Underworld are on the shortlist of my favorite bands. I first discovered them in 1999 with Beacoup Fish, which was my album of choice when delivering newspapers every day after school. This was almost certainly the wrong time to get into electronic music, by the way. For once my fandom evolved into a full-blown obsession, the “techno” boom had died down considerably. I owned CDs by Fatboy Slim, the Chemical Brothers, Moby, and the Lo-Fidelity Allstars. Little did I know that all of these guys were hitting their commercial peak at the same time. And I went with ’em. I never bought the 3rd disc by Fatboy nor the 4th by the Chems. But I stuck with Underworld, thanks to a Kazaa search in 2002 which led me to so many gems I hadn’t yet heard – “Cowgirl”, “Dark Train”, “Pearl’s Girl”, “Dirty Epic”, and so on. I found out that they had a new album out, which was a shock because I had heard they broke up (trust everything you read on the internet, especially in 2001!).
By 2003, Underworld was my favorite band. Nothing even came close. They’d just released an anthology (1992-2002), which was one epic after another, which became my “techno bible”. There was Everything, Everything, one of the most perfect live albums to ever exist; rumor has it that Rick Smith locked himself up for 6 months to complete it, and his dedication shows. Everything is in its right place here – every drop, every lyric, every carefully crafted new bit, hell even the tracklisting, which hits pretty much every nutsoid banger the band ever did.
At the core of this was their new album, A Hundred Days Off, which I thought was…okay. Maybe a classic example of “good among a hall of great” – Underworld’s first three studio albums are unimpeachable. AHDO was their first without Darren Emerson, who was Underworld’s least essential member, but also the man who took them from a largely forgotten New Romantic group (whose high point was a support slot for the Eurythmics) to massive club success. It is certainly not a bad album – the single “Two Months Off” is one of the greatest, most joyous things they’ve ever done, and there are a lot of good, meditative moments like “Mo Move” or “Luetin”. But the singles just aren’t there, and a lot of the album tracks feel like they could have been better. You see what they’re aiming for, but they just don’t resonate the way deep cuts like “Spoonman” or “Airtowel” did. And then – silence. Here I am, at the peak of my fandom, wondering if Underworld will ever make another truly great album, or even another great single. In the interviews they’d been giving, even the band themselves didn’t seem to know what their future was. I remember someone on the dirty.org forums bragging that they were jamming out to new tracks from their upcoming 2004 album. 2004 came and went. Nothing.
2005 was a big year for the band. They released some new music, but not in the form of an actual studio album – rather, they did two continuous 30-minute mixes, which were at times brilliant, but felt more like an update of what was happening in the studio at the time. But the big release was this one here – Live in Tokyo, a document of the band’s performance at Electraglide. If there was anything to prove that the band was still relevant, this was it. Not just in the performance itself, but the ridiculous prices the disc fetched – it was offered for sale to anyone who attended the show, but copies (of which there were 7000) made their way to eBay, where they regularly fetched $300 or more.
Underworld live really is a different entity from what they do in the studio, and like Ween, Phish, or the Chemical Brothers, the trading of live shows is huge among the faithful. For as perfect as their official live album was, Underworld’s shows are often unpredictable. The tunes often lead into each other and will borrow elements from different points in the UW catalog, including studio jams that would never make an album otherwise. On Live in Tokyo, the entire second disc outside of “NUXX” and “Two Months Off” is made up of tracks that were never released on CD. Flagship tunes like “Skyscraper” and “Pearl’s Girl” are used as interludes, but that doesn’t matter, as by this point they had enough quality tunes to bring the house down over and over again. “Juanita”, “Born Slippy”, “King of Snake”, “Jumbo”, and “Rez” all hover around the 10-minute mark.
It’s the new stuff that really drives this home. “JAL to Tokyo”, previously featured on a download-only release is a stormer; bent electronic funk with a steady flow of vocoder and a slow build underneath. “Back in the Fears”, from a different download, is fleshed out and shown in all its glory, a fog of disheveled voices and shimmering guitar lines. There are a lot of shorter tunes, mostly courtesy of new half-member Darren Price, all of which are fairly good. But the real treasure is buried right in the middle – “You Do Scribble”, a drum n’ bass jam with a breakneck synth part, reminiscent of something like “Rez”, but sped up. There are vocals too – I can’t make out any of what Karl is saying, which makes it UW as usual. This was the new single that I was looking for. For the first time with this band, I was on the ground floor.
The most confusing aspect of it all? “You Do Scribble” wasn’t the next big single – in fact the next studio album didn’t have it at all. In 2010 it was massively reworked with High Contrast and given the leadoff single role on Barking – and as great as “Scribble” is, it’s not really the same tune anymore. Rather, the next few releases were another download-only EP (that was almost completely ambient), and 2007’s Oblivion With Bells, perhaps their deepest and most chill LP yet. I guess you really never could put a finger on these guys.