Just enough quality to make a ninth album worth the effort
After the London Olympics in 2012, we thought it was all over for our one-time favourite field-filling beat mongers. They hadn’t released a new album since 2010 and then Karl Hyde announced his first solo album (solo albums are rarely good news for bands) and made an interesting pair of albums with Eno in 2014, while Underworld releases were all retrospectives and repackages.
But here we are at last, the ninth studio album, with a typical Karl Hyde non sequitur title to challenge the unused ‘Tonight Matthew, I’m Going To Be Underworld’, which would have been a far better title than ‘Beaucoup Fish’ if you ask me.
The album’s opener, ‘Exhale’, also the single, booms out a glam rock beat and does what Underworld have always excelled at; slipping out from under people’s expectations. It’s one of the reasons why The Chemical Brothers, their main rivals/partners in the 1990s big tent/field electronic dance music stakes, are more popular despite being less interesting. Where The Chems carefully construct their output to meet the expectations of their large crowd, Underworld made their name by confounding those expectations, delighting themselves and audiences with their freshness and oddness, all those peculiar juxtapositions of sound and rhythm like on ‘Mmm Skyscraper I Love You’, overlaid by Hyde’s stroboscopic, hallucinatory imagery. The relationship between Karl Hyde’s hyperactive imagination (difficult to tether, likely to fly off in all directions) and Rick Smith’s lugubrious work ethic, and all the tension you might imagine that implies, made Underworld not just one of the best electronic bands of the 1990s, but one of the best bands full stop.
Leaving in Karl’s vocal instructions on ‘If Rah’ – ‘Yeah, that’s good, a little more voice’ – lends the album an improvised feel, which has always been at the heart of Underworld when they were at their best. And it’s good to still hear the dancefloor being bent to their ideas and beats, not the other way around. It starts to sound like the Mark E Smith/Mouse On Mars collaboration Von Südenfed, with its driving and dirty electronic haze, the shout of “Have a good time!” chanted just like something off an early Fall record (‘The Wonderful And Frightening World of The Fall’ maybe) before it starts recalling the progressive house of Underworld’s heyday with some stabbing synth chords.
Are there any sublime Underworld dancefloor trips to write home about? Like the peerless ‘Pearl’s Girl’ from ‘Second Toughest In The Infants’? ‘Low Burn’ does hint at it but, epic as it is, it’s a little downcast, not overflowing with the exuberance of the 1990s, but sweet and melancholy. The baroque guitar workout of ‘Santiago’, a peculiar interlude of drone and guitar plucking with an Arabic flavour (or maybe it’s South American, given the title), is the halfway point, after which the album tails off, failing to deliver on the promise of the first three songs. ‘Motorhome’ is pretty gloomy, enlivened by its ‘Baby You’re A Rich Man’ squabbling, but it’s over before it gets into its stride. The glowering cloudy nature of the album continues with ‘Ova Nova’ and the closing ’Nylon St’, which does build into something of a banger, but it never shakes off the sense of fatigue that seems to have set in at the midway point.
It’s a long way off their best work, but it’s good to have Underworld back in the mix with new material, patchy as some of it is.