Electronic Duo Underworld Mesmerize with Their Brilliant 'Drift Series'

Photo: Rob Baker Ashton / Courtesy of Magnum PR

To say Underworld's 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. Both Rick Smith and Karl Hyde sound inspired.

Drift Series 1


1 November 2019

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.







Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.


Songwriter Shelly Peiken Revisits "Bitch" for '2.0' Album (premiere)

A monster hit for Meredith Brooks in the late 1990s, "Bitch" gets a new lease on life from its co-creator, Shelly Peiken. "It's a bit moodier than the original but it touts the same universal message," she says.


Leila Sunier Delivers Stunning Preface to New EP via "Sober/Without" (premiere)

With influences ranging from Angel Olsen to Joni Mitchell and Perfume Genius, Leila Sunier demonstrates her compositional prowess on the new single, "Sober/Without".


Speed the Plough Members Team with Mayssa Jallad for "Rush Hour" (premiere)

Caught in a pandemic, Speed the Plough's Baumgartners turned to a faraway musical friend for a collaboration on "Rush Hour" that speaks to the strife and circumstance of our time.


Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."


The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.


Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.