I combined both my Underworld pages since it didn't make much sense to have two. If you're looking for the mk2 reviews (which I'm sure 99% of you are), scroll down:
Freur/Underworld Mark 1
I was a big Underworld fan for about 5 years before I discovered a disc called Underneath the Radar by a band with the same name. I bought it used for $1.99 for the novelty value of having a disc by a band that shared a name with my favorite group. Then I listened to it. Whoa, not only do they have the same name, but this guy sounds just like Karl Hyde! **goes through CD booklet** **makes Tim Taylor grunting noise** Awoooouuh? That actually IS Karl Hyde?? You almost never hear about the 'mk1' Underworld, aside from the fact that they charted a couple of minor hits ("Underneath the Radar" and "Stand Up", the former you may still hear on some 80's radio stations today), and toured with the Eurythmics way back when. Had the group not went on to relative stardom, these discs would have basically fallen off the planet, and rightfully so; they're mired terribly in the 80's, with Sire Records pushing them hard for a relentlessly commercial, super sterile sound that would place it alongside albums by Huey Lewis and A Flock of Seagulls. But they never got a big break and were dropped, which in hindsight is the best thing that could have happened to them. Actually, this was the second time that this happened to them - I then discovered that more or less the same crew was responsible for a synth-heavy New Romantic group called Freur, who also had minor radio success before getting dropped by their second album. While I can't really recommend the Underworld albums, it turns out Freur was actually pretty entertaining, sounding kind of like Vince Clarke-era Depeche Mode, except Hyde is a better singer. Although they were a song-based and very trendy group, you can actually trace the path from Freur to Underworld mk2 through an unreleased track called "Alabaster White Thing". A few demos have surfaced that showed Freur as being experimental gearheads, but that doesn't come through on the albums. In this sense, the mk1 group is kind of a step back.
As for the lineup - it starts with Karl Hyde (guitar, vocals) and Rick Smith (keyboards), with Alfie Thomas (bass), Bryn Burrows (drums), and John Warwicker (also keyboards, maybe other instruments as well). When Freur got dropped and turned into Underworld, Warwicker left the group, though he would help form the design company Tomato which has worked extensively with Underworld throughout the years. Thomas doesn't have much of a record afterwards, though Burrows has become something of a journeyman. Anyway, on to the reviews:
Screen Gemz - I Just Can't Stand Cars/Teenage Teenage (1979)
Okay, so this was actually Hyde and Smith's first group, with Thomas appearing as well. The songs are alright, but this isn't recorded very well. Still, it's a hell of a collector's item, and for what it's worth they did recycle one of the hooks on "I Just Can't Stand Cars", a fine pop song in its own right. Sounds like the Bay City Rollers, of all things.
Freur - Doot-Doot (1983)
Although Freur never did achieve any real commercial success, at the very least they have got to be one of the era's most likeable bands. Their chilled, synth heavy New Romantic croon-tunes aren't really anything new or unique, but Freur had the right amount of dorkiness to them. They really did buy into just about every trapping that gets made fun of on shows like I Love the 80's today; the big, ridiculous hair, the loud slap bass, the big gated drum effect, all the then-state of the art production tricks, and over-emotional singing, as though they were just trying to show that they had feelings too. When Hyde sings the line "four hearts beat as one", he whispers in the background "one...two...three...four". This would have been lame in any era, but I guess that was mildly acceptable back then. If they were at all concerned about how this would sound even 10 years later they made just about every decision wrong. Still, Freur had two things going for them - one, they wrote strong, memorable songs with good hooks and a nice atmosphere, and two, they had a really great lead singer. Hyde is really the X-factor who makes the album work - he delivers many of the words with a B-movie fervor, trying to wring emotion out of every line, milking the "confident, yet vulnerable" vibe for everything its worth. Just his voice plus an electric piano turn "Whispering" into a deeply resonant, trance-inducing ballad, and the way the vocals creep into the bass channels is chilling. Likewise, the title track has to go down as one of the best minor hits of the decade - it's distinctly downtempo (an odd choice for a single), focusing instead on strange vocal effects and layered synth parts. When everything comes to a crescendo in the end, it's a stunning moment, even today. Since it didn't chart very high, it has the benefit of avoiding overexposure, and if you're a New Wave aficionado, the single is a major find. Nothing else on the album is as epic as that, but it's a very good listen. There is a gothic vibe here; dark but not overwhelmingly so, and the focus is mostly on the hooks (particularly the vocal ones). The result is a bunch of melancholy tunes that are catchy enough to hold up over multiple listenings ("Runaway", "Matters of the Heart", "Tender Surrender"). It's like OMD with more production tricks and camp, or maybe Depeche Mode with a better singer. They do stray from the path on a few tracks, with mixed results; "My Room" is a great piece of controlled slap bass funk, but the jazzy film-noir feel of "Theme From the Film of the Same Name" feels unfinished. I'm still not sure what to make out of the thin sex groove "Steam Machine", but it probably wouldn't worth listening to if it weren't so bizarre. There's layered vocals on "Runaway", a bunch of dramatic piano stabs at the end of "Tender Surrender", a huge chorus on "All Too Much", etc. etc. What this means is that most of the songs do have a clear "good part" to listen for, which makes it easy to come back to this album. This is a hidden treasure, though it has little to do with Underworld as we know them.
Freur - Get Us Out Of Here (1985)
This was supposed to be Freur's "coming out" album; it's loaded to the gills with potential follow-up singles, but only "The Devil and Darkness" ended up charting. They've moved on from the New Romanticisms (and relative seriousness) of Doot Doot and delved into synthpop, though a particularly catchy and goofy branch of it. Songwise, this is actually better than the first album; they do lose most of their resonant vibes (the excellent "Kiss Me" excepted), but the power pop tunes are incredible. In fact, "Devil" is probably the weakest song here. These tunes are designed to stick in your head, whether it's through big, ridiculously hooky choruses ("A.O.K.O", "The Piano Song"), or upbeat, infectious dance grooves ("Look in the Back for Answers", "Endless Groove"). If you put enough songs like that on an album, it's going to get a good grade from me no matter what. But it could have a synthpop classic; the production work is a hackjob and results in a claustrophobia-inducing mix, which causes some of the instruments to get drowned out (particularly the sax work, which you mostly have to listen for). It has the "$50 boom box" sound to it no matter what stereo you listen to it on. Furthermore, there is a ton of hiss on the vocals which mar one of the group's strongest points. It sucks, but it's not a huge deal - unlike the last album, they don't rely on atmosphere, as the band mostly keeps things simple and lets the material speak for itself. The bass work stands out but they don't really stick to the same synths or guitars. As for Karl, he handles this type of stuff with a huge grin, adopting an exaggerated Welsh accent for most of it. I like what he does here though - he sounds confident but not exactly attached to the material, playing up most of the good parts while making it pretty easy to sing along to. Sadly the group got axed after this, and unlike the debut album, this album didn't get a CD release until 2009, when both albums were packaged together on one disc. Unfortunately they end up having to edit a few of the songs for length (which isn't really a big deal, but it's still lame), and it suffers from modern mastering techniques that turn up all the knobs and drown out the few dynamics that the original had. It deserves a proper CD release along with some bonus tracks (the cassette came with five; otherwise there is some very cool experimental stuff like the ambient "Alabaster White Thing" floating out there), but it will probably never happen, as outside "Doot Doot" (the song) I don't think anybody really cares about Freur. That said, the CD that was released is a major bargain, as both releases are pretty good.
