. Their 1990 LP En-Tact was described by one breathless reviewer as “the KLF remixed by William Gibson in a massive multi-coloured warehouse inside your head”.
After the untimely death of key member Will Sin, the Shamen subsequently enjoyed their biggest hit with ‘Ebenezer Goode’ in 1992, a straightforward celebration of drug/rave culture which also erased much of their underground credibility. A spoken-word collaboration with the celebrated author, ethno-botanist and psychedelic enthusiast Terence McKenna (“the intellectual voice of rave culture”) on ‘Re-Evolution’ was more in the spirit of their early work. With another contribution by Steve Hillage on the same album, the past was acknowledged as they simultaneously embraced the future. With a long-standing interest in cyberspace, the Shamen were among the first bands to explore Internet releases on their interactive site Nemeton, launched in 1995. The group’s mainstay, founder member Colin Angus, commented that “We’ve always seen ourselves as an ‘information band’, so it was a natural step to connect to the internet.”
Hillage and McKenna’s involvement, like that of Timothy Leary with the contemporary Cyberpunk trend, reinforced the connections between the cultural explorations of the late 60s/early 70s and the dawn of the 90s, not least a shared interest in altered states of consciousness. It also linked to ‘new age’ overtones, a label with which ambient house was becoming associated, together with ‘chill out’, or ‘trance’, as the terms became interchangeable – certainly for the record labels who capitalised on its popularity with vast numbers of compilations over the following years. Once the impetus of its innovators was removed, the music was as bland and formulaic as the artwork; uninspiring and depressingly earth-bound.