Underworld: A Guided Tour

Underworld has been producing music, art, and film for nearly 40 years.With over 500 albums, EPs, and singles, newcomers to their work might find their catalog daunting. If you are just such a listener, this is for you.  So you know “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” from Trainspotting, but are wondering where to venture next.

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Many listeners might be inclined to snatch up one of their compilations or anthologies. In 1999 they released a 3CD Singles Box Set, but it is not an ideal entry point as it focuses too heavily on Darren Emerson’s contributions and is heavily saturated with alternate mixes which do not showcase the band’s true talents.

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The next compilation issued was in 2012. A Collection’s opening track is a strange choice – a song by High Contrast featuring Tiesto and Underworld, which few fans associate with Underworld. And track 03, “Bebop Hurry” is a collaboration between Karl Hyde and Brian Eno taken from the Underworld vs the Misterons’ Athens LP.

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 Unfortunately neither function well as introductory material, nor are they representative of their artistic style. Still, the other tracks on this compilation are the meat and potatoes of the band. The majority of their biggest hits are here, but for the sake of constricting it to a single disc, all of the tracks have been edited down to radio-friendly durations, sacrificing the ethereal and progressive characteristics which occupy the minutes which have been trimmed away. New listeners would benefit far more if they were to take in the tracks in their original form.

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That same year, a 3-disc collection was issued called, The Anthology: 1992 – 2012.  Interestingly, this set does not serve as an off-the-shelf hits collection but instead is comprised of b-sides and odd tracks which act as snapshots of the band’s development. This made it a rewarding purchase for fans who already owned all of their major LPs.  It also presents the content in a chronological setting. Disc 1 is material from their Mk 2 phase around the recording of their massive breakthrough hit album, Dubnobasswithmyheadman. Disc 2 showcases recordings from around the Second Toughest in the Infants and Beaucoup Fish era, including their non-album mega-hit, “Born Slippy (Nuxx)”.  The fan-favorite concert closer, “Moaner” is here as well.  Disc 3 offers more rarities like “The Hump”, “Minneapolis”, and “Why Why Why”, and includes a few uptempo selections from the series of non-radio, meditative EPs released exclusively via Underworldlive.com during the early 2000s.  

So without an easily-digestible compilation, how is a new listener to approach the band’s staggeringly large discography? Underworld is best experienced in album form. They are not a singles artist. Each record adds a contextual value to the tracks which each stand well as a packaged project of their own. My advice is to begin with Dubnobasswithmyheadman. The record marked the second incarnation of the band after its synthpop beginnings in the 80s (and a one-off garage punk single in ‘79). Dubnobass was incredibly progressive given the sound of techno and house in 1994. It contains eternal hits like “Cowgirl” and “Dark and Long”.

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If you like what you hear on this album,  explore their evolution into their next two records which complete the Darren Emerson trilogy before he parted from the group. These albums are Second Toughest in the Infants and Beaucoup Fish, best known for singles like “Pearls Girl”, “Cups”, “King of Snake”, and the aforementioned epic, “Moaner”. But it’s their more explorative tracks which reveal the most about the band. The opener to Second Toughest is “Juanita: Kiteless : To Dream of Love” – a monumental piece which engages the listener for over 16 minutes. And the mellow, downtempo rhythm and effect-laden vocals of “Winjer from Beaucoup Fish will never see radio airplay, but is a fantastic and atmospheric tune.

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This era concluded with Everything Everything Live: The Definitive Underworld Experience.  Pick up the DVD – it captures the incredible energy of the band performing live at the peak of their popularity in 2000.

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If you’re interested in going deeper to explore their more intimate and cerebral work, it began in 2002 with A Hundred Days Off.  Every track contributes something unique to the set. “Two Months Off” was the radio A-side but the deeper cuts are far more rewarding.

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At this point in their career, the duo embarked on a side project of web-only albums dubbed, “The Riverrun series”.  These include:

(2005) Lovely Broken Thing
(2005) Pizza for Eggs
(2006) I’m a Big Sister, and I’m a Girl, and I’m a Princess, and This is my Horse

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Filed under ambient techno and progressive trance, these artful projects reveal a more intimate and contemplative side of the band.  And a series of singles from this series offer even more experimental b-sides worthy of listening.

2007 marked their return to the commercial market with Oblivion With Bells. This album features the hit, “Beautiful Burnout” and the startlingly ambient “To Heal” which was redubbed “Capa Meets the Sun” for the film, Sunshine.

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The 2010 album, Barking is their least popular record. “Always Loved a Film” and “Bird 1” saw some airplay and there was an art film of video vignettes for each track. Not their most essential work, but even Underworld’s worst ain’t bad.

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For years thereafter there was silence. Rick released his first solo album, Bungalow with Stairs in 2010. Karl soon followed with his own solo debut, Edgeland in 2013. It was wonderful stuff. Then he surprised and delighted fans by releasing not just one but two collaborative albums with fellow genre-defining artist and producer Brian Eno in 2014. The artists had worked together a few years earlier as members of the improvisational concert project, This is Pure Scenius!  “DBF” from their first collaboration titled, Someday World was energetic and complex and instantly fascinating.  Their follow-up, High Life further refined the duo’s sound with an album full of brilliant tracks. As a dedicated fan of both gentlemen’s work, these records were a dream come true.

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In 2014, the band released a special anniversary edition box set of Dubnobasswithmyheadman, newly remastered and featuring all of the odds and ends from the era, some of which were issued on The Anthology. Another remastered box set appeared the following year, this time of Second Toughest in the Infants.  And further anniversary remasters are expected in the years ahead.

Then in 2016, Underworld released their first new album as a band in six years. It was an absolute triumph of a record, proving to the world that these aging ravers still had what it takes to produce rich and exciting new sounds nearly 40 years into their career. With each new listen to the album, Barbara Barbara We Face a Shining Future, it becomes more and more rewarding an experience.

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So there you have it – a brief tour through the catalog of Underworld. Of course, not everything worth sampling is mentioned above.  With 510 releases, as well as a library of short films, art installations, and publications for both print and web from their art collective, Tomato, it would be impossible to highlight them all. But hopefully, this guide will serve sufficiently as an introduction to their work.

Happy listening.

 

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Very good overview – I agree that there’s no real good starting point for UW since they’ve done so much great material. If I had to choose a single disc though – Everything, Everything, for sure. That CD completely obliterated me as a teenager. I wouldn’t go anywhere without it.

    One of the great things about Underworld is that there is so much great material waiting between the cracks for those who already have all the studio albums. I’m glad that these hyper-extended reissues are addressing this and I really do hope they continue doing so all the way up to Barking, since megafans such as yours truly have heard a lot of really wonderful versions of those tracks (and some that didn’t make it) that are very different to what you hear on the album.

  2. Thanks very much for your response! I agree with you completely. My own favorite track is “Always Loved a Film” (“Silver Boots”) broadcast 05-19-06 from Lemonworld. This was the ambient edit with Karl speaking alternate lyrics from “I’m a Big Sister…” ending with the phrase, “these are the weeds that live in the cracks and these are the rails at the edge of the world.” It was broadcast only once but I was lucky enough to capture it. I prefer the working edit to the final version that appeared on Barking. Wonderful stuff!


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