Underworld - Underneath the Radar (1988)
This is essentially the same band as Freur, with Baz Allen replacing John Warwicker. Allen gets writing credits on everything, but somehow I believe this group's refined corporate rock sound was an insistence of Sire Records. If you're in love with old synth-rock you'll find something to like here - the piano-led leadoff "Glory! Glory!" is punchy and memorable, and the closing "God Song" is a lot of stupid fun. And in between? Well, "Underneath the Radar" and "I Need a Doctor" are both fun sing-alongs, with the former actually becoming a hit, due to a chugging rhythm and a memorable (or obnoxious) vocal melody ("A-see ya later, a-see ya later, hip uhnuh now now, caaaall me") placing it somewhere in the vicinity of "Der Kommissar" and "Electric Avenue" (I would think "Doctor" could have also charted). Most of the songs are pretty decent, usually having at least one good vocal hook, even if they sometimes don't fully come together. This results in a few tunes where you'll remember the chorus but not any of the verses ("Call Me No. 1", "Rubber Ball"), and the effort to deliver a resonant "Doot Doot"-like track is pretty much a failure ("Pray"). But they're still writing good melodies, and at the very least, there's an entertaining upbeat vibe that prevents the album from dragging. I mean, "Bright White Flame" is not really a great song, but it's easy to enjoy on some level, and there is something to be said for that. If you like the single, the album does not really disappoint (especially as you can buy it cheaply just about anywhere), but I liked these guys better as Freur.
Underworld - Change the Weather (1989)
You could probably go back and read the review of the first album again, since this is mostly the same thing. The only differences are a slightly harder, more guitar based sound, and more fast-paced material. Do they pull any punches? Well, if the scat singing on "Mercy" is any indication, not really. Why don't we just ask Karl himself? "It comes into your head, you stick it in your hat, you shout 'Attack! Attack! Attack!', and don't look back". Well, there you go. I mean, they certainly seem comfortable doing stupid dance songs, some of which are actually pretty good (the title track, "Sole Survivor"), and at the very least are fun ("Thrash"). This one features the anthemic "Stand Up" which became their biggest American hit (somehow). Plus, "Mercy" is also a clear standout, a fast-paced feel-good tune with all sorts of layered vocals. So why does it score lower than the previous album? Well, besides those tracks, most of this doesn't really have much replay value; the vocal hooks are usually good, but they can be pretty obvious ("Fever", "Thrash"), or practically nonexistent ("Original Song"). I'm not saying that Underneath the Radar had a whole lot of personality, but this generic synthrock/funk/metal sound doesn't have any real dynamic to it, and the ballads they do are generally forgettable ("Texas", "Beach"). Check it out if you liked the first album and can find it cheap - once again, this is a bargain bin mainstay, and the better tracks are certainly worth a few bucks.
Underworld Mark 2 and beyond
After striking out twice in the world of pop, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith found their calling in the realm of dance music, hooking up with a young DJ in Darren Emerson (only 18 years old at the time). They promptly put out a string of classic singles that gained them the notoriety and popularity that eluded them during their big-label days. Despite never having the mainstream success of the Chemical Brothers, Moby, or Fatboy Slim (outside of one huge single you've definitely heard, "Born Slippy NUXX"), they've managed to remain high profile through a steady stream of quality material and a legendary live show. In 2002, Emerson left the group, yet Smith and Hyde soldiered on as a duo, still releasing albums every so often but also crossing over into soundtrack work, collaborations, mixtapes, and more experimental, online-only releases.
The one advantage they had over other electronic groups is in the vocals (even if that is generally secondary in house music). Most such acts never really carried a strong singer, so the inclusion of a 1st-rate vocalist like Karl Hyde really sets them apart from everyone else. He has an ability to make the music come alive, and his smooth, often nonsensical diction is the band's real defining point. He's also the reason why I suspect this music appeals to a lot of people who don't really like their contemporaries, as Underworld's music hits on a more personal and emotional level than most of the beat-crazy stuff that was going on at the time. That said, credit Rick Smith for most of the group's success, as he is truly a musical genius; not only skilled at writing great melodies, but also at layering the different parts of a track in a way that makes them feel progressive and complex, but also focused. This is a really special group, one of which I've been a massive fan of for half my life, so I may find it hard to be impartial about them.
As far as the actual releases go, their discography is fairly complicated, as the group lived on the 12" single and many of their better tracks never found an album, including their three most popular ones ("Rez", "Born Slippy NUXX", and "Dark Train"). They have also released a bunch of EPs and other obscurities, some of which go longer than the actual LPs. Hopefully this page can point out which releases are the essential or important ones. With all the recent online releases, live show bootlegs, and radio broadcasts, it's become clear that the band tests out its material in many different guises before an "official" release, which further complicates things. I'll do my best to sort it all out:
Lemon Interupt - Bigmouth/Eclipse (1992)
Lemon Interupt was the name of Rick and Karl's band after they got Darren Emerson to join up. They released 2 12" singles under the name, which are nearly impossible to find. Luckily both A-sides appear on the 1992-2002 collection. One thing you see a lot in Underworld tracks how some early, non-album tracks are a precursor to the stuff that actually makes the albums. Case in point, "Bigmouth", which is sort of a precursor to "Dark and Long", except the main hook in this one is played by Karl honking into a harmonica. "Eclipse" is a more subdued and freeform track that using female vocal samples. Both these tracks are fairly uncharacteristic of the band, but interesting from a historical standpoint.
Lemon Interupt - Dirty/Minneapolis (1992)
The first time I heard "Dirty" I assumed it was a remix of "Dirty Epic", but it's actually the other way around. Both these are dense and evolving, and "Minneapolis" is one of their better really-hard-to-find tracks, featuring funk guitar and a spacey synth line.
Mother Earth/The Hump (1992)
Karl and Rick decided to take back the Underworld name at this point, considering everyone already forgot about the Mk1 stuff. This did give the group a chance to revisit some pieces of a botched 3rd album, and this single sounds more like a hybrid of the two styles. I know that a faster-paced "Mother Earth" was indeed an Mk1 track, and it sounds like "The Hump" was too - but they've both been remixed into 90's dance music. This has the same version of "Mother Earth" that appeared on their debut album. That makes the 2 mixes of "The Hump" the chase tracks, but it's really just a generic dance tune with a funky bass line and vocal that seems like it was ripped straight from Change the Weather. Only 500 copies pressed.
This track's beeping, endlessly melodic hook made it an instant classic. The B-side is either "Cowgirl", a variation on the theme that adds vocals and is one of the most well-rounded house tracks ever, or "Why Why Why", a longer jam track that exemplifies their laid-back yet complex style of electronic music well. Limited to 1000 copies, but "Rez" is featured on a number of comps, and "Cowgirl" made the first album.
Spikee/Dogman Go Woof (1993)
The A-side is another funky, pounding dance track, this time featuring some clever vocal manipulation and a monster guitar riff in the end. Didn't think much of the B-side. Neither track appeared on any album, but "Spikee" eventually landed on the 1992-2002 comp.
Mmmm...Skyscraper I Love You (1993)
Underworld was gaining some steam when they released this fairly successful 12". This was another lengthy (10+ minutes) single exploring Karl's fascination with urban life. Contains a memorable vocal performance and a wonderful chill atmosphere. This one also made the album. Contains a couple of remixes.
