Underworld – DRIFT Series 1 Box Set

Closing out the year at Innerspace Labs with a monstrously mammoth undertaking by my favorite electronic duo, Rick Smith and Karl Hyde of Underworld with the newly-issued DRIFT Series 1 Box Set – the 600th addition to my Underworld release library!

From Wikipedia:

DRIFT is the ongoing music-and-video experiment by the British electronic music group Underworld, launched on 1 November 2018 with consecutive tracks and music videos being released online, on a weekly basis. Individual new tracks are being made available through the band’s official website, as time-limited free downloads, along with accompanying videos published on YouTube — followed by collective “episodes” released as digital EPs on music streaming platforms. 

It’s Underworld’s second digital distribution project, after the 2005–2006 series Riverrun, which stand and some of my favorite deep cuts from these veterans of progressive house music. 

Released on Smith Hyde Productions via Caroline International, DRIFT Series 1 (Boxset Edition) contains seven CDs comprising all 52 of the weekly-issued tracks from the project. The set also includes a Blu-ray DVD with the 30 videos produced for Series 1 as well as an 80-page book. The box set has nearly 2 hours of content that wasn’t issued during the weekly digital releases.

UnderworldLive.com provides a captivating summary of the project: 

What is DRIFT?

• It’s precisely one year inside the minds of Underworld.

• It’s a journey that began on 1st November 2018 when Underworld released the track Another Silent Way and set off with no map, no fixed destination and a simple mantra (“Drift is the opposite of ‘normal’ or ‘usual’ practice; we’ll do this until we’re dust.”) ‘Rick Smith and Karl Hyde’s aim was to create and publish music and film episodically for 52 weeks and see where the journey took them. Within a few weeks, the experiment found its own path, prompting the electronic pioneers to react to previous releases and create new works accordingly. Over time, the duo’s innate curiosity opened up a unique space in which they could experiment, learn and explore new frontiers – together and with others (including Tomato’s Simon Taylor, Australian improv-trance band The Necks, techno producer Ø [Phase], Japanese noise band Melt-Banana, economics writer Aditya Chakrabortty and members of Black Country, New Road). During the 52 weeks, five self-contained episodes were released (respectively in November, January, March, May and August) – collectively, they formed DRIFT Series 1.

• It’s a unique and expansive audio/visual document of that open and constantly evolving recording process – seven discs of immersive and exploratory music that dive deep inside the band’s psyche. And it’s also a carefully picked single disc sampler that guides the listener straight through the centre of the project.

• It’s a series of extraordinary films that take you from Shibuya Crossing to the Moroccan desert to rural Essex via the inside of supercomputer.

• It’s a book that delves into process and explores the motivation behind one of the most ambitious creative endeavours ever attempted by a recording artist.

And… at the heart of it, there’s some of the best music Underworld have ever made – as much a progressive leap forward into the unknown as their classic debut dubnobasswithmyheadman.

The series was well-received by critics, with a normalised Metacritic score of 86 based on 6 reviews indicating universal acclaim and stands as the band’s most-acclaimed studio release to date. Mixmag called the album “absolutely stunning.” 

As with other collaborative efforts from the duo like Teatime Dub Encounters (with Iggy Pop) and Downpipe with Mark Knight & D. Ramirez, DRIFT Series 1 features a number of guest artists.

From International DJ Mag:

Guests featured in the collection included techno producer Ø [Phase], Japanese noise band Melt-Banana, trance outfit The Necks and economist Aditya Chakraborty (no, really) as well as long-term collaborator Simon Taylor, with whom Underworld founded the Tomato design and film collective. 

Tragically there are few published reviews exploring this release in the detail it deserves. (This article was drafted before the commercial release of the box set, so there will likely be more reviews to come once the release is available to the public.) Though the band themselves provide a brief write up accompanying each digital single which are archived at underworldlive.com/drift.

Thankfully, Adam Blyweiss of treblezine.com offers some insightful observations which contextualize both the strengths and shortcomings of this massive project. I’ll quote a few sections from his article but encourage readers interested in exploring the DRIFT series to read it in its entirety here. Blyweiss writes:

I’m pretty sure Rick Smith and Karl Hyde struck the word “small” from their vocabulary long ago. Performing as Underworld, nothing they have ever done can be described as such. Their biggest hits are epic in length and strength, their albums cavernous, their ideas complex enough to require dedicated studios, design firms, and streaming media channels.

The techno form has always had detractors of its monorhythmic and monotonal origins, and responsive artists who dare to twist those as far as they might go. With that in mind, Drift Series 1 is a daunting work, and a daunting listen. To the uninitiated or less-dedicated, there are moments when Underworld stray so far from being, well, Underworld that they sound like faded copies of other artists, the promise of experimentation turned into heavy-handed gimmickry. Disc four, with the episode “Space,” includes heretofore unheard gestures with melody and songwriting that can sometimes descend into irritating Flaming Lips territory (“Hundred Weight Hammer”). And for as pretty as the piano feature “Brilliant Yes That Would Be” is, it’s still just lifted from the modern classical motifs of Eno, Glass, and Satie.

