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.

 

At It Again – New Works from Brian Eno and Underworld’s Karl Hyde

Friday saw the debut of Brian Eno’s latest album – The Ship following the release of ts epic 21-minute self-titled single.

DSC06858.JPGThe Ship accompanied by an official postcard from Eno • Hyde

Like so many of Eno’s albums, this record serves more to inspire thoughtful consideration and reflection than it does casual enjoyment. Unlike Discreet Music or Airports, this is not sonic wallpaper or furniture music, though it resonates a similar ethereal sonic quality. The Ship has a somber and harrowing essence, serving as a dire reflection on the Titanic disaster and the horrors of WWI. But the record maintains a meditative and cerebral tone rewarding to any listener who’ll give the album their full attention.

The double LP includes more of Eno’s art prints. The works are semblant of the visualizations from his 77 Million Paintings generative software. Not particularly inspiring, they function better conceptually rather than visually.

Also this week, Eno’s recent collaborator Karl Hyde released a short art film of an installation he produced for Underworld’s latest album, Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future. I found the fervent and tactile quality of Hyde’s work more engaging than the static nature of Eno’s prints.

Hyde’s Tokyo Street Poem features Soundscape by Underworld’s other half, Rick Smith and was exhibited at Parco, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan in March 2016 as part of the Tomato 25th Anniversary Exhibition.

Underworld also recently premiered a choreographed dance film for the album’s track, “If Rah”, but once again, I believe the concept was better executed by other artists in years prior.

Amelia: A Film by Edouard Lock With La La La Human Steps (2002) features David Lang’s cover of “I’m Waiting For My Man” with choreographed dancers Mistaya Hemmingway and Jason Shipley-Holmes. The film is striking and visually captivating.

Sigur Ros produced an equally effective film piece for their valtari film experiment – a collection of 16 short films made for the valtari album. The 2012 film features Ekki múkk, Valtari, Rembihnútur and Varúð. It is a passionate and emotive work.

If you missed my feature on Underworld’s latest album, check it out!  And I’ll be back next Saturday with my latest culturally-inspired creative and research projects.

Stay tuned!

Barbara, Barbara We Face a Shining Future

underworld in studioUnderworld portrait © Perou / Courtesy of the artist

For thirty-seven years, Rick Smith and Karl Hyde have been creating their own unique flavor of music, ranging from New Wave (with their first effort, a one-off single sold from the boot of Karl’s car as the Screen Gemz), to synth pop as Freur and Underworld Mk1, to progressive house experimentalism with their breakthrough self-reinvention on the album, Dubnobasswithmyheadman. From there Underworld’s sound grew infinitely richer and more adventurous, with everything from dancefloor anthems to ambient scores for film and the stage, to providing a soundtrack for the London 2012 Olympic Games.  

By the present day, their catalog boasts an impressive tally of 510 albums, EPs, live releases, collaborations, solo efforts, and singles. At 56 and 58 years old, the duo has been producing music longer than many of their listeners have been alive.  Releasing a new LP, the band’s first new recordings in six years would be a daunting task for any artist. But instead, as Ian Mathers notes in his review for PopMatters, “this might be the most relaxed, subtly confident record they’ve put out in Underworld Mk II’s history.”

True veterans of electronic music, Barbara is artful and inventive and easily the freshest-sounding album I’ve heard all year thus far.

Casual listeners hoping for an album of “Born Slippy”s be warned – this is instead an intimate and reflective album capturing the emotive spirit the band has past-exemplified in their more meditative and mid-tempo tracks and, as Mathers notes, “is more of a slow burn, a ‘Banstyle/Sappys Curry’ instead of a ‘Pearl’s Girl’.”

Slant Magazine revealed that “the album’s title came from the mouth of Smith’s dying father, being among the final words he uttered to his wife.” And Spin Magazine adds that the album’s “stirring background vocals over ever-turning arpeggiated synths are provided by Smith’s daughter, Esme, and Hyde’s daughter, Tyler, carrying the torch (almost literally) for future ravers.” This is what four-decade veterans of electronic music sound like in their most intimate and thoughtful moments.

The opener, “I Exhale” sets the pace for the record – steady and patient, with a subtle energy harkening back to the halcyon days of their electrifying floor-stomping live performances. Karl’s familiar spoken-word vocals are welcome here, a signature sound of the band’s indelibility.

The melodic hook that picks up and builds at the three-minute mark of “If Rah” and returns to close the track is elemental to the structure of countless progressive house classics. And the abstract and sometimes stream-of-consciousness lyrics which accompany it fuse the formula into that which is unmistakably Underworld.

The instrumental, “Santiago Cuatro” is an intimately organic and fragile departure from the tracks which preceded it, and it serves as the perfect transition to the magnificently radiant “Motorhome.” Relinquishing bass-heavy electronic percussion, the listener is left with a simple lyrical phrase accompanied by a curiously active meandering melody and delicately placed traditional piano tones. Brian Eno’s influence from their recent collaboration certainly shines here.

And true to form, the album closer, “Nylon Strung” is an empyrean ascent to unabashed bliss. With its recurring lyrical plea, “Carry me… open me up… I want to hold you… laughing…”, the duo invites us to share in their resounding joy.

The theme of the record approaches the shimmery, reflective territory Karl explored with an early edit of “Always Loved a Film”, (then dubbed “Silver Boots”) broadcast only once – on May 19th 2006 from the band’s Lemonworld Studio.  The track has long been a stand-out favorite with its four on the floor beats delicately balanced by more complex and thoughtful elements which reveal themselves over the eleven minutes of the song.  

And ever-present are Karl’s trademark vocals – stripped bare of effects and showcasing curious conversational fragments expertly-described by Jon Dennis (of the Guardian) as “affecting, fractured evocations of the disorientations of modern urban life.” Karl speaks, “Maggie’s a doll and I’m a big sister / She’s a little girl and I’m a little princess / These are the weeds that live in the cracks / and these are the rails at the edge of the world.” The phrases are puzzling and disconnected but function beautifully in an abstract sort of elegance. This is what Underworld does best – and precisely what they’ve achieved with their wonderful new record.