[7 January 2004]
Perhaps one of the most influential British music acts to ever hit the global dance scene, Underworld‘s long-awaited double disc anthology Underworld 1992 - 2002 contains 16 of the act’s most beloved concoctions. The collection is an ethereal collage of some of the most aesthetic acrobatics in electronica—electronic dance music spread throughout an aural playground that encourage the ears and legs to trance off into space. Wrap the three Muses in black leather, infinitely pierce their faces, and throw them on a flickering dance floor: this only touches on the ways that the songs generated by Karl Hyde, Rick Smith, Darren Emerson skillfully combine brilliant bass lines with heartfelt vocals that can cajole the stoniest buttocks to thaw up and start wiggling.
Although Emerson decided in 2000 to pursue his own career as a DJ, the new collection is nonetheless a historical diary of the trio’s time together fusing sounds that yielded, among other notable feats, 1990’s utterly brilliant Dubnobasswithmydeadman as “Born Slippy (Nuxx)”, the well as the well-known dance track from Danny Boyle’s 1996 film Trainspotting. No doubt the worldwide fame of the film along with the playing of “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” in nightclubs around the world has prompted Hyde and Smith to record a “Born Slippy 2003” package that includes mixes of the song by the likes Paul Oakenfold, and also features Dirk van Dooren and Danny Bolye versions of the tune. It is thus also no suprise that the anthology charted Number 1 in Japan upon its release there earlier this month.
The first CD opens with “Bigmouth”, a fusion of heavy beats layered beneath a sputtering harmonica, conveying the effect of the blues having passionate sex with electronica. The next two tracks recall Dubnobasswithmyheadman: the instrumental “dirty” contains some of the sound that texturize the lyrics of “Dirty Epic”, which is featured on CD one as the sixth track (and also originally from Dubnobass). One of my all time favorites, “Mmm, Skyscraper I Love You” sounds, with the assistance of Hyde’s sultry vocals, like the wind whispering to urbanites perched upon an open-air observation in a high rise within any city centre. Its jingling beats and hallucinatory lyrics about seeing Elvis and hearing the voice of God 30,000 feet above the ground potentially make dancers on the dance floors, even listeners in their seats, feel the dizzying thrills of acrophobia.
“Skyscraper” is followed by “Rez”, another electronic instrumental, and “Spikee”, which features heavy beats layered between looping lyrics and samples of an assortment of otherworldly sounds like chandelier crystals clinking together followed by heavy electric guitar strums. The first CD ends with “Dark and Long Train”—another gem from Dubnobass—and another example of Hyde’s uncanny ability, mixed with a frenetic piano towards the end, to seduce listeners with the sexiness of his gentle voice as he characterizes the clandestine darkness of night as it is penetrated by a midnight train to Longford, UK. In this sense, the first CD seems to instill an urban consciousness unto listeners, ultimately utilizing the technology of electronic music to sing about and lyrically construct scenarios that unfold within the very urban and industrial environs of the city, trains, skyscrapers, etc. that such music is conceived of and produced.
The second CD holds nine other songs, which are subsequently shorter than those on the first disc, yet pack their own punches as far as their potential to rip up the dance floor goes. In “Cowgirl”, Hyde’s vocals are more processed than they are elsewhere, emulating Trent Reznor’s (of Nine Inch Nails) vocals on Pretty Hate Machine and Douglas McCarthy’s (of Nitzer Ebb) vocals on Showtime. “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” is followed by the explosive “Pearls Girl”, which also follows the Reznor/McCarthy vocal styles with its distorted vocals layered beneath heavy beats, a pastiche of synthesizers, and what sounds like a loop of the cartoon character Popeye’s laugh. Some of the most evident beauty of Hyde’s lyrical ability is featured on “Jumbo”, an ironic name for a song that is, converse to its title, quite gentle and delicate with lofty musical movements that sound as if they were composed by Vangelis. Between soft whispers of “Click”, Hyde croons: “Telephone breath between us, the whole world is between us/ Only these wires/ Dust between the wires/ And the green grass/ In the distance/ I am your tourist—expected early in the mornin’/ Moving in brilliant timing…”
Though “Push Upstairs” uses distorted vocals and a synthesized piano to convey the confusion that conjoins love, it is a less impressive single when contrasted against the others on the anthology, and even the track that follows it. “Moaner” more sucessfully tackles the theme of modern love in its brash and fast clashing sounds and desperately passionate lyrics, and invokes urban imagery in the lyrics to register the alienation and isolation one can feel when confronted by both the external anonymity of the cityscape and the internal emotional landscape of the heart. One of the loveliest singles on the anthology follows “Shudder/King of Snake”—though it is the 15th track, “8 Ball” is well worth the wait to hear. With a sophisticated orchestration of synthesized acoustic guitars and pianos, it gingerly slows down the momentum of the hard beats and distorted vocals that precede it, vying instead for an aural ambience coupled with simple lyrics that seem a Buddhist meditation that, again, occurs on a train platform: “Today, today/ I saw a man/ Today, I saw a man/ Using an empty whiskey flask as a walkie talkie/ Today/ I met a man who threw his arms around me.” The anthology ends on “Two Months Off”, which closes the collection on an upbeat note.
Perhaps the most impressive feat of Underworld 1992 - 2002 is that it sucessfully marshals together a carnival of amazing and eclectic dance tunes onto a single anthology on the one hand yet demonstrates, on the other hand, that this music is not the work of mindless dance capitalists soley concerned with selling music to ravers and twitching clubgoers. The contrasts of the sounds and lyrics featured on the anthology testify that Underworld is not only one of the most important electronic acts of the past decade, but that Hyde and Smith can very intelligently map their synthesized fusions out upon themes that characterize life and love in urban centers, and can compel listeners to consider how the urban landscapes we inhabit often reflect to us, in larger than life ways, if we open up our eyes, the emotional mysteries that confound our own minds and hearts while maintaining a kinetic step with the fast-paced world of technology and global culture that engulfs 21st century life.