In November last year, British electronic duo Underworld embarked on what seemed at the time a borderline insane project. The band challenged themselves to release a brand new, fully produced song complete with visuals every day for 52 whole weeks. To say this was ambitious is putting it mildly. However, true to their word on 1 November 2018, the band released the first track from the Drift Series 1 box set.
One of the ideas behind the project was to replicate a Netflix series where you could pick up the story at any point without any real need to seek out what preceded it. With that in mind, it’s easier to approach the box set without looking for a start and endpoint. Rather, it is much more fun to dive in anywhere and have a swim around the throbbing techno beats then, get out, dry yourself off and dip your toes in the more ambient shallows for a bit.
For those who could do with a bit of a taster rather than being presented with everything on the menu at the same time, the band have released a sampler. In the pair’s own words, its purpose is to “guide the listener straight through to the centre of the project”. This seems like as good a place as any to start.
The dazzling “Appleshine” is both redolent of every era of the band’s career while also fearlessly highlighting the possibilities that come with starting a new one. As tumbling synth notes and stretched sax glide over shimmering electronics, the track slowly builds to an instantly recognizable, throbbing beat as Karl Hyde’s falsetto drifts in and out of focus. It’s the band at their repetitive, blissed-out best.
On “This Must Be Drum Street”, the dizzying syncopated synths and shuffling beat form a tight base for Hyde’s chants of “Do you wanna buy my car?” The euphoric, “Listen to Their No” is comfortably up there with their very best work as they distill their core club sound while adding a few fresh ingredients. The same could be said of the slowly building “Border Country”. With the band joined by Phase, aka Londoner Ashley Burchett, it’s an old school trance track brought crashing into the here and now.
“Schipol Test” artfully updates the acid house sound of Beaucoup Fish with Hyde’s vocals adding another distinct layer to the music. With its undulating, distressed synths, “Brilliant Yes That Would Be” sounds like the soundtrack to an art-house space western while “S T A R (Rebel Tech)” is stunning. Taking the Ahlberg’s classic children’s story “Each, Peach, Pear, Plum” as it’s base, Hyde launches into a tumbling, stream of consciousness list of celebrities in random situations. Like the very best Underworld tracks, it quickly needles its way into the subconscious where it sits, waiting to come out when you least expect it.
The sampler closes with the life-affirming, “Custard Speedtalk”. Taking an elegant piano rhythm and gently billowing electronics, it’s the band at their uplifting best. The sampler does an excellent job of digging out a small portion of the full box set to delight the senses. However, it is far from the “best of the box”. Once you’ve finished, take a deep breath, loosen the waistband, and get stuck into the main meal.
With such an extensive body of work, any review can only hope to provide a flavor of what’s on offer. The opening track of the entire series and the first to appear is the excellent “Another Silent Way”. Containing one of Hyde’s most memorable vocal hooks that pulls the brain into the tune while the thumping techno beats work on the body. Over gently percolating beats, “Universe of Can When Back” gradually morphs into something else entirely. Like the best tracks on here, it feels brave and expansive as the band flex their musical muscles. The same is true of “Threat of Rain”, which captivates throughout its extended 15-minute run time.
The edgy “Soniamode” finds Underworld skillfully manipulating sonic chaos as if desperately attempting to stop the speakers from blowing. “Pinetum” is a gloriously spacious, techno tune that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Daniel Avery record, while “Do Breakers Trip” is altogether woozier as the pair take off in a more psychedelic techno direction.
Then, there are more ambient pieces such as the winding drone of “One True Piano Need Hand”, complete with squalls of synths and “Doris”, a wondrous, crystalline ambient piece that draws you in, heart and soul. The perfectly named, “Toluca Stars” sits somewhere between the two. In the process becoming of the most profoundly beatific things that Underworld has ever written.
Then there are the more experimental pieces. The wonky hip-hop of “Hundred Weight Hammer”, the hauntingly beautiful poetry of “Low Between Zebras”, and the rolling dub beats of “Altitude Dub”. Lastly, there are the more avant-garde collaborations with the Necks that make up the last record. These feel like a wholly different project entirely that reveals a fascinating alternative side to the band.
To say Drift Series 1 is an immersive experience is an understatement. It’s an album that invites you to pitch a tent in it and hunker down for a month. Taken as it is, the band have made six, very different, equally brilliant Underworld albums, and that’s only if you choose to listen linearly. The beauty of the project is that you can dip in and out, or you can rearrange tracks into your playlists like a glorious musical pick and mix.
Musically, the pair have strained and stretched every musical muscle, and probably many they didn’t know they had. Both Rick Smith and Karl Hyde sound inspired by the former steering the music down unexplored avenues while Hyde constantly shows why he is such an underrated, brilliant lyricist with couplets that may be nonsense but could just as easily be the most profoundly brilliant thing you’ve ever heard.
Most remarkably, every track on the album is there on merit as fully formed pieces with developed hooks and melodies rather than failed experiments or abandoned jams. The result is a stunning artistic statement from musicians, not only deeply immersed in the creative process but also liberated by the mad challenge they initially set themselves just over a year ago.