This is exactly the brilliant full-length album that their early singles were hinting at all along. Each one of these nine tracks are multi-layered and well-thought out, and you'd hardly believe that they weren't originally meant to go together. Underworld took a different route from their contemporaries and made an album that sounded decidedly human - Karl Hyde's vocals (which were absent from the early singles) anchor the tracks well, as his voice projects a range from confident and smooth ("Dark and Long") to worried and broken ("Dirty Epic"). Most of the music has a chill, "portrait of the city" feel to it, as only really one of the tracks has the type of big dance beat that punctuated most mid-90's electronic music - but that one is "Cowgirl", and it's one of the very best house tracks ever created, with a great buildup, several vocal hooks, and a euphoric climax. It's amazing how much progress these guys have made in just five years - "Mmm Skyscraper...I Love You" is a spacious jam that shows more creativity and songwriting brilliance in 13 minutes than most acts show in their entire career. But there is a decidedly New Wave vibe to this (especially in the closer, "M.E.", which was taken from their original incarnation), as they still have the same sense of rhythm they did in the mk1 days - but that actually is a credit to the album, as this makes it both groovy and deep (especially "Dark and Long" and the surreal "Spoonman"). They do have more tricks up their sleeve - "Tongue" is a haunting tune that feels halfway between ambient and blues, and the coda of "Skyscraper" has an incredible atmosphere. But the big surprise here is "Dirty Epic", which takes on themes of self-reflection and regret. I don't agree that electronic music is devoid of emotion, but it certainly lacks emotions like this, and the result is perhaps Underworld's best individual track. This is essential.
dubnobasswithmyheadman DAT Compilation (1993, discovered in 2008)
An alternate version of the above. This was the early version of the album that was sent to a few record companies. I don't know if they ever intended to release it this way, but if they had, the bridge between the 80's group and the 90's one would have been a lot clearer. There aren't any great hidden gems on here, but it's a good listen for collectors. Unreleased tracks are the breakbeat-heavy "Big Meat Show", bass-driven jam "Organ", and the smooth, Mk1-style tune "Can U Feel Me". They're decent, but probably more notable for the little bits and pieces of them that eventually got worked into the album tracks (in particular, "Can U Feel Me" clearly became the ending part of "Skyscraper"). There are also a couple of remixes that would later show up as B-sides ("Jamscraper", "Dirty Fuzz"). As for the stuff that made the album, they are slightly different mixes than the official release, but only a fanatic (like myself) would notice that.
Dark and Long (JBO 19 CDS) (1994)
There were about a dozen different versions of this single release, but the two main ones were this and the more famous 6-track release. Contains an edit of the title track, the famous "Dark Train" mix, the 20+ minute atmospheric "215 Miles", and an incredibly moving ambient track, "Most 'Ospitable". That one alone is worth tracking it down - it's not just the melody that's beautiful, but the atmospherics and shimmering synth tones that really give it a stunning resonance.
Dark and Long (APR OO2CD) (1994)
This is the more common release of the single, EP, whatever - it's hard to really know what to call it given it's even lengthier than the studio album was, clocking in at nearly 73 minutes. This is exactly the kind of remix collection you like to see from an artist - the remixes include, at most, a passing resemblance to the original, and one is based on a different track ("Spoon Deep", which is a jam remix of "Surfboy"). It's mostly chill and freeform, with two of the tracks clocking in around 20 minutes, but it's worth checking out - the grooves don't really wear out, and there's enough density to keep things moving. Most of all, there's a pair of really, really great tracks here. "Dark Train" is the one you've probably heard before - based on a hypnotic vocal sample and a pair of simple, trance-like hooks (one on what sounds like a synthesized version of a string section - it's unique and hugely effective), it's breathtaking and catchy at once, and it's no surprise it turned out to be a dance floor smash as well. The other great one is "Thing in a Book", which is trance, more or less - it's a slowly evolving track that's as captivating as it is long (20+ minutes, and believe me it ain't enough). Likely cut from the LP for being too long, but trust me, it's essential listening - if there's a better example of how to properly build a track, I couldn't imagine it, and there's enough going on to make it justify its length nicely - a couple of great hooks, smooth production, and an awful lot bubbling underneath the surface (including a few snippets of vocals, but like many Underworld tracks it just uses the sound of his voice rather than actual words). So it's worth it for that alone ("Dark Train" too, but that one's available in so many other places), but otherwise can be somewhat repetitive, and like most EP's, it doesn't really flow too well, since besides the leadoff edit of the title track everything here's an extended cut.
Dirty Epic/Cowgirl (1994)
Another really long EP release, but there isn't really anything new here. Contains two extra mixes of each title track - the "Dirty Epic" mixes are just the original, Lemon Interupt version and one that reconciles the two, and the "Cowgirl" mixes are serviceable if uninteresting. "River of Bass" and "Rez" fill it out. This is a hell of a deal if you can get it for $5.99, like I did, but if you already have the studio album and "Rez" there's not much here.
Born Slippy (1995)
A three-track single. It would appear to be one 'main' track and two remixes of it, but besides title they don't have anything to do with each other. The pounding "NUXX" version would appear on the soundtrack to Trainspotting and, well, the rest is history. I would say all three tracks here are worth listening to - I won't rate it but it's one of their best single releases. The original mix combines a rolling and high-rising synth melody with frantic beats and is one of their most exciting tracks, and the "Telematic" jam to finish it out is satisfying. This marks a shift in sound for the guys away from their New Wave roots and towards the dance floor; two of the tracks are instrumental, and the BPMs are higher than they've ever been.
Second Toughest in the Infants (1996)
One of Underworld's biggest strengths is that they're able to make music that works well in nearly any setting. Their music is easy to connect with on a primal level, but also sounds great with headphones, where it can be dissected and analyzed. It's similar to progressive rock in that regard, except you can tap your foot to it. But, like the last album, the real payoff is in observing the way the music builds up over time, particularly on the longer tracks. This time there's more emphasis on the beats, which draw from not only house music, but also drum 'n bass and IDM, sometimes combining all at once ("Pearl's Girl"). A tune like "Juanita" starts with a bare rhythm and rapidly adds new layers, which sit so well on top of each other that it's hard to track what the new elements even are. Suffice to say, this is a deep album, even when they go minimal, as there is a clear sense of "foreground" and "background" here, with a lot of elements that you may not notice on the first dozen or so listens. The first half hour is spent on just two tracks, which comprise five separate sections - the prog rock comparisons continue. Even when they settle into a groove (like the bluesy one that makes up "Sappy's Curry") there's usually something going on behind the scenes, and before you know it, the music transforms before your very eyes (ears?). When they lay things bare, it's either because they want the music to be focused (like the banger "Rowla"), or to make an emotional impact ("Stagger"). As far as Karl goes, his lyrics have a distinct stream of consciousness vibe to them; either memorable nonsense ("cats are gathering outside your window") or what sounds like travel diaries with two-thirds of the words taken out. Again, he's essential to this album, giving an emotional punch to otherwise bare tracks like "Confusion the Waitress". Elsewhere, vocals are just another element, used to provide a counter-melody that fits the palette of the song ("Airtowel"). All I can say is that pretty much everything they do here works brilliantly; not just the songwriting, but also the arrangements and the textures that are used. On top of all that, this is one of the best sounding albums I own, both in range and dynamic; the engineering is state of the art, and still sounds ahead of its time today. This is one of the best electronic albums of the 90's.
Born Slippy .NUXX (1996)
Underworld's one big break into the mainstream came thanks to director Danny Boyle, who was such a huge fan of the band that he wanted them to score the entire soundtrack to his new movie Trainspotting; unfortunately the studio said no, so he settled for using "Dark Train" and this, which combined with the movie to create such a memorable scene that the song itself became a hit and was nearly inescapable for a time. The pounding beats interspersed with Karl's steam-of-consciousness rap combined to make a hell of an exciting rave track, but it's not really representative of the rest of their work and unsurprisingly the band never came close to that level of fame again – but for a time they were the flag-bearers of the then-exciting movement of big-beat electronic music.
