Underworld have always stood in the top tier of electronic dance music producers. But on their new album Barking, Hyde and Smith collaborate with a variety of electronic producers to create a strong, eclectic album that is their best in a decade.
In 2009, a song floated across my radar (OK, the Internet) with Underworld’s Karl Hyde's name attributed to it. This track, “Downpipe”, by Mark Knight & D. Ramirez, featured the vocals of Hyde in a smoldering electronic number that still remains one of my favorite songs from that year. But it left me with a few questions: where it had come from, what is Underworld up to, and why is there no news about this on their site (at least at the time)? It turned out I had to wait till this summer to get my answer.
Underworld, the UK duo of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, collaborated with seven various electronic music producers from across a spectrum of genres, from drum & bass to trance, to create their latest album, Barking. Though there were a few memorable tracks on A Hundred Days Off and some interesting moments of Oblivion with Bells (both released without former member Darren Emerson), Underworld’s new album is distinctly Underworld, and has a greater cohesiveness than those previous two full lengths, as well as a greater appeal.
The first three songs of the album feel like a set. It begins with “Bird 1”, a pulsing number with a repeating chorus of “There is one bird in my house”. Hyde sounds more subdued, like a dog on a leash, which may make one less likely to scream and dance about, but the song is quite engaging and avoids feeling stale at nearly seven minutes long. Then, “Always Loved a Film” begins similarly to the aforementioned “Downpipe” and, as one might infer, is co-produced by Knight & Ramirez. It’s a more energetic track, with Hyde pulling hard on the leash, and as he chants “heaven” it becomes hard not to join in. The bridge has strumming guitar and sweeping sounds subtly reminiscent of their song “Two Months Off”. Rounding out the set is “Scribble”, co-produced with High Contrast, a frantic drum & bass journey with Hyde’s voice soaring overhead. As the lead single from the album, it sounds a bit more engaging in the compact radio edit, but the full length version remains the most unbridled track on the album.
“Hamburg Hotel”, featuring a collaboration with a couple of other UK producers, Appleblim and Al Tourettes, reboots the album. It is a slow, dark, tech house instrumental with the undercurrents of dubstep running through it. Again co-produced by Ramirez & Knight, “Between Stars” is a glittery tune as entertaining as “Film” that swells and drops back into the swirling synths. “Diamond Jigsaw” has probably the biggest collaboration, as trance DJ extraordinaire Paul van Dyk is listed as co-producer. Though it utilizes the base Underworld elements -- Hyde’s striking voice, propulsive guitar, and synths -- the collaboration fails to meet any lofty expectations, though its high production standards are nothing to scoff at. “Louisiana” closes with a more subdued tone. It is Underworld’s lovely lullaby, and Hyde’s otherworldly serenade. Through reflection and repeated play, Barking will reveal its nuances.