Here is an album I just cannot be impartial about, even as I listen to it now for what is probably the hundredth time (give or take) I still can’t separate it from the time when Underworld meant more to me than anything. I dug a lot of electronic music but it seemed to me that Underworld were one of the few trying to expand beyond the clubs, beyond the radio, beyond block rockin’ beats or the world of commercial licensing. Granted there were aspects of all of that in their music, but Underworld are a tough group to define, especially for a group thrown under the “electronica” umbrella. They had a singer (who played guitar even!), they jammed around, and they didn’t sample a whole lot. Their music was based off the same kinds of loops, but they were…different.
dubnobasswithmyheadman is often referred to as their debut, but the truth is that Underworld were already veterans by the time of its release. You could argue that it’s actually their 3rd album, or their 5th album, or yes, even their debut, depending on what you count. Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have been working together in some form since 1979, first as Screen Gemz, then as Freur, then as Underworld, albeit in a very different incarnation than what we know them as today. Along the way there have been some successes, enough to get them to the next album at least, but never quite enough to burst out from the bottom half of the charts. They weren’t really feeling the kind of music they were making anyway. Things came to a head around 1991 when the original group disbanded for good, despite having more material in the can. Afterwards, Rick and Karl hooked up with a 20-year old DJ named Darren Emerson, and the rest is history.
This album was particularly important to me because it was the first time I really learned to consider these CDs as actual albums – y’know, something with a beginning, middle, and end. Prior to this I didn’t really listen to anything all the way through; during my paper route I’d keep a dozen CDs in my jacket pocket and swap ’em out as I saw fit. If there was a such thing as an iPod back then it would’ve changed my life. But dubnobass was like a movie to me – even if some tracks were better than others, I still needed to hear it from start to finish. Hard to believe then that it wasn’t really intended that way; rather it is the result of three years worth of studio jamming and remixing. With Underworld the studio albums never tell the full story, especially when it comes to that first album. They released seven 12-inches in ’92 and ’93, a couple under the name Lemon Interupt (presumably as they were wrestling to get control of the Underworld name back from Warner Bros). Let me tell you, this stuff was really tough to find back then, unless you happened to know about certain private FTP servers. But it turns out there’s more to it than even that; in 2008 someone turned up online with a DAT containing an early version of dubnobass, including three tracks nobody had heard before. Finally, in 2014, the group announced a 20th anniversary remaster of the album that spanned FIVE CDs, including a whole disc of rare material and a live jam session. Throw in the DAT and an hour-long online-only mix (Saved From the Cutting Room Floor) and you could conceivably piece together three or four totally different versions of this album.
Often such super-expanded collections turn into a big game of “spot the difference”, but with Underworld it can be more like “spot the similarity”. Take the two Dark and Long EPs, for instance (parts of which wind up on discs 2 and 3), both of which are full of “remixes” that have almost nothing to do with the original “Dark and Long”. Perhaps they started as remixes that went off on some kind of tangent, and by the end all traces of the original were deleted. Perhaps you detect a sound or two, like a small snippet of vocal or part of a drum loop, but the whole aim and vibe of the track is different. There are of course plenty of standard-issue alternate versions as well, a number of which are straight up jams (most of the takes on “Skyscraper”), often introducing major pieces that didn’t make the studio discs (“Spoonman”). Most of the early stuff makes an appearance as well – the first-ever UW single “The Hump”, two Lemon Interupt tracks, the unreleased stuff that was on the DAT, and a few pieces that had yet to surface (“Concord”, “Birdstar”). Taken altogether you can see how every track on the album came to be; how “Bigmouth” became “Dark and Long”, how “Can You Feel Me?” morphed into part of “Skyscraper”, how all the elements of “Dirty Epic” came together, where certain lyrics originated (check the Disc 4 “Cowgirl”), and so on. There is some degree of repetition but far less than any five disc set ought to have. It really is a treasure trove if you’re a fan, though between the Dark and Long EPs, the Cowgirl maxi-single, and one of their anthologies, you should have everything on discs 2 and 3 already. Some props for trying to avoid the tracks released a couple years earlier on their 1992-2012 set, with live rehearsal versions of “Bigmouth” and “Big Meat Show” in place of the studio takes, though it does result in some curious omissions – where is the great “Minneapolis” (the missing Lemon Interupt track) or the “Rez” B-side “Why Why Why”? How crazy is it that this thing is over six hours long and still isn’t all-inclusive?
With so much material to cull from, it’s no wonder that dubnobasswithmyheadman turned out to be such a great album. Recently I’ve seen a lot of 20th anniversary critical reappraisals claiming it belongs among the likes of Screamadelica and The Stone Roses in the pantheon of UK dance-rock. Totally agreed, though I’d say it’s even better than those albums. For a twenty year-old electronic album it’s held up remarkably well – you can still hear some of those TR-808 beats and those hi-hat-heavy drum patterns that were big in the early 90’s, but Underworld were careful to develop their own sounds. Part of that is having Karl Hyde in the group, whose voice gets cut up and sampled in a number of ways (in addition to a lot of plain ol’ singing). But I think most credit goes to Rick, who has a sort of psychedelic-era mindset when it comes to creating sounds – a lot of times you’re not quite sure what you’re hearing, only that it’s been through the wringer a few times.
What’s most interesting about this is that the group hadn’t quite shaken their original incarnation – “M.E.” was already sketched out a few years prior, and early tracks like “The Hump”, “Birdstar”, and “Can You Feel Me?” sound like they could have slotted in fine on Change the Weather. So dubnobass is really an intersection of several different styles – electronic on one hand, New Wave on the other, progressive on the third. Progressive is a big one here, as the average track length is somewhere around eight minutes, with the group rarely playing all their cards until the end. Even their more club-ready tracks were ambitious; either remarkably symphonic (“Rez”) or epic (“Dark Train”). Surprisingly not a whole lot of that is on the album – “Cowgirl” is the album’s big single, but otherwise this is more a headphones and chill album than it is something you’ll want to dance to. “Tongue” is ambient and entirely beatless – how many electronic acts were doing that in ’94? Then you have “Dirty Epic”; perhaps Underworld’s career high point, one of Karl’s best vocal performances, and a complex arrangement that builds up right under your nose. Even if you’re not into Underworld, you’ll dig that one.
Otherwise recommended: “Thing in a Book”, which is Underworld at their most prog, a sparkling ambient tune that slowly transforms into a floor-filler, “Most ‘Ospitable”, perhaps the most gorgeous thing the group has ever done, “Concord”, which is a total jam, “Spikee”, if only for that guitar riff in the end, the new synth lines on Disc 4’s “Spoonman”, the live take on “Bigmouth” that features Karl honking away on a harmonica. That’s one of the great things about Underworld, they’re liable to pull out just about anything. No surprise then that their sound continued to shift and evolve, and the very next year they’d written “Born Slippy .NUXX”, the single for which they’d be forever known – and in true Underworld fashion, it was originally tucked away as a B-side. Of course, the full story now lies in the deluxe, 4-disc reissue of Second Toughest in the Infants, another fantastic set that’s well worth your time and money. As it turns out, the band plans to eventually remaster and reissue all their albums, which is likely going to set me back a decent figure, but it’s a small price to pay for a dream come true – who wouldn’t want to crack open the vaults on one of their favorite bands?