the contextual life

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what to listen to :: digging out the Underworld

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For me, Underworld is nostalgia. They were my first memorable introduction to techno. It was 1997, my freshman year of college, and I was in the embrace of 80s new wave. That year I’d fallen in with a bunch of ravers (or party kids as they liked to be called) who spent their weekends in clubs and warehouses. It was through them that I learned a lot had happened since Depeche Mode. Second Toughest to the Infants, Underworld’s second album after their switch from electropop, had come out the year before and “Born Slippy”, their song on the Trainspotting soundtrack, had brought them some modest fame.

Up until then, I’d only been familiar with bad Top 40 house music that played in the Long Island clubs where big hair and and tube tops reigned—not that I ever went to those places. Underworld opened my eyes to a world that went beyond simple drum loops and cheesy pop vocals. Their beats were intricately layered and their vocals textually sophisticated.

By the time I’d come to them, they’d moved on from their synthpop days. Sometime around 1991 Rick Smith, half of the founding group, wanted a new sound. He wound up grabbing the talented 17-year-old DJ Darren Emerson from the London club scene. In 1994, together with front man Karl Hyde, they released dubnobasswithmyheadman, an album that made a sharp break with their earlier sound and heralded in what became their signature style—a mix of trancey, dark epics and driving, dancey anthems.

The interchange of upbeat and mellow could easily have felt forced, schizophrenic, disjointed but Underworld expertly weaves the two throughout their numerous albums, easing tensions and breaking lulls. In an interview, Hyde says that the people who have only seen them in the clubs miss a “very important other side to us that goes very deep, just music for chilling out to or music for driving to late at night.” The pairing of their albums with long drives is often noted in reviews and I’d like to add that they’re perfect for dinner parties as well.

In addition to dropping their clean, punctuated synthpop sound in favor of lengthy hypnotic dub tracks with rolling bass lines and jazzy high hats, Hyde changed his approach to the vocals as well. He went from a clear, coherent stories to gritty abstractions. Perhaps the most interesting part about his new style was its multifunctionality, at times taking on a percussive quality, like in “King of Snake” on Beacoup Fish, and at other times adding to the harmony.

Underworld’s airy synths, tribal crescendos, and quasi-philosophical lyrics oftentimes gives the albums a spiritual feel, making Hyde something of an electronic high priest. You’d think this would be anathema to a bunch of drug-addled nocturnals but something about the rave scene, at least when I was involved, thrived on the notion of transcendence.

Over the course of six studio albums, a live release, and a compilation as a proper techno act, Underworld has remained consistent, improving and maturing as the years go on but never deviating from their defining traits. Each album blends seamlessly into the other whether listened to in order or at random. If you hadn’t heard the news that Darren Emerson left in 2000 to pursue a solo career, you probably wouldn’t have heard much of a difference between Beacoup Fish and A Hundred Days Off. The same could be said for Barking, Underworld’s most recent album put out in 2010, where each track features an outside collaborator. I don’t seem to be alone; in their review of the album, Resident Advisor said “the songs here are a harmonious marriage of the classic, propulsive Underworld sound and the kind of techniques and textures that postdate most of their career. It’s interesting that an album with so much outside input highlights the band’s populist, maximalist side.”

Instead of boredom or disappointment, this repetition of sound comes with relief. While most bands after losing a bandmate to a solo career, having kids, and moving from small clubs to selling out stadium shows and headlining major festivals might let life’s changes get the better of them, these guys have remained like an old, reliable friend with whom you never fall out of sync—and are grateful to them for it.

Underworld’s Official Site

Written by Gabrielle

May 31, 2011 at 7:41 am

Posted in music

Tagged with , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. underworld are sick


    March 14, 2012 at 12:30 pm

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