Let me get this out of the way first; Underworld are my favorite band and I like pretty much everything they’ve ever done. So I’m not gonna pretend to be objective here. I think all their albums rank somewhere on the scale of “good to great” and they’ve got a vast catalogue of singles that are pretty much unimpeachable…but there are a lot of electronic groups you could say that about. To me, Underworld have something else – they’ve got this sort of soul to them, a certain freewheeling musical quality that lets them go places their contemporaries can’t. It’s something you find on the deep cuts, the EP tracks, the B-sides, and those weird one-offs that they’ll play once during a radio broadcast and then never again. Something that reminds you that these two are proper musicians, who’d released their first LP together a decade before “Rez” hit the clubs. If you have followed this band then you know that they make a lot of music, the majority of which never sees an actual studio album. The deluxe reissues of their first 3 albums wound up spanning 12 total CDs…and even that didn’t cover everything. Kraftwerk they ain’t.
2018: It was a bad year for Planet Earth, but a pretty good year for new music. Once again a lot of favorites were active this year, including some long-awaited and truly unexpected comebacks. As usual I didn’t get around to everything I wanted to, and I haven’t really been listening to a lot of *new* music, as in artists who have debuted sometime this decade. I guess that’s the price you pay for being somewhat of an obsessive; over time these lists get larger and larger, in part because I’m always gonna be interested in new material by some band I used to dig or am still on the fence about. But 2018 did seem to be unusually busy, especially in its first half. I’ve heard enough for a cursory glance back, as well as a holding spot for the stuff to be listened to later. Which I’ve come to realize is a lot. This time I’m just gonna do it in alphabetical order, with links to the albums I’ve actually reviewed on here, plus some scattered thoughts. Italicized albums were among my favorites.
Alas, 2016 has now drawn to a close, an event which ought to make everyone say “finally, thank God”. Though make no mistake, 2017 could very well be worse; as much damage as Trump has done to our country this year, just imagine what could happen when the man actually holds executive power. From a music perspective, who knows – hard to imagine we’ll lose as many legends as we did this year, though to be frank here all the stars of the 60’s and 70’s are really getting up there aren’t they? Granted, some of these deaths were particularly tragic – Bowie kicking off a week after releasing his best album in decades; Prince passing despite remaining as youthful and busy as ever; Keith Emerson dying by his own hand. Christ, who’s next? (12/8/2016: turns out I didn’t have to wait long – it’s Greg Lake.)
So it’s bittersweet in a sense, but 2016 was really a great year for new music (so long as what.cd wasn’t your primary source), though I say that with my usual disclaimer that I’m not even close to caught up on the year yet. My year end list is going to look a lot different than everyone else’s, mostly because I’ve heard like three of the albums that are mainstays on the yearly Top 50s. So I’m just going to split this up into the stuff I really liked, and then everything else I feel like writing about. And we’ll just call it at that. Rather than prattle on about the respective qualities of all these albums (many of which I’ve already written about on this site…follow the links on the titles if you want to read those), I’ll tackle them from the perspective of time, since a lot of these are from people that have been around the block a few times. I mean, a lot of these acts I’ve been a fan of for over a decade; I turned 30 this year, my son turned 2, I have a daughter on the way…time is marching on. So let’s start:
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.
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.
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.