Whether they've truly subverted the label dynamic by going online-only, or simply succumbed to the long fade of dance music, this three-piece-suite offers both the best and most dreary of Underworld's once-vital work.
Dance music at present has all the street-cred and cache of country, without any of the extenuating circumstance. Country, regardless of its relative merits, has rarely been worn as a badge of cool nor wielded as a weapon of teenage rebellion, whereas dance music -- and you'll have to reach your own conclusion as to what fits beneath that particular umbrella, since we won't deal in self-strangulating sets and sub-sets here -- dance music served up nothing less than wholesale revolution less than two decades ago. Indeed, for a time, dance culture was arguably the most pervasive and influential youth culture spanning the entire globe, and its influence on the way music sounds and its use of technology was, and is today, impossible to overstate.
Today such halcyon days feel long gone. That was then and this is now, and you don't see too many T-shirts bearing the claim "My Boyfriend is a DJ" anymore. Mostly, those decks that were pony-ed up for a few years ago are either boxed-up and gathering dust, or else going for a lot less than they once were on eBay. Any way you look at it, the world of dance music has been one of diminishing returns for some time now. Commercially, it's largely a generational matter, a question of fashion, as a new youth culture roundly rejects the previous generation's tastes as folly. Well, same as it ever was. Creatively, though, it's more a matter of imagination having played catch-up with technology, a ceiling being reached in terms of creating something that sounds wholly new. Beyond that initial giant leap, revolution happens in small increments, quietly and in ways more difficult to discern. It isn't that new and interesting work suddenly ceases entirely... more that it develops in the shadows, away from the limelight. And so to Underworld, and the recent Riverrun Project.
Underworld's last full-length studio release, A Hundred Days Off, was released to an almost deafening silence from punters and pundits alike. In many ways it was symptomatic of the dilemma facing even the most significant dance music artists. Regardless of the work's merit, few people seemed truly open to hearing new work of this type. In fact, the album received a lukewarm critical reception when it was reviewed at all, but though it hardly represents Underworld's best work, it wasn't exactly the enormous falling off it was perceived as, either. Having taken one direction to its logical conclusion on Beaucoup Fish, A Hundred Days Off at least had the courage to travel new roads, and visited several worthwhile destinations along the way. But when news arrived that Underworld's next release would be made available only online, one wondered whether the band's members, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, weren't in some way hoisting up the white flag, playing their own version of 'If a tree falls in the woods, does anybody hear?' At the very least, surely the band was preaching to the choir... weren't they?
The Riverrun Project comprises three suites, each in the region of 30 minutes in length, available by download only via www.underworldlive.com (each suite includes a visual gallery of digital images, unavailable on the review copy). The first of these suites, Lovely Broken Thing, was released on November 9, 2005 and did not portend well. The opening track "JAL to Tokyo" opens with rhythms that are instantly recognizable as belonging to Underworld, but descends into garish mannerism from the moment Karl Hyde's heavily treated vocals intrude. The vocal treatments are cartoon-like, and the phrasing itself parodies Hyde's own signature style. It doesn't get much better. "Peggy Sussed" sounds like dance music gone glam rock, horribly so, with Hyde's vocal tics again proving an annoyance. In fact, only in the last few minutes of a seven song set, via the propulsive energy of "Monkey Wink" beautifully contrasted against the melancholy of "Witness", is there relief in any form.
Perhaps at this point it might be worth remarking upon Underworld's own reasons for the 'Internet only' releases. To Karl Hyde it represents a means of "taking music from the studio and putting it into the world in a matter of seconds... kind of like selling twelve-inch records out of the back of cars in the early '90s." Of course, with music being purchased online as often as on the high street now, this may not seem such a radical step; that is, outside of the fact that, for now at least, these particular tracks may only be purchased on Underworld's own website. Yet it may also be worth mentioning here that there's been dissent on the message boards from a small number of dedicated audiophiles, griping that the quality of the downloads isn't as pristine as it might be. Personally, I imagine the quality to be perfectly adequate for the majority of listeners, but for now, back to the music...
Pizza for Eggs, released on December 7, 2005, represents the best and loveliest work Underworld has done in years. From the grand, sweeping majesty of "Food a Ready", shifting through the warm dub glow of "Back in the Fears", onwards through the almost mystical transcendentalism of "Vanilla Monkey" and "Ancient Phat Farm Coat", this is Underworld at their most sublime. After the disaster of the previous set, Karl Hyde's elusive and allusive lyrics, along with his delivery, sit perfectly here, embellishing hypnotic rhythms that constantly move and change shape, though you're hard pressed to keep track of where and how. "Ancient Phat Farm Coat" in particular recalls "Pearl's Girl" and other work from the Second Toughest in the Infants era. Lay back and listen, see if you're not helpless in allowing your mind to simply drift away. The set closes with "Pig Play", a melancholic, bitter-sweet homecoming -- "I love this town / Bricked-up low-grade buildings / Architecture for the blind / The numb-zone excites me / Everything simple / No cheap thrills / No frills/ No flash distractions". The whole suite is lovely stuff, and I'll take twenty-five minutes of this over any faux-current post-punk, '80s re-hash band you care to mention.
Whether it constitutes 'dance music' is another story. Again, the labels hardly matter, except that I recently read the Prodigy's Liam Howlett quoted to the effect that of all the major dance music acts, Underworld in particular exist primarily in clubs, on the dance floor, the idea of which struck me as absurd. For my money, Underworld have always been the most heady act of their type (for one thing, the cerebral impulse and the impulse to dance being, in a certain sense, opposite). Underworld's work holds up away from the dance floor better than that of most of their peers, and much of their slower, more ambient work appears to me to be amongst their best (though I am prepared to admit to holding the minority view in this latter aspect, at least).
The final installment in The Riverrun Project is titled, naturally, I'm a Big Sister, and I'm a Girl, and I'm a Princess, and This Is My Horse. Well, really, what else would you call it? It opens with "11 Hundred Hz", which was perhaps born from, or at least echoes, Underworld's superb "soft" re-mix of Depeche Mode's "Barrel of a Gun". With its intermittent plaintive horn, it sounds a little like something from Bowie's Low updated, streamlined, until it slips gracefully into the next track, the more proto-typically driven "Peach Tree" (and, as with the previous two suites, I'm a Big Sister... is elegantly mixed, in much the same fashion that Underworld mixes tracks throughout their redoubtable live shows).
This last in the series, then -- released June 5, 2006 -- opens brightly enough, but begins to drift, losing the same intensity of focus of the previous set around the fourth or fifth track. It isn't bad work, but in this respect perhaps it most accurately reflects Hyde's claim for the series: a means of releasing work of interest without all the necessary pressures of a full label release. Like any car-boot sale, this one provides mixed offerings, and although this last set falls somewhere in between the two previous releases in terms of quality, on July 10 Hyde and Smith released a thirty minute retrospective mix from the completed project, free to download to anyone who bought the three previous downloads.
Quite how many people get to hear The Riverrun Project is open to question, but what remains unchanged is Underworld's commitment to forward motion, their desire to make bold experimental music, and their wish to challenge philosophical conceits of how audio-visual projects might be pieced together, made available, and shared.