As for the single itself – this marks the first time Underworld allowed contribution from outside remixers, and they don't really do a good job; the track is based on few fundamentals and unfortunately lends itself to dross and repetitive remixing. The good news is that the 12 minute mix of the title track is my favorite version yet.
Pearl's Girl EP (1997)
Another EP release, but this one tacks on over 50 minutes of previously unheard material. It would seem that this would be just a compilation of remixes and B-sides, but it really isn't – although the tracklisting shows four remixes of the title track, only the "14996 version" bears a similarity (using the same vocals; everything else is different), and the only actual remix here is "Cherry Pie", which takes the music from "Rowla" and turns it from house thrash into an epic and sometimes beautiful track by way of a few extra synth lines and a couple changes in key. If nothing else, this shows that Underworld could have made another album similar to Second Toughest in the Infants if they wanted to – the harsh and pounding "Tin There" is one of their busiest and harshest tracks yet, and "Oich Oich" pins gorgeous synth melodies on top of a funky, driving bass line and a nice vocal section – both are top-notch cuts that could have easily made the album. Otherwise, there's a lot of the same good stuff you'd expect – there's a slowly building cut that intertwines a number of themes into a mesmerizing whole the same way "Thing in a Book" and "Banstyle/Sappy's Curry" did ("Deep Arch"), an echoey, bluesy jam that recalls "Airtowel" ("Mosaic"), and a minimal and deep sounding groove track like "Confusion the Waitress" ("Pearls Girl (14996 Version)"). The only real curveball is the short but lush "Puppies" which incorporates a heavily-modified vocal over an ethereal three-note melody – it's also essential. If you liked Second Toughest you owe it to yourself to get this; maybe it's not really a "follow-up", and you may want to program out the original and edit version of the title track, but it shows that even their B-sides were brilliant. Don't overlook it.
Beacoup Fish (1998)
Underworld's third album sounds like an attempt to either bring more energy to their live show or score another hit along the lines of "NUXX"; while previous albums had one floor-filling anthem such as "Pearl's Girl", this time most of the album is filled with that kind of material, particularly the first half. That's not to say they can't do what they've done before; "Cups" has a slow build-up with blues guitar and chill underwater vocals, but it winds up unexpectedly exploding into an excellent synth jam. Thus ,setting the tone for the rest of the album; lots of hooks, some unexpected intensity, and Karl taking on more of a frontman role. The lead singles were "Push Upstairs", which features a pulsating piano riff, and "King of Snake", a longform anthem which feels like an updated take on disco (even sampling Moroder's famous "I Feel Love" bassline). Both these tunes are great, but "Jumbo" is the real standout, an incredibly resonant and deep groove that makes me regret saying "Dirty Epic" was as good as these guys ever got. It's just one of those really special songs that seems to nail every aspect, hitting on both a physical and emotional level. The rest of the album is kind of a grab bag - there are some clever ambient passages ("Winjer", "Skym"), a beat-crazy instrumental which seems to immediately release endorphins into the brain ("Kittens"), goofy kung-fu hip-hop ("Bruce Lee"), and even an inverted take on "Push Upstairs". But "Moaner" seems to overshadow all of this; it's the most intense and fast-paced thing Underworld's ever done, as it seems to hit the breaking point and just careens forward anyway, mostly thanks to a high energy vocal that borders on frightening. Perhaps it's a bit spotty (particularly towards the end), but the high points are high enough to make this another essential album, as there are more "signature" Underworld tracks on here than on anything else they ever released.
This was on the soundtrack to Batman and Robin, but I don't remember it in the movie. Contains the title track in three different lengths and a "Relentless Legs Remix" which is a fast groove built on continuous funk guitar. Has the same feel of the original but all the hooks are different. At first I didn't even recognize that the vocal sample was from the same place. I paid $5 for this at a used CD place because of the big "import" tag - it's really not worth it.
Push Upstairs (1999)
From here on Underworld would go to a more conventional format for their singles - instead of the generous hour-plus EPs we got before, now we get the original, 2-3 outside remixes, and sometimes a B-side. To be honest I don't think the outside remixers have really treated Underworld's material well - they don't really capture the vibe well. This one contains the B-side "Please Help Me", which features a great vocal performance - I suspect it was the original version of "Skym". You can find all the Beacoup Fish singles (minus Moaner) on the often very-reasonably priced Singles Box Set.
I thought this track lended itself well to remixing, and many of the remixes capture the lush vibe of the original. The Deep Dish remix is well worth hearing, though it's not on most versions of the single.
King of Snake (1999)
Contains a remix by the band themselves as well as one by Fatboy Slim. This was another track that lended itself well to remixing. Although it is just a remix single the tracks do flow into each other, which is rare for this type of release.
Bruce Lee (1999)
The last single. This one was pretty decent - it has a Salt Lake City Orchestra mix of "Cups" which takes the first part and adds a more upbeat and funky rhythm to it - it's definitely one of my favorite Underworld remixes.
Everything, Everything (2000)
Live shows are a huge part of a dance group's reputation, which can be tough for musicians who build their music primarily on machines. Through the 90's (and certainly the 00's), many groups preprogrammed their shows to the point where even the "moments of spontaneity" were exactly the same from show to show, which can take away from the excitement of a live show. Several groups such as The Orb did buck this trend – they hooked up the turntables and machines and performed shows that seemed like a live mixing session. Underworld worked a little differently, as they seem to write two or three versions of all their songs anyway, and have a vocalist besides. So there's plenty of room for improvisation, especially as Rick plays a lot of the keyboards live. Having travelled extensively on a now-legendary tour over the course of the two years since Beacoup Fish dropped, Rick holed himself in to splice together the band's "grand statement", a live album and DVD that would piece together some of their best performances into one "full show". They definitely know how to put on a great live show - the crowd noise elevates these tracks to new heights, and above everything there's a certain freshness that you don't get in the studio recordings. Every track here is really already a "classic" on the UW-scale, and I honestly cannot say that anything, sans "Cups" (which is merely the 3 1/2 minute outro, used mostly as a segue) is any worse for the wear – in fact, you'll most likely end up preferring these versions, as "Push Upstairs" and "King of Snake" get big punch-ups, and the slimmer "Juanita/Kiteless" sounds like a definitive and more managable version of the already great original. Oh, and the closing mash-up of "Rez" and "Cowgirl" works as magnificently as you'd think it would, rounding out the set in a way that'll leave you sitting in awe. Perhaps it's not the perfect representation of Underworld's live show – there's not much of the improvisation they're known for, and only really one chill moment ("Jumbo"), but as a single disc of house music that puts a lid on the whole genre, this is pretty much perfect, and if you were a fan of these tunes before, this is their pinnacle. Any doubters of the legitimacy of live electronic music simply must listen to this.
This marks the second release of this single, probably intended as a promo item for the above release. The "radio edit" is in fact an edit of the Everything, Everything live version. Unnecessary, but the Bedrock remix is worth hearing, and let's not forget just how strong the source material is.
