How do you keep the spark going in a musical relationship that’s weathered thirty years of near perfect storms? Is it possible to still glean inspiration in a career that’s been mapped out initially with depressing failure before flipping to astonishing levels of success; band break-ups and rebirths; tackling alcoholism, mammoth gigs, huge selling records, an ozone depleting amount of hairspray and a partnering that’s been consistently worked at since the late ’70s? In the case of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, collectively Underworld since the mid ’80s, the solution lay in playing away from home.
Pioneering musically and questing lyrically, Underworld have forced the pace of electronic music since their Lazarus-like resurrection in the early ’90s. The band’s first album as a trio (with Darren Emerson, a young DJ who lived in the next street in Romford), Dubnobasswithmyheadman, was met with the kind of plaudits reserved for the upper-echelons of rock royalty. The result of several years retuning and refocusing, Dubnobass offered Underworld a kiss of life that other bands so far into their career can only fantasise about. Over the next fifteen years, the band plotted a course that took them from cult status curio selling 500 singles out of the back of a van to soundtracking summer after summer as festival headliners the world over; from conducting sonic experiments for subterranean dancefloors to scoring movies for directors Danny Boyle and the late Anthony Minghella.
Autumn 2010 and the arrival of Underworld’s sixth studio album – Barking – sees the band perform a feat of creative regeneration once again. As before, a little outside encouragement has acted as spark to the band’s creative flame. From the first shuddering machine pulses of opener Bird 1, clearly this music is from a band reborn.
Underworld’s story proper begins in Cardiff back in 1980. A chance meeting in a student house in the city’s Splott district happened when Karl found a fully clothed Rick celebrating the last few hours of his birthday while languishing in a bathtub clutching a near empty bottle of champagne. A musical relationship blossomed through a mutual love of the outer reaches of the John Peel show, first with their Cardiff based band The Screen Gemz then with Freur, a group whose name was represented simply with an oblique glyph and whose look is best described as ‘troubled’. Signed to CBS in 1983, they fused electronic tones to rock’n’roll instrumentation and went on to work with studio legends Conny Plank (Kraftwerk, Neu!) and Dennis Bovell (The Slits, Orange Juice). These producers would help Smith and Hyde make good on feverish obsessions with both motorik electronics and cavernous, sweeping dub. Although successful in Europe, changing fashion saw the end of Freur and the formation of the first version of Underworld. The band released two albums of electro-plated rock’n’roll that put them on a round-the-world treadmill, making significant inroads in Australia with their album Underneath The Radar. When the band eventually fizzled out in 1989, Smith returned to the UK and relocated to Essex while Hyde played guitar for hire for Debbie Harry.
The musical ‘year zero’ that was acid house had created an unrecognizable landscape back at home, one that forced Smith to re-evaluate the music he was making. An introduction to Darren Emerson, thirteen years Smith’s junior and already headspinningly inspirational as a DJ, led to tentative studio collaborations and the forging of a relationship with the Junior Boy’s Own record label. Hyde’s return to the band coincided with the release of a succession of envelope-pushing 12s – Big Mouth, Dirty, Mmm … Skyscraper I Love You and Rez (the latter described recently by Jon Savage as sounding like “the best kind of dance record – one that is inspired by the audience and seals the deal by giving something back: excitement, unity, transcendence”). Each record was playful – strange, even. Seeming to exist in its own space one step to the side of what anyone else was doing at the time, the combination of Hyde’s stream of consciousness lyrics – heavily inspired by Lou Reed’s New York album and Sam Shepard’s book Motel Chronicles – cyclical electronics that seemed to weave and swoosh around the listener.
Dubnobasswithmyheadman, the first Underworld album with Emerson, was released in January ’94. Described by the Melody Maker as “the most important album since The Stone Roses and the best since Screamadelica … There will only ever be one Underworld”, it heralded the point where the UK’s inky music press decided to enthusiastically surrender itself to dance music. Over the next couple of years, Underworld’s sealed their revolutionary live act status (“a sound so singular that it thwarts imitation”, The Guardian, “pure three-dimensional Pop Art”, The Times), rapidly from dancefloor to dance tent to main stage. The release of the follow up to Dubnobass, Second Toughest In The Infants, saw the band lauded in NME as “smooth of touch, sleek of footing and downright slippery of rhythm, the anti-Green Day trio breezily persevere in their quest for Western groove domination.” The band’s transformation from nearly-rans to genre-bending visionaries was total.
