Reviews

Underworld

Karl Hyde is not intent on slipping into the comfy chair just yet. Instead, he's donning a sparkly, silver-sequined jacket that begs the question: is all that glimmers really gold?

Underworld

Underworld

City: New York, NY
Venue: Central Park Summerstage
Date: 2007-09-14

It’s been 11 years since Underworld unleashed classic dance anthem “Born Slippy”. Eleven... years. Of course, if you really want to talk age, you should probably discuss it with Karl Hyde. Hyde, one half of Underworld, is 50 years old. Fifty? It sounds almost Jagger-esque. The idea that dance music could have elder statesmen, that members of the first great wave of dance are at home curling their toes in slippers (some, doubtless, still trying to clear the chemical haze from their brains), boggles the mind. But then, Karl Hyde is not intent on slipping into the comfy chair just yet. Instead, he’s donning a sparkly, silver-sequined jacket and jumping giddily on stage in Central Park. We’ll come back to the jacket later -- but first, the band, the music... It’s easy to suspect that Underworld might have lost their sense of place in recent years, their sense of where they fit within the music firmament. The duo, Hyde and Rick Smith, have given themselves solely to producing work; they leave it others to sort through, to evaluate, and sometimes even to locate. Their most recent studio release, The Riverrun Project, was an online exclusive, and in the past couple of years they’ve also quietly contributed two film soundtracks (Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine), the influence of which can be felt on their upcoming album, Oblivion with Bells. Certainly “To Heal” sounds like nothing else the band has previously released, and it almost surely must be an outtake from one of the film scores -- either that, or it’s on loan from Moby. In support of the new album, Underworld is touring the United States for the first time in five years. Last time, they made a mockery of the idea that a worthwhile electronic-based live show represents a basic contradiction in terms. For a period of two or three years during the mid-to-late ’90s, their performances -- largely unscripted and improvised -- were as fierce and powerful as those of any artist in any genre you care to mention. Their live DVD, Everything, Everything, defied conventional wisdom still further. And now? As evinced by this recent show at Central Park’s Summerstage, Underworld remain admirable in their willingness to please. And yet, the moments of pure invention, of unbridled inspiration, have diminished. It may be unrealistic to expect any band to constantly re-imagine their concert performance, but for the first time, their set conveyed a sense that this was a band hitting the road in support of a new album, rather than playing for the simple joy of playing. Gone was the thrill of the new, replaced by the familiar, the somewhat perfunctory -- which may go some way to explain why most of the highlights from this show were to be found in the newer material. This isn’t entirely as you’d expect, even if it bodes well for the new album. Since 1988’s Beaucoup Fish, Underworld’s output has delighted and disappointed in frustratingly equal measure. With that in mind, I’d recommend tempering early enthusiasm for the new work with a measure of caution. Oblivion with Bells has much to recommend it -- Underworld are too smart, too voracious in their interests to make a wholly dull record -- but, as with Riverrun, it’s an uneven batch. Each of the newer tracks Smith and Hyde elected to play at Summerstage drew from the darker edge of the spectrum, which may say something about the times we live in. After opener “Luetin”, from 2002’s A Hundred Days Off, the night’s second track, “Crocodile”, featured decidedly uplifting vocal harmonies, yet was anchored by a deep, guttural reverberating bass -- one meant to provide a tension inside the sweetness. Likewise, the new album’s stand-out track, “Beautiful Burnout”, was both lovely and full of heavy menace, built around a descending bass line and Karl Hyde’s anaesthetized, heavily treated vocal line, intoning... what exactly? Well, with Underworld there’s always a mystery as to the ‘what,’ isn’t there? More problematic and unsatisfying, though, were the tracks that for many years have formed the backbone of Underworld’s live show -- “Pearl’s Girl”, “REZ/Cowgirl”, and “Born Slippy”. “Pearl’s Girl” began promisingly enough, but Hyde sounded like he was singing over a backing track -- which is essentially what he was doing, of course. Having seen Underworld a number of times, I have to say that this was the first I’d ever felt such awareness. Each of these songs seemed saddled with pitch and tempo problems, not to mention a distinct separation between live voices and backing tracks. While it may just be that the band haven’t toured in a number of years, and that this was one of the first shows of the tour, the results were flat and disappointing. More troubling is the idea that because dance music draws so strongly on emotion -- often aiming to inspire something like euphoria along with an irrepressible urge to move -- it could be that, for now at least, the classics in the Underworld canon need to be put away. Many of the more specifically ‘dance’-oriented numbers had about them the disagreeable whiff of nostalgia. While Hyde and Smith may be giving the crowd what they want, perhaps they aren’t offering what will serve everyone best in the long run. Certainly if this version of the fabled “REZ/Cowgirl” mix is anything to go by, they’ve become bored by it themselves. Which brings me back to Karl Hyde’s jacket. Because of the way electronic music is played (essentially, from behind a bank of computers), those dance artists who’ve gained any kind of live reputation have done so foremost by the sheer power of their music, but also by navigating visual interest away from themselves. In the case of Underworld, the visual fireworks have typically emanated from allusive images and words projected on a large screen. This is why, in Everything, Everything, you never see Karl Hyde in anything more flamboyant than a t-shirt and jeans. But in the Park, Hyde’s silver jacket -- worn over the familiar t-shirt and jeans -- bespoke an empty theatricality, a wisecrack devoid of wit or weight. As such, it appeared faintly desperate, or, at best, ill-considered. Perhaps, though, the jacket’s gaudy brightness goes some way to explain the number of people in the crowd who felt compelled to wear sunglasses to an evening show? Certainly by the following afternoon I was prepared to consider the possibility.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta


Keep reading... Show less
Film

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

The Force, which details the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts, is best viewed as a complimentary work to prior Black Lives Matter documentaries, such 2017's Whose Streets? and The Blood Is at the Doorstep.

Peter Nicks' documentary The Force examines the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts to curb its history of excessive police force and systemic civil rights violations, which have warranted federal government oversight of the Department since 2003. Although it has its imperfections, The Force stands out for its uniquely equitable treatment of law enforcement as a complex organism necessitating difficult incremental changes.

Keep reading... Show less
6

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image