Bootleg Babies (2001)
Not an official release. But a great one regardless – anyone with more than a passing interest in the band ought to pick it up (it's not for sale, but there are lots of sources on the web, as it was originally distributed through the unofficial Underworld mailing list, RTSR). Basically what they do is piece together bits of RTSR's favorite bootlegs and edit them together to give them the feel of a single concert, similar to what Rick did for the official live release. Which means for most of the tracks, you're getting one of the best or most interesting performances on tape (meanwhile, some are really nothing special at all). I guess for the RTSR guys that generally means whichever one lasts the longest, but that's not really a bad thing – most of these lengthy renditions really do add something to the studio versions, and the epic feel most of the tracks take on give the album the sound of Underworld bringing the house down over and over again. And many of these performances have that "one-night-only" feel – "Dark Train" sounds surprisingly fresh with reggae guitar, "Confusion the Waitress" and "Skyscraper" take on new light, the original "Born Slippy" will make your heart race, and the epic, 17-minute closing "Rez/Cowgirl" somehow manages to be more captivating than the one on Everything, Everything. There's downsides though - being made from bootlegs, the sound quality can be dodgy at times ("Born Slippy .NUXX", "Juanita/Kiteless", and "Moaner", which is particularly bad) - this could really benefit from some professional treatment. Plus, for a comp aimed squarely at the hardcore UW fans, it's a little disappointing to see all the same tracks that appear on every bootleg anyway instead of some of their better improvs or jam sessions that made some of the original boots noteworthy. Still, this is way more fun than any 2 1/2 hour bootleg compilation has the right to be, and a lasting testament to just how adventurous and downright amazing these guys could be live. For the agreeable cost of free, this is a must-have.
A Hundred Days Off (2002)
Darren Emerson left the band before the beginning of the sessions for this album, leaving Rick and Karl to work as a duo for the first time ever. Emerson's role in the group was always a little fuzzy, and it doesn't seem like a big deal for him to cut loose until you realize that the last single they released before he joined was "Stand Up". Can they cope without their DJ? I suppose Rick and Karl probably wanted to find that out too, and when they dropped the brilliant "Two Months Off" as the first single, the answer was a resounding 'yes'. It's easily the most bright-eyed and upbeat single they've ever released, with a big synth line and vocal chant, plus a huge, multi-layered percussion section that explodes in the final minutes. But besides that amazing single, the album turned out a little weaker than we've come to expect from these guys, although that's really not much of a complaint – most electronic groups would have been happy to release something of this quality in a year when electronic music was facing something of a crisis (it was out of the public eye, not being played in nightclubs, acquiring almost zero new talent while the old stars burned out – in retrospect, Emerson really did leave at the right time). There are a few definite keepers here – opening "Mo Move" is one of their deepest and most cerebral yet, rolling out a hypnotic rolling groove right off the bat. The closing "Luetin" brings it full circle, establishing a simple bass line over sputtering drum fills, building tension in an otherwise downtempo track. Prior to that there's the short and smooth instrumental "Ballet Lane", in which a gorgeous keyboard melody underpins a chill rhythm, showing a neat direction the group could have gone in but didn't.
In between those, the album runs into some problems. Okay, so the second single, the thrilling "Dinosaur Adventure 3D" does nearly carry itself on an exciting vocal performance (as he has been from the start, Karl is downright amazing on this album), but it's "Moaner"-like atmosphere and copping of one of the "Dark Train" hooks marks the first time this group has ever seemed to be reaching for ideas. And though "Twist" and "Little Speaker" are both fine, the minimal approach covers up some of the things these guys do so well. That's the flaw here – for example, there are good ideas lurking in the trip-hop slow jam of "Sola Sistim", the repetitive piano pounding that concludes "Little Speaker", or the country-flavored "Trim", but they seem more concerned with the production rather than fleshing out the material, resulting in a great-sounding but ultimately underdeveloped album. I've heard great live versions of "Twist" that feature a long, gorgeous guitar solo, but such a twist is nowhere to be found on this album. That said, they were coming off the heels of four of the greatest electronic albums of all-time (counting the live one), so I think we can cut them some slack for releasing something that's merely "good".
Two Months Off (2002)
This one's worth seeking out for the B-side "Headset" which recalls Conrad Schnitzler's "Ballet Statique".
Dinosaur Adventure 3D (2003)
Here a couple more interesting B-sides start to emerge; the 16-minute "Ansum" is their longest piece in quite a while, although it's more of an Eno-esque ambient number than an epic like "Thing in a Book". "Like a Swimmer" was the other one. The remixes on here are pretty interesting too. Like many UW singles, there's a billion different versions out there, none of which (as far as I know) collect all the remixes/B-sides.
This is a great buy for all sorts of Underworld fans, since it includes their big non-album singles ("Rez", "Nuxx", "Dark Train"), the early Lemon Interupt singles ("Bigmouth" and "Dirty"), and the early "Spikee" single. There is one track not mentioned here, "8 Ball", which was released for The Beach soundtrack. It's a bass-heavy slow groove with a great, upbeat, guitar-filled ending, and in my opinion would have been one of the best tracks on A Hundred Days Off. Besides that, it seems like all of these tracks are the singles in the order of their release, in their full 12" version ("Push Upstairs" appears in a rare 9-minute edit, adding an extra verse). This is a neat decision for posterity but is kind of confusing on the album - they give you the full mixes of "Dirty Epic" and "Cowgirl" that segue into each other on the album, but here they appear on different discs. Still, there's no disputing the quality of the material on this album, and I can imagine a new fan being blown away by the sheer amount of excellent material on these discs.
Born Slippy 2003 (2003)
Yep, here comes another half-dozen remixes of UW's biggest hit, thanks to Rick's 'brilliant' (?) idea to add a piano line to the track. I guess they've played it more or less the same way live for 7-8 years now so I guess it was maybe time to mix things up.
Lovely Broken Thing (2005)
One thing Underworld is known for, especially post-Everything, Everything, is letting their fans know what they're up to by way of dropping unreleased and unfinished tracks into live sets and their bimonthly-or-so radio broadcasts. In the absence of 70-minute EP releases, the band has accumulated a number of extra tracks, and decided to polish them up, mix them together, and sell them online through a series of short, sub 30-minute releases which they dubbed "the RiverRun project". That's good news for the fans who had been patiently waiting for three years, but this one sounds like a collection of unfinished B-material at times. There is one amazing standout in the opening punched-up electrofunk of "JAL to Tokyo" which takes a heavily vocodered rant and runs it among a sputtering and tense bass line. But the rest is hit-and-miss – "Lenny Penne" takes a quick version of Kraftwerk's "Numbers" beat and adds a vocal mantra on top, unfortunately sounding like a badly-encoded MP3 – it's definitely missing something, which they found a couple years later when it surfaced as the far superior "Bamboo". But there's still interesting material here; "Peggy Sussed" seems nothing more than an interlude, but the interplay between the guitar and harsh synthtones is fascinating, and "Billy Goat" shows there's little wrong with just having a good beat. It's very listenable and the good parts give this some replay potential, but besides "JAL to Tokyo" (which could have been a big single and doesn't sound too at home on this release), it really does sound like you're digging through Underworld's garbage can at times, and much of the material seems like it's only here because it wouldn't fit elsewhere.