At the start of ’96, a young British film director cut a low budget ensemble piece he was working on to a copy of Dubnobass. The final cut of Danny Boyle’s movie of the Irvine Welsh masterpiece Trainspotting arrived accompanied by a soundtrack that represented a Britpop masterclass, yet Underworld’s contribution – Nuxx, the B-side to the ’95 single Born Slippy, given the same name so as to get around the chart rulings of the time – became synonymous with the film and, subsequently, the entire summer of 1996. The single release peaked at No 2 in the UK singles charts and went on to sell over 750,000 copies in the UK alone. The lyrics to Nuxx documented one of Hyde’s many forays into London’s West End at night during a period where he explored the boundless possibilities of excessive alcohol abuse.
Following the release of the band’s third album as a trio, Beaucoup Fish (“a remarkable third album: 74 minutes of largely unreconstructed techno pulsing with a hyperactive big-eyed man, possibly old enough to know better, gibbering over the top” NME) and the band’s ever-expanding tour schedule (documented in the groundbreaking live album and DVD Everything, Everything), Emerson left to pursue solo projects. Everything Everything saw the band’s first steps online and the birth of the underworldlive.com website. Running as a pre-Blogger diary for Hyde (updated daily everyday for the past 10 years) the site has also hosted web radio shows inspired by their experiences sitting in for John Peel on Radio 1 alongside impromptu and free live broadcasts of studio jams and gigs the world around.
Prior to the release of A Hundred Days Off (“They have settled gracefully into the task of making a consistently glorious racket”, Mojo) in 2002, Underworld’s fourth album – their first as a duo – Hyde decided to confront his personal demons by outing himself as an alcoholic. This cathartic experience helped lead to the shimmering, super-positive lead single Two Months Off (“A classic, maybe even their best yet”, BBC Online), a record which rapidly became ubiquitous that summer, having much the same hypnotic, almost narcotic effect as Born Slippy: Nuxx had six years previously.
Ever eager to harness the possibilities of new technology Underworld’s next move, the Riverrun project, saw the band release a series of internet only releases sold direct to the band’s fan base. Released two years before Radiohead’s attempted to direct sell In Rainbows, the three Riverrun downloads spliced together disparate tracks to create interwoven, twenty-five minute long sound pieces. Several of the pieces from Riverrun inspired the bands score in Danny Boyle’s 2007 Brit-sci-fi movie Sunshine. Work on that soundtrack and that of Breaking and Entering (the last film by director Anthony Minghella) led to Oblivion With Bells (“Typically captivating”, The Observer), album that gave the band a looser, more filmic quality. Dare it be said that after a quarter of a century working together, Underworld was beginning to mellow with age?
At the end of 2009, a different kind of Underworld record arrived almost unheralded. Much like the 500 copy 12s of the early ’90s, Downpipe was a record made for the dancefloor. Credited to Underworld and techno producers Mark Knight and D. Ramirez, the record – Downpipe – was as streamlined as the band’s last album had been freeform. From the point the record hit club world, it was a short mental leap to the question at that had been bugging the band in the studio for some time – why not enlist the help of like-minded souls to help make an actual Underworld record?
Barking enlists the help not just of Knight and Ramirez (Always Loved A Film, Between Stars) but a whole cast of brilliant and like-minded producers from across the spectrum of modern dance music to add personal touches to the band’s original material. Enter Welsh drum and bass artist High Contrast (Scribble, Moon In Water), four-time Grammy winner Dubfire (Bird 1, Grace), Bristol based dub step producers Appleblim and Al Tourettes (Hamburg Hotel) and long term Underworld team member Darren Price (Between Stars).
While each of the nine tracks were written and recorded by the band in their Essex studio (The Pigshed), each collaboration took on different forms – edits here, additional programming there, even total reworking – before being handed back to the band for final mixing. While the band would normally be perceived as an insular unit, Barking’s gestation came after a period where Hyde had worked extensively with Brian Eno on the Pure Scenius project, an entirely improvised jam band who got together to headline the Sydney Opera House.
The question is, with such a glittering cast of extras, how does it actually sound? From the first undulating pulses of submariner bass, the first vocals – soft like a whisper in the ear – and the first fizz of hi-hats that force along the pace, the sound is unmistakably Underworld. Electronics wrapped effortlessly around songs; streams of consciousness lyrics that form indelible images; a perfectly balanced mix of melody and rhythm. Underworld’s sixth studio album is a thundering return to form, although it’s fair to say that the band responsible have never really been below par. Like the bomb on the Icarus II in Sunshine, this new process of working had the effect of not so much reigniting a creativity within the band as exploding it into myriad new fragments. And through all of this, brilliantly and uniquely, it sounds just like Underworld.
So, thirty years in and by working with a series of hand picked co-conspirators you make the best album of your career? It was a long shot, but for Underworld in 2010, maybe playing away was just the trick.
Just leaves the question of who they’ll get into bed with next time. Roll on album seven.