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The Orb

Having chosen a celestial, spacey name for his DJ persona, Orb mastermind Alex Paterson filled his early sets with samples of NASA voice transmissions beneath a blend of down-tempo, Chicago-style house and languid, ethereal textures that spawned the ambient-house genre. Now he asks us to consider the question: What does Mars sound like? The answer is delivered on Cydonia, which takes its title from the name of the supposed site of an ancient Martian society.

Another surreal soundscape conjured by Paterson, Cydonia only hints at the darkness of 1997's Orblivion, making for a lighter, chill-out soundtrack on the first new Orb album since then, this one with more pop song structures -- indeed, entire pop tunes -- than the largely abstract earlier disc.

"Once More" leads off the disc with a trip-hop vibe and sultry vocals by Aki Amori. Squiggly, hip-hop synths interplay with the throaty resonance of real piano keys for a midtempo mellowness that's exquisitely executed. Paterson gets a little abstract on the instrumental "Promis," which includes an industrial intro that slides into a scary, fairy-tale soundtrack. Circus calliope sounds are interspersed with orchestral segments before the tune is taken over -- and lifted out of the dark -- by tribal drums, flute, and melodica, which turn it into a mellow, meditative mantra in world beat mode. "Ghostdancing" is another trip-hop turn, this one with Nina Walsh offering breathy, Björkian vocals.

"Turn It Down" chugs slowly to full steam on a propulsive, gradually building beat with plenty of clinking, clanking sounds and fuzzed-out, dark, industrial guitar. "Firestar" is a kicky, bubble-gum synth tune that lasts all of 45 seconds, while "A Mile Long Lump of Lard" is a factory-floor pounder with layer upon layer of thudding bass and creaking, twisting synth shudders. A few cuts later, "Hamlet of Kings" offers the antithesis: ambient dub with waves lapping and water gurgling in a sensuous New-Age serenade.

Drum 'n' bass make an appearance in the form of "Thursday's Keeper," with its echoing, jazzy horn samples doled out in snippets; extreme scratching; and even a dissonant, acid-jazz segment of descending xylophone notes. Cydonia terminates with "Terminus," an ambient sound experiment featuring guitar by Robert Fripp, which pops up amid digital dog barks, static, wind, bird chirps, drawn-out synth drones, and water trickling. This is a Paterson production, after all, so pop and abstraction are to be taken in purely relative terms.

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John Ferri

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