Pizza For Eggs (2005)
This release - the second in the Riverrun series - strikes me as a hell of a lot better than the first one. For one, the material is better, but this time, the seperate tunes feel like they were actually meant to go along together. "Food a Ready" was obviously meant to segue into "Back in the Fears", and this 7+ minutes of New Wave-inspired brilliance is some of Underworld's best music in years. They bring back the vocal tricks as a backbone to "Food a Ready", and "Fears" is based almost entirely on multitracking them, so there's three different vocal melodies going on at once. It goes from there to a showcase of tribal drumming and pounding, with "Vanilla Monkey" being the weakest point due to overcompression on the bongos and vocals, but it still works as a transitional piece with a keen sense of rhythm. Better is "Ancient Phat Farm Coat", which features what sounds like a percussion ensemble playing against a hypnotic and repetitive piano line, similar to the end of "Little Speaker". It ends with the somber "Play Pig" which has a vulnerable vocal among the same type of percussion, making this more of a coherent (and solid) release from beginning to end. I do wish it were longer, but for a small-scale MP3 release, this is surprisingly good.
Live in Tokyo (2005)
A triple (!) live set preserving Underworld's performance at the 2005 Electraglide Festival. Originally released only to those who attended the concert, it then came out as a very limited release, with only 7000 copies made. It would have made perfect sense to put this in download form – after all, it's very good sounding (and a clear improvement over the bootlegs, even the better sounding ones), contains a few new tracks, documents a great performance, and contains three hours of music…and yet they didn't - given the amount of hardcore fans the band has, did they really not think it would sell? Luckily there are rips out there, since this set absolutely tears, and even if it's not as frequently jaw-dropping as Everything, Everything was, it presents Underworld live in a way that represents what you'd get with an actual show – the band did not really just play one epic after another, instead usually deciding to bridge 4-6 minute interludes between them (which were usually jam versions of something in the band's catalog, and in some cases new tracks). That's really the great element at work here – it sounds like Rick really is mixing and in some cases playing the material on the fly (the small differences in the quick synth lines in tracks like "Kittens" make me wonder if he's actually hammering it out on a keyboard). There are actually 3 people on stage (Darren Price has been joining the band live as of late) and you get the sense they're all hard at work, mixing and experimenting between and during the tracks.
At 3 hours, there's something to satisfy everyone – they do the classics ("Juanita", "Dark Train", "Rez", "Born Slippy"), load the final hour of the concert with crowd pleasers ("Moaner", "Jumbo", "Push Upstairs", "King of Snake"), drop some of the RiverRun material ("Jal to Tokyo", "Peggy Sussed", "Lenny Penne"), in one case dramatically expanded ("Back in the Fears/Flatz"), with a few improvisations along the way to give the fans something new (including Price's "Yard Beat"), along with one amazing and epic new track that could be their next big single ("You Do Scribble"). What's amazing is how the newer tracks work with the older ones, and are often even highlights of the set (okay, "Lenny Penne" is still pretty lame). What's even more amazing is that it never seems overlong at 3 hours – they don't seem to lose their energy or ambition towards the end, and after the final beat hits, my sentiment is always "let's hear it again!" Perhaps not for the uninitiated, but for those who loved Everything, Everything and wished for more, this is the holy grail.
I'm a Big Sister, and I'm a Girl, and I'm a Princess, and This Is My Horse (2006)
When Underworld announced the Riverrun project, a lot of us wondered what, exactly we were getting – would they be a bunch of B-sides and unfinished tracks blended together, or would they take the format to different heights by writing music specifically for it? Of course, having teased us with unfinished and unreleased tracks on radio shows for many years, the prospect of UW having an easy outlet for them is nice, but on the flip side, the opportunity to hear Rick & Karl experimenting again and coming out with something that just wouldn't fly as a normal UW release is even more enticing. Well, that's what you get here, on the third and final Riverrun release – if any of this stuff was taken from the vaults, it must have been seriously retooled. This one takes advantage of the "30-minute track" format better than the other two – all the individual pieces flow together and feel like a journey. This just may be one of Underworld's most ambitious releases yet; it's more of a "pure ambient" release, relying on atmosphere rather than melody. The high point is "Showlder" and "Wedge", which blend together to create an utterly transfixing 12 minutes of underwater ambient – Underworld have not created sounds this beautiful in over a decade! There's a backbone in an otherwordly synth line, or something sounding like clanging bells, but there's much more going on – chimes, vocal samples, and what sounds like Karl singing a hymn in the background - even after a dozen listens, there are still things to be discovered in the mix. It's calming, but characteristically dense, while absolving any sense of tension. I could definitely see using this in a nightly sleep routine (which I actually used to do). That's definitely the best part, but all of it is good – opener "Peach Tree" intertwines a couple of synth pads, seeming to create random melodies out of the result, and "Mowed Path" is a beat-driven meditation on Karl's vocals. And if you're still awake by the end, there's a pleasant and very uncharacteristic piano piece ("11 Hundred Hertz") as an epilogue. Ultimately, the short length does dock it a bit; with another ten minutes or so, this might score half a star higher. But do yourself a favor and look past the goofy title - this is the first time since Beacoup Fish where it feels like the group is really moving forward again.
The Misterons Mix (2006)
A free 30-minute mix of RiverRun tracks (including a remix) by an outfit called the Misterons. I'm not sure who they are, if they're just Underworld under a different name or what, but I do think Darren Price is involved. This was given out free to anyone who purchased all three of the RiverRun releases.
Breaking and Entering (with Gabriel Yared) (2006)
A soundtrack to a Jude Law film. Gabriel Yared is a famous film composer who has been scoring films for three decades, but as far as I know doesn't really have a definitive work. This is very ambient and low key music, with a bunch of dreamy synthesizers but also some real instruments. You can hear a lot of processed acoustic guitar and a decent amount of percussion ("Monkey Two") along with some piano and strings. This is a very pleasant sounding album with very little tension although it is unsettling at times ("Monkey One", which has an X-Files feel). I feel like I'm underrating this one a bit, but it's fairly structureless and not very memorable. I have no idea why, for example, the tracklisting is split into 16 pieces instead of 8 (or 32). It doesn't really sound much like Underworld, but there are some traces of their sound, particularly from the Riverrun releases (mostly "Mowed Path"), and you get to hear a few of Karl's vocals (mostly wordless, though). In the very end you get to hear an acoustic guitar version of "11 Hundred Hertz" which is a real treat. Overall it's a good listen and has a great sound, but there really isn't much of a hook to it, and the music doesn't go anywhere. When the piano lines come in to "Mending Things" along with faster drum beating and some guitar noise, that's about as exciting as it gets. The best track here features something of a guitar hook and a good vocal ("Happy Toast"), starting out murky but slowly coming to the foreground. I wish there were more tracks like that - most of this is just formless. The good thing about is that this music is fairly inscrutable and if nothing else is good on the ears. However it doesn't quite overcome the common problem with most soundtrack albums that the music in itself isn't substantial enough to be consistently listened to as a standalone. Probably only for the completists, but still pretty enjoyable.