Further, there are moments where Smith and Hyde’s equipment and sample libraries threaten to overwhelm listeners with countless variations on what is ultimately the same theme. Many of these songs are long, shifting treatises on the groove—multipart, meditative throbs that recall the days of “Juanita/Kiteless/To Dream of Love”—that in a vacuum might stun but revisited over and over might make even the most dedicated fan a little numb.

But he makes sure to express the merits of the project – 

Still, so much of Drift Series 1 reminds us that Underworld are just worlds apart from most other house derivatives of today, let alone the contemporaries who rose up with them in the heart of the 1990s’ big beat and intelligent dance music movements. 

For another thing, Drift Series 1 brings to the lexicon some of Underworld’s most memorable contributions since Beaucoup Fish in 1999. “Listen to Their No” is a fresh dip into their well of ecstatic house conceits, and “Imagine a Box” is a dour, eerie acid ghost story. “S T A R,” meanwhile, is an infectious little speed demon of a track that rests somewhere between nursery rhyme and children’s word game, matching up the activities of established fantasy characters like Tom Thumb and Robin Hood with modern names like Dr. Dre, David Beckham, and Rosa Parks. This and other cuts like “Another Silent Way” (originally released set to footage of UK drift racers—“drift,” get it?) find Smith and Hyde continuing to sneak more cheekiness into their music this late in their careers, and they’re all the more entertaining for it.

The last song of disc one, “One True Piano Need Hand,” is their first real attempt at droning noise, while disc three, “Heart,” is the box set’s locus of high weirdness anchored by the stuttering improvisations of “Poet Cat.” Frankly, Underworld scatter horns and strings, jazz and classical throughout Drift Series 1, from the patches of “Altitude Dub” to disc five’s choral denouement, “A Moth at the Door.” Smith and Hyde also make room in this music for contributions from Australian experimental band The Necks, none so thorough as the set’s sixth disc of collaborations between the bands based on songs released earlier in Underworld’s project. While the first two songs (42 minutes!) lean heavily on The Necks’ tender jazz interplay, Underworld’s stamp is clearly on the closing half-hour-long “Appleshine Continuum,” a composition suggesting the massive remixes and studio bootlegs from the dubnobasswithmyheadman days.

Underworld bravely use the broad expanse of time and creative space covered in Drift Series 1 to explore sounds and arrangements not yet heard in their repertoire. There’s also plenty of evidence that what brought them to the dance—and the dancefloor—not only never went away, it’s as sharp as ever. Surely not even UW superfans are going to like everything they hear in this collection, but there’s so much worth giving a chance. And hey, there’s always the sampler. And next year.

I also must mention a parallel drawn between Underworld and one of my favorite kosmische musik artists which I found mentioned in a feature by Simon Tucker of LouderThanWar.com:

John Doran of The Quietus recently compared Underworld to German pioneers CAN and that comparison is perfect. Like CAN, Underworld always seem to be in a constant state of evolution and knee deep in the high-art of experimentation. What they also share with their German predecessors is the sheer wealth of quality that they produce with DRIFT being the ultimate example of this. Fired up and free from the leash, Hyde and Smith now plan on continuing the project into 2020. They are now the gatekeepers and the spirit guides. Cerberus and Snoopy. As they continue we wish the road rises up to meet them and we will be following them every single step of the way for this is a story that has many enthralling chapters left to be written.

Stunning.

Series 1 explores a gamut of electronic subgenres. The Discogs entry for the release cites no fewer than a dozen genre tags for the release, including Techno, Leftfield, Experimental, Downtempo, Electro, Abstract, Future Jazz, Minimal Techno, Progressive House, Drum n Bass, Ambient, and Spoken Word.

DRIFT is, as Blyweiss wrote, a daunting and somewhat overwhelming undertaking, but one which is fantastically rewarding and welcomed by fans who wished for new Underworld music. As I mentioned, this release brings the grand total of discs in my Underworld library to an even 600, comprising well-over 8,100 tracks, many of which clock in at anywhere from 40 minutes to hours in length. These six hours of new content will be enjoyed again and again this winter and I look forward to the next DRIFT installment in 2020!

Published in: on November 16, 2019 at 7:55 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. jesus. that is one hell of a collection.
    i too have been curious to read reviews of this one – I love it but then again I pretty much love everything UW’s done. so to me this isn’t really daunting or overwhelming – it’s more like a fever dream. as you probably know UW make so much music, it’s kind of a shame that they were locked into that “album every 3-5 years” cycle. of course these albums were often really great but still. I’ve been wanting them to do something like this for so long. I’m just amazed at how good it turned out. I actually really stuff like “Hundred Weight Hammer” and “Molehill”. Something about these guys…I don’t know what it is…they just speak my language I guess
    when I really got into Underworld, it was around the time of the 1992-2002 anthology. I remember gathering from some interviews that it might be UW’s farewell. which really bummed me out, but still what a legacy. man, if only I could travel back in time and tell my high school self what was to come. of course I’d tip off the Autechre fans too 🙂

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts! There’s talk of a Series 2 volume for 2020. We can only hope!


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