The last words of Rick Smith’s father or an album title stolen from Godspeed’s garbage can?
You make the call…
Underworld have been on a nostalgic kick lately – the last few years have seen anthologies, hyper-expanded reissues, a dubnobass full album tour, and, best of all, Karl Hyde pulling out Freur’s “Doot Doot” during one of his solo shows. It seems like the group are finally taking stock of their own career, a welcome development if you’re a fan, and a well-deserved one too, considering that their non-album tracks alone would comprise a catalogue that most artists would be jealous of. In doing so, they came to the same conclusion that most of their fans have – as great as they’ve been over the years, there was undeniably something special about those early days with Darren Emerson, which produced dubnobasswithmyheadman, Second Toughest in the Infants, a wealth of excellent B-sides and remixes, plus those legendary, improv-heavy live shows that still get traded to this day.
Now keep in mind, Underworld do not sound the same from album to album; rewind a decade or so to the era of the RiverRun EPs and Oblivion With Bells and you can hear a band that sounds very free to explore, letting the era of progressive house epics go completely. Which resulted in arguably the band’s second-greatest era, by the way. Barbara, Barbara, We Face a Shining Future is a return to that mindset, but with a more conscious focus on pursuing ideas that they normally wouldn’t. It’s as though they showed up to work each day with nothing but a deck of Oblique Strategies (sample card: “Honor thy error as a hidden intention”) and just winged it (wung it?). Many attempts have been made to describe the leadoff track and single, “I Exhale” (my take: Brian Eno covering “Hit the North”), but whatever it sounds like to you, it doesn’t really sound like Underworld. Mission accomplished.
That said, certainly there are some familiar elements here: Hyde’s voice, Hyde’s lyrics, those driving, pulsating rhythms, Hyde saying “the rhythm” a lot. There are ties to some of the band’s previous work, but its the more offbeat, unusual stuff like “Stagger”, “JAL to Tokyo”, “Ring Road”, and “Skym”. In essence Shining Future is like RiverRun: The Album, full of curveballs and improvisation, with tracks that develop in non-linear ways. Rather than add layers and build to a climax, Underworld focus mostly on the groove – tracks like “Low Burn” and “Ova Nova” play most of their cards in the first minute, but you can hear things develop underneath. The dancefloor-oriented tunes “I Exhale” and “If Rah” start off thumping, as though their intros were straight up deleted, and move back and forth, not just adding one element at a time. At around 45 minutes it’s their shortest album yet, which is by design; it’s not about the journey, the epics, or the Progressive House Playbook – it’s just the best 45 minutes they had in them.
You can split the disc up into two halves – the first half is propulsive and upbeat, while the second is contemplative and pretty. Linking the two halves is the instrumental “Santiago Cuatro”, an ambient track with Spanish guitar picking that is totally out of left field, even for a band that would routinely put stuff like “Bruce Lee” and “Trim” on their albums. Luckily there’s plenty to digest on both sides. The first three tracks are all jams, particularly “Low Burn”, which, like “Bird 1” on Barking, feels like an instant classic, with this pulsating groove and hypnotic vocal line that reminds a lot of some of Underworld’s very best work. “If Rah” is also great, a mostly improvised (I would guess) floor-filler loosely based around a bunch of Karl’s vocal fragments.
But I suspect more people are going to be talking about the second half, and for good reason, as it contains some of the prettiest music the band ever put out, which is saying something. “Ova Nova” layers shimmering synths and vocals behind a small beat until it turns into something absolutely stunning, coalescing into arguably the album’s best moment (“change your mind…”). And “Nylon Strung” is a total corker, the sort of album-ending blissout that Orbital were so good at. Both these tracks contain a welcome surprise – backing vocals by Hyde and Smith’s daughters, turning them both into something that stands apart from the rest of the band’s catalogue. Though I’d argue it’s “Motorhome” that’s the biggest departure – a psychedelic ballad that takes a couple of pages out of the Chemical Brothers’ book, even threatening to explode at the very end.
The best thing about the album is that it hits a great balance of hookiness, length, and attention to detail, making it very easy to return to – it’s similar to Orbital’s last album Wonky in that sense. Not to mention that it’s a very well-produced and great sounding album, but then again all Underworld discs are. Certainly it would be great to hear them ramp up the epics again, but the state of electronic music is a lot different in 2016 than it was in 1996. I’m just happy that UW have made a return to greatness, and for once the critics are realizing it too. It sounds like Rick and Karl even had a good time making this one too, which bodes well for the future. When things go well in camp Underworld, the music usually follows.