A Hundred Days Off Revisited

This evening on a late night drive back to the city, I queued up one of my favorite Underworld albums that I hadn’t spun in some time. I wanted to share it with various music communities online but felt an obligatory responsibility to defend the album, as it received a lot of undeserved heat upon its release.

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A Hundred Days Off (2002) was Underworld’s first full-length LP after the departure of Darren Emerson. Darren was a critical contributor to the trademark sound of Underworld Mk2, which spanned the album trilogy of Dubnobasswithmyheadman, Second Toughest in the Infants, and Beaucoup Fish. This chapter of the band concluded with the release of their live concert DVD, Everything Everything Live in 2000.

What followed with A Hundred Days Off and Rick and Karl’s subsequent LPs was a markedly more cerebral incarnation of the duo’s sound. AHDO traded in the floor-stomping anthems and “lager lager lager…” lyricism for more artful explorations of electronic music. Rejected by some of the clubbing community as weak or lifeless, these listeners were too quick to reject the ambient soundscapes, natural percussion, and polyrhythmic intricacies that make A Hundred Days Off such an enjoyable and enduring record.

Call it what you like – “album-oriented techno”, “progressive downtempo”, or “music for aging ravers”… just know that the best of the band’s recordings lie deep in the grooves beyond the club tracks of the late 1990s. And with The RiverRun Project, an array of web-only releases, and their music for both stage and screen, Underworld had an incredible wealth of music to offer after the dance floor had cleared at sunup.

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.

 

February Featured Artist: Mr. Karl Hyde

A dear friend recently stated that “Sometimes I think the only point of going to college was for me to find out about Underworld’s A Hundred Days Off album.”  I replied that it was one of the most beautiful sentences I’d ever read.

And it came at an opportune juncture, as there is brilliant Underworld news afoot.

Karl (the lead, founding member) has released his first-ever solo record.  And you need to go buy it right now.

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I touched upon this album in my post from mid-December, which served as more of a sample analysis of the LP than a proper review, but now that I’ve had time to really digest the album I thought it appropriate to explore the record and his recent live performances in greater depth.

Karl’s debut solo show at The Union Chapel on April 25th 2013 featured several UW rarities and classics, many performed live for the first time in his 35-year career.

The genre tag for the new LP is listed as “Ethereal” and honestly I could not dream up a more fitting term.  It explores the more intimate progressive sounds which kept bringing listeners back to A Hundred Days Off, and to many of Karl’s more exploratory “deep cuts” over the years.

This first-ever live track is “8 Ball,” originally issued exclusively on the soundtrack to the film, The Beach 14 years ago.  Karl concluded the Union Chapel show with this treat, and it’s wonderful to see him filled with joy at the end of the performance.

And here is “Dirty Epic” from the same show. “Epic” was the first track on his first release as Underworld Mk2.  Underworld Mk1 was a synth pop extension of his earlier band, Freur. But Dubnobasswithmyheadman was brilliantly progressive and a milestone in the history of electronic music. Karl’s stream-of-consciousness sexually-charged lyricism takes center stage in this more intimate interpretation of the now 20-year old trance anthem.

And finally, here was the mind-blowing surprise track of the night. Watch below as Karl performs the track which first exposed him to musical celebrity – the Welsh synthpop one-hit-wonder Freur released in 1983 – “Doot Doot.” This is the first time in 30 years that Karl has performed the song.  And without the electric drum kit or synth keyboards, it takes on a much more mature mood.  Fans who have been following Karl since his humble beginnings were awestruck to hear the track performed by a a man who, at the age of 57 has guided the direction of electronic music for the last three decades.

Now onto Edgeland – Karl’s first official release without his bandmate, Rick Smith.  I came to this record without having heard a single note before I dropped the needle on my own copy.  I made no hesitation about ordering it – Karl has never let me down and Edgeland proved to be no exception.

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A few words on Edgeland’s production value:

This is an elegant and mature recording – rare form in an electronic genre plagued by contemporary trends like brostep and heavily-compressed electro pop.

Examining “Perfume” we find a simple, low-fi sawtooth wave paired with a melody supplied by Karl’s Gibson SG guitar.  But headphone listening reveals several other instrumental nuances.  Similarly, subtle choral harmonic effects support and enrich his vocals.  Both of these effects are masterfully executed and clearly separate this record from the bland pop that dominates the genre.

And here is the video of the album’s single – “The Boy With The Jigsaw Puzzle Fingers.”

The track exudes Karl’s intellectual refinement and his overwhelming joy.  The record is a proud sonic declaration of who he is – capturing the musical voice that exists within Mr. Hyde, outside of the sold-out arenas in Tokyo, and away from the rave anthems of the music festivals.  We are hearing Karl’s true voice, independent of Underworld, of the genre, and free of expectation or responsibility.

And his voice is beautiful.

Thanks, Karl.

Karl Hyde Press Photo