Oblivion With Bells (2007)
By this time, most of the casual fans were off the bus. Not only because of the five year wait from their previous studio album (not that they were exactly dormant), but because there's little immediacy to be found anywhere, and it never rises above midtempo. Instead, this is an album of laid back grooves, big city atmosphere, and ambient soundscapes, pulling back to their early days. In one case, it goes back to their really early days; "Boy, Boy, Boy" sounds like it could have landed on Underneath the Radar, I kid you not. In most of Underworld's work, the real pull is in the details. An album like this is really nothing but detail, particularly in the way the music builds up. Similar to "Luetin", much of the music here starts with rather basic ideas that slowly gain steam and build from within. "Holding the Moth" is centered around a simple stomp-bassline, a kick drum, and fast paced vocals, but eventually strings, piano, and other electronics find their way in, and by the end the song is kept anything but simple. "Best Mamgu Ever" is a chill groove track with Reich-inspired piano and a basic beat, but by the end there are three vocal sections, a long guitar part, and all sorts stuff going on in the background. It doesn't expand by piling elements on top of each other; instead the music just seems to get deeper as it goes along. The dark train visions of "Beautiful Burnout" is perhaps the best along these lines, with a tense atmosphere and a totally unexpected drum freakout in the middle. The first four tracks are all very good - "Crocodile" begins with a beautiful synth washout, then combines a snappy bass riff with surreal vocals and adds some excellent keyboard parts in the bridge. This is the single, by the way. The stunning "To Heal" is perhaps the most gorgeous thing they've ever done; a brief sweeping instrumental that recalls parts of Eno's Apollo. From there things fall apart a bit. "Ring Road" combines keyboard presets with a stream-of-consciousness rap, and it's actually quite fun; like "Trim" or "Bruce Lee", it's nice to hear UW do something out of left field, but essentially it's a novelty. Elsewhere, there are bits where you wonder where the actual song is ("Faxed Invitation", "Glam Bucket"), only to eventually discover that it's been growing under your nose the whole time. There's even a piece that's nothing but piano and vocal ("Good Morning Cockerel"), which is something you'd certainly never hear on, say, a Chemical Brothers album. I think it goes without mentioning that like everything else they do, the sound itself is pristine and feels very deliberate; there are no "accidents" here. It actually resembles the first two albums in a few ways (compare the first two tracks of this to the first two of dubnobass or "Best Mamgu" to Second Toughest), and it holds up nearly as well; just give it time to grow. Fans of the deeper cuts will find plenty to like here.
Sunshine: Music From the Motion Picture (with John Murphy) (2008)
A soundtrack to a Danny Boyle film about a group of astronauts who deliver a nuclear bomb to the dying sun in order to get it "kick started" (I guess). The film itself is ridiculously epic and one of the best sci-fi films I've seen in years, drawing inspiration from movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris (the original one). Then again, you could count the number of good sci-fi movies that have come out this decade on one hand, so that's not necessarily a full endorsement. As for the soundtrack, it's pretty typical soundtrack fare, with plenty of strings and lots of crescendos, but without a real recognizable main theme. As such it makes great mood music (especially if you've seen the film), but isn't really useful outside of that context. But basically, it's good stuff – it's unsettling and nerve-racking in the right ways, and does benefit from Underworld's incredibly gorgeous "To Heal", which Boyle wisely decides to use at the film's key points. The way it's interspersed with one of Capa's most memorable lines in the absolutely does send chills down your spine ("Capa Meets the Sun"). But for the most part, I think Murphy is the one who is responsible for most of the soundtrack fare, and he sticks mostly to strings, ominous metallic noise, and a bit of musique concrete as done on the 2001 soundtrack ("Freezing Outside - Harvey"). It's tense music but I don't think it quite works without the film. Underworld's contributions are the more atmospheric, ambient stuff, some of which they've done before ("Trey's Fate" draws heavily from their live-only "Small Conker and a Twix"). Nothing on here is as good as "To Heal", but Murphy's "Sunshine" theme comes close, and is really one of the few tracks here that works on its own (the short and pleasant "Mercury" is another one). Not to say this is lacking, but it was clearly written for the movie and only really tells half the story on its own. Overall I think three stars are a little low, so add half a star if you've seen the film and another half if you're a fan of soundtracks in general.
The Bells! The Bells! (2008)
I'm pretty much convinced by now that Underworld is another band that really does not know what their best material is – I remember Karl talking about how "Jumbo", one of their most beloved tracks, almost got cut from Beacoup Fish! Case in point, "Parc" (or "Darc" as UW themselves titled it a couple years ago), one of their most lush, evocative, and creative tracks of the last decade, got relegated to this forgettable Japan-only remix collection. And it doesn't even seem too worked up from their self-released-online Amsterdam performance – just overdubbed! But it's well worth tracking down – like "Crocodile", there's a steady groove and a terrific vocal performance, but what separates "Parc" is that it's more New Wave than electronic, with a significant amount of guitar jamming and Karl's unfiltered vocal taking center stage – it almost sounds like a really good modern day Freur track. Maybe I'm getting carried away here, but it's just bizarre that something so great be put here – the rest of the collection consists of seven overlong and unimaginative outside remixes of Oblivion tracks, with only the Innervisions Orchestra Mix of "Crocodile" holding my interest, and even that one can't shake the impression of being a toss-off. It's kind of typical of these remix albums – the remixers don't really seem interested and just intersperse tired beats with a few elements of the original, throwing maybe half a good idea in there somewhere – not necessarily bad on their own, but definitely not good to listen to all at once. I really don't know how to rate this – the remixes are easily forgettable, but "Parc" is an essential and really should have made the album.
Downpipe (w/ D. Ramirez and Mark Knight) (2009)
A download-only single that marks Underworld's first collaborative effort in a good while. I have no idea if Karl and Rick did any of the music or just the lyrics, but either way it's a great effort - metalic, watery synths and a pulsating bassline that would just kill in a club setting. Needless to say, Karl's vocal part is exciting and pushes the tune forward surprisingly well. Even if they didn't write the track, it's as essential as anything they've put out this decade - apparently it's even being worked into the live set now. The other tracks include an instrumental and radio edit, both of which are pointless, as the epic scope of the track can't come through in just 3 minutes.
Basically a mixtape (like their entry in the Back to Mine series which I do not have), focusing mostly on jazz and fusion, detailing a few of Karl's influences. The tracklisting is impressive - there's Squarepusher, Soft Machine, Alice Coltrane, and one of my very favorite Roxy Music tunes ("2HB"). Among the stuff I haven't heard, I really dig Osunlade's "Promise" and the "New York City" track towards the end. For the collectors, you get to hear the group's early hornjam "Oh" (kind of in line with "Bigmouth") that was relegated to a soundtrack, and there is a new track credited to "Brian Eno and Karl Hyde" (!!) called "Beebop Hurry", which is a chaotic jam featuring Karl reciting a poem over a frantic and varied backing. It's good, but it frustratingly cuts off abruptly after just three minutes. It may be worth tracking that piece down, but I'd sample this compilation before you buy it...it's basically a jazz mixtape that happens to be mixed (pretty well I might add) by a member of Underworld, and I suspect some fans might not like this at all. Credited to Underworld and the Misterons, and once again I have no idea who that is (Google only really connects them with Underworld).
A new single to be included on the upcoming album Barking. Like "Downpipe" (and apparently, almost all of Barking), it's a collaboration, this time with drum n' bass producer High Contrast. It's not exactly the "You Do Scribble" we've heard live for the last five years - it's clearly based on that, with many of the same noises, but it's transformed into an uplifting and euphoric track that is their best single since "Two Months Off", and I'm just basing that off the radio edit. Sadly, "You Do Scribble" does not appear on the single.
Always Loved a Film (2010)
The second single from the album. Features D. Ramirez and Mark Knight again. I like the redone version quite a bit, it's given a big dancefloor makeover and should work well as a single. But it's worth mentioning that we've been hearing different versions of this track for 7 years now, some of which have been amazing, and none of them appear here - just the standard remixes.
Here it is at last; the album Underworld has been hinting at for the last five years but hadn't yet followed through with. If you've been following the group, you have to notice that besides "Two Months Off" they haven't had a real banging club-ready tune the whole decade. We heard snippets of this side of the group on and off from 2005 on; the first was a fast-paced drum 'n bass track they dropped live called "You Do Scribble". It was assumed to be the next single and it was going to be massive, even recalling "Rez". And then - nothing. Oblivion With Bells didn't have it. The Riverruns didn't have it. And Underworld continued on, as we heard lots of new stuff during live shows and radio broadcasts, including at least six versions of "Always Loved a Film", but the plans for an "actual" release were vague.
Barking is the result of all these uncollected tracks. If you're a die-hard, then you've likely heard at least one version of almost everything on here. The only real unknown is "Hamburg Hotel", an improvised two-step instrumental that was actually written in a hotel in Hamburg and played the next night. There's a real twist on this album though - they decided to collaborate with an outside artist on all of these tracks save for the quiet piano-led "Louisiana". The first single was "Scribble"; the live track we were all familiar with, molded (with help from High Contrast) into a completely new song - the skittering drum n' bass beat was now played fairly straight, and there's a new vocal line and new main hook. The result is one of the best and most euphoric songs these guys have ever done, but it's a little unusual for Underworld; this is pop, in all the best ways. Diehard fans can rest assured that none of the other tracks get warped as much as that one; yet the outside producers can't help but limit the ceiling for this album. What was once a tense and dark jam with a shifting bass line turns into a straightforward feel-good, club-ready banger ("Always Loved a Film"). What was once a beautiful keyboard meditation turns into mixtape-ready house with a kick drum ("Moon in Water"). Overall, the collaborators do a fine job, and this is better than your standard remix fare; but there's a reason that Underworld is head and shoulders beyond most of their peers. This version of "Moon in Water" is more immediately gratifying, but it lacks the depth and the strange resonance of the radio broadcast version we heard, and the off-putting Applespeak voice didn't need to be replaced.
That's typical of Barking as a whole - it's immediately satisfying, club-friendly, and will likely leave you with a big grin. There are a couple of undeniable stompers on the second half that could be huge; "Between Stars" is an addictive and overloaded electro-stormer that benefits greatly from the increased production, and "Diamond Jigsaw" is a New Order-style guitar jam. I missed the synth-rocker style of the live version, but Paul Van Dyk generally goes a good job with it, even if he totally botches the big chord changes in the chorus. And "Bird 1" is a real winner, brooding and apprehensive in the same ways "Dark and Long" was a decade and a half ago, and it gets better with repeat plays. I guess in the end the collaborations have their good and bad points, as obvious as that sounds. Can you get by on massive hooks and killer beats alone? That depends what you look for in the group, but in general, if you liked Beacoup Fish, this should sit well.
Bird 1 (2010)
A Beatport-exclusive single; the idea was to make all the source tracks available and invite the public to remix it, then release the most popular remixes as the single.
Rick Smith - Bungalow With Stairs 1 (2010)
This is a soundtrack to one of Karl's art installations, and the album was only released in limited quantities (mostly to those who actually attended the exhibit). Despite the 2010 release date, most of this music was completed in the 90's, and you can recognize some of the sounds that found their way to Beacoup Fish (particularly for the tracks "Winjer" and "Something like a Mama"). The sound is generally ambient (although a few beats do find their way in, sometimes crashing through the scenery), with astral droning noises providing most of the backing for the "vocals", which are mostly computerized. It sounds like all the voices here are computer generated, then drawn out and sometimes chopped up. Apparently most of the actual words come from mundane conversations that Rick has had with his collaborators, but they sound positively unsettling when computerized and processed. The 7-part "Tokyo <> London" is filled with these kinds of snippets backed by all sorts of pulsing keyboards, which has its spontaneous moments but mostly keeps minimal. "Dreeve" and "Van Halen Van Halen" are steady keyboard drones, and they seem to contain actual conversations. You can imagine most of this dialogue spoken naturally, but here everything is perfectly spaced out with no inflection, giving it a dreamlike, surreal atmosphere. I think this would be pretty excellent for any situation where you don't have to pay much attention to it, and if it weren't for the beats, it would be an excellent album to drift off to sleep to (although the 20-minute "Dreeve" and the 13-minute "Van Halen Van Halen" are long enough). The stories being told are interesting in themselves, but the fact that the voices are not human and don't "speak" normally does weird things to the brain, causing it to latch onto little nonsense phrases instead of trying to figure out what the story is actually about. That said, you can have some weird dreams if you do let yourself fall asleep while this is on. For an album like this it's probably best to ignore the actual rating, since there's not much music on the thing nor enough going on to actively listen to. But the effect this album can have on you really is something.
Frankenstein - Music from the Play (2010)
Another collaboration with Danny Boyle. More orchestral, with only a few electronic bits. Unlike the last two soundtracks there is virtually no connection to what the group normally does.
1992-2012 "The Anthology" (2011)
With UW's services being tapped for the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, this preemptive anthology release (1992-2002 was released in 2003, for reference) hints that they probably won't be releasing any singles in 2012. The first two discs are nearly a repeat of the last anthology, just with a few tracks removed to make room for "Crocodile", "To Heal", and "Scribble", which is strange because the short "To Heal" doesn't fit in (beautiful as it is), while you'd think Barking would get a few more entries (at least "Always Loved a Film"). Disc 3 is a rarities disc, most of which come from the early days, including a mix of "The Hump", "Minneapolis", and "Why Why Why", all of which are very hard to find legitimately. There's also a demo of "Big Meat Show" (a rejected dubnobasswithmyheadman track, and a different mix than what appears on the DAT) which shows just how far they've come since their early days. Otherwise, there's some of Underworld's actual best material of the decade in "Parc" and "JAL to Tokyo", both of which should have made the "actual" anthology. This is a great buy for the more casual fans, as the discs themselves are cheap (I've seen copies priced as low as ten bucks), and almost all of this is essential.
A Collection (2011)
This is more of a true "best of", starting with a bunch of the collaborative tracks they've done in the last few years ("Downpipe", "Beebop Hurry", "The First Note is Silent") and working backwards (for the most part). There are a bunch of "2011 edits" on here, but nothing to get too excited about as the edits are just edits proper, no additional mixing. Maybe a good introduction to the group but like Orbital's similar collection Works you have to keep in mind that these tracks were never meant to work as a true 4-minute single. So a lot of the good moments don't really feel earned (songs like "Jumbo" just cut right to the big climax) and most of the big tracks seem rushed, as they end right when you're starting to get into them.
Isles of Wonder: Music from the 2012 London Olympics (2012)
As an American I was not able to watch the full ceremonies on TV nor hear the audio without commentating so this double disc was certainly nice to have. It's basically a two and a half hour celebration of various British music, from old hymns to flavor-of-the-month type bands. Underworld does two new songs, neither of which are in their signature style. "And I Will Kiss" is a long, epic piece, while "Caliban's Dream" is catchier and maybe better, and features a chorus of children. After a long string of recognizable tunes ("Tubular Bells", "Chariots of Fire", "Come Together" as covered by the Arctic Monkeys, barf), Underworld and High Contrast really take over on the dance-oriented second half (prefaced by the Chem's "Galvanize"), and from there it's mostly the two of them, with some really unexpected choices ("Minneapolis", "Confusion the Waitress"). Lots of remixes of familiar tunes, mostly done by High Contrast (including a version of "Rez" with piano!). Overall I suppose the UW fan with money to blow may want this, though I'm guessing most of you have heard most of these songs already. But for a long compilation album this is actually pretty high quality, Arctic Monkeys aside. Strip away the non-UW/High Contrast stuff and it's a neat collaborative comp, but we've gotten a lot of those lately.
Karl Hyde - Edgeland (2013)
Along with Rick Smith's soundtrack to the Danny Boyle movie Trance, I guess 2013 is the year of the Underworld solo projects. I wrote a review for this here.