Underworld

TrackAlbum / Single
CupsBeaucoup Fish
Dark TrainDark & Long single
Two Months OffA Hundred Days Off
Mmm…Skyscraper I Love YouDubnobasswithmyheadman
I ExhaleBarbara Barbara,
We Face A Shining Future
Tree And Two ChairsDrift Series 1
Denver LunaDenver Luna single
Border CountryDrift Series 1
Banstyle/Sappy’s CurrySecond Toughest In The Infants
You Do ScribbleBarking (Deluxe Edition)

Underworld photo 1
Underworld 1994 (l-r): Darren Emerson, Karl Hyde,
Rick Smith – promo photo by Kevin Westenberg

 

 

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Underworld playlist

 

Contributor: Dom Lepore

For those who are familiar with electronic music, Underworld is a band that needs very little introduction. Like most people, their smash hit Born Slippy .NUXX from Trainspotting (1996) was my introduction to the group, but it’s a mere footnote in the Underworld story. Born Slippy .NUXX is a song that’s just as omnipresent and transcending of the artist’s grasps as Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Whilst the popularity of Born Slippy .NUXX has led to a pigeon-holing of Underworld, further listening reveals an endless rabbit hole of eclectic electronic music, laced with stream-of-consciousness spoken word. Their Spotify synopsis best summarises their variety: “It’s music for fields, music for tents and for headphones; music to lose yourself in and to.”

Before becoming all of that, however, was their curious beginnings. Underworld began in the early 80s as a cheesy new wave group, under the name Freur. After that direction fell through due to commercial failure, its two core members, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, briefly parted ways until Smith met the young DJ Darren Emerson. In the early 90s, they reconvened to form what was informally called Underworld ‘Mk2’. Their collective intelligence resulted in electronica of a Pink Floydian stature. Their formula proved effective: house music that pushed the vocalist to the back; and the hypnotic melodies upfront. What also sets them apart is their artistic links to poetry. Their lyrics and titles search for meaning in words, shapes, and photographs that would otherwise be taken for granted, thereby instilling excitement into what is often dismissed as dull mundanity. These are pulled largely from Hyde’s observations, such as excerpts from overheard conversations and phrases that make you go ‘huh, that’s interesting’. Their visuals, inspired by this attitude, are created by the design collective Tomato, which they’re members of.

In 2000, it was announced that Emerson was departing Underworld to pursue a solo career. For many, this marked the beginning of the band’s subsequent creative plateau, however, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Underworld has since continued to dabble across genres and novel modes of music distribution. You know how Radiohead had their first full-fledged digital release, In Rainbows, in 2007? Underworld beat them to it with their Riverrun series in 2005. How about releasing new music weekly and having their live audiences recognise it within days of release? The Drift project was on top of that in 2019. They even directed the music for the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony! Whilst Emerson’s contributions are missed, to say that Underworld became worse off without him would be to blatantly lie.

Although I’ve been able to provide a succinct overview of Underworld’s history, condensing their eclectic artistry to only 10 tracks is a formidable, nearly impossible task. My amping up of their musicianship is not due to personal bias either – they really are that good. The duo still working together after forty years is clearly a testament to that. There’s so much more to say about Underworld, maybe even too much, but I will try to be brief in my admiration. Let’s take a glimpse into the many years Underworld has existed, covering all bases from hard-hitting techno to esoteric poetic bliss. If you’ve enjoyed these samples, I promise you this – there’s so much more to explore.

 

The best way to start an Underworld curation is with my favourite opener, Cups. Taken from Beaucoup Fish (1999), their most commercially successful album, Underworld became a bit conventional by tapping into Born Slippy .NUXX’s success. However, many intricacies can still be heard. Cups is what I’d call ‘epic house’, structured as a gradual, unwinding voyage unsuspectingly ending with a crushing adrenaline rush. Its first portion is loungey, almost seductive, with Hyde’s romantic vocals drenched in vocoder: Bubble girl you feel like a movie. Nautical synths bubble above the steady bassline and tinny hi-hats, until more urgent percussion kicks in.

With Dripslowdown, Hyde’s singing concludes – the chillout session is over. The aquatic fishbowl well-roundedness of Cups loses its shape, dissolving into a percussive whirlpool. Any remnants of its initial tranquil are long gone. There’s now only techno with lofty momentum. The execution of this deceitful tease is genius. For me, the song’s careful unwind has soundtracked distant memories, countless road trips, walks, moments of study, and spins on the turntable. No matter how many times I hear the sappy romantic strings that wake up the tune, it’ll never get old.

 

Their one song that perfectly conveys all connotations of the word ‘underworld’: deep, dark, and propulsive. Dark Train is a reimagination of Dark & Long, which opened their Mk2 debut, Dubnobasswithmyheadman (1994). The latter was subject to a tapestry of remixes representing Underworld’s own remix culture – shredding the fibres of their already-existing songs to repurpose them as radically different versions. Dark Train is the epitome of this process.

Dark Train doesn’t need extensive dissection. It may as well be tech trance of the highest calibre. Its unfolding, brooding bass groove paves way for a surge of flashing synths. As soon as Hyde begins the repetition of Ride the train, you’re fully immersed in this tactical nocturnal weapon of the dancefloor. You can feel the supersonic carriage. All aboard the train.

 

The other side of the coin to Dark Train’s gloaming is the pure unadulterated positivity of Two Months Off. A bird tells a silly anecdote about a guy named Alex, until the jumpy percussion invites a cascade of twinkly waterfalling synths. These blankets of relentlessly uplifting energy become more powerful, especially once Hyde finally steps into the limelight exclaiming: You bring light in!

It’s a no-brainer that Two Months Off is a live staple. It’s music’s equivalent of incessant elation. They’ve rarely emulated this stadium electro style, only twice more with Scribble (Barking, 2010) and Listen To Their No (Drift Series 1, 2019), but neither beat the original. Two Months Off is Underworld proving they still had it in them post-Emerson, but it’s also a helping hand. Every time this exhilarating blast of positivity comes on, no matter how many times I’ve already heard it, the urge to cry is impossible to resist. It always puts me back on my feet. It’s Underworld at the height of their powers.

 

In their early heyday, Underworld had a strong emphasis on a vivid yet hallucinatory atmosphere. Mmm…Skyscraper I Love You is the longest cut on Dubnobasswithmyheadman, but its drawn-out length is purposeful. The album bridged the gap between rave music and indie rock, forging a vocal electronic album not only for dancing, but also attentive listening. Mmm…Skyscraper I Love You sees Underworld’s poetic puzzle pieces all put together.

This song plays out like a movie. The street ambience fades into a chugging groove, lending itself to Hyde’s mystifying dialogue: 30,000 feet above the Earth / It’s a beautiful thing. Underworld transports the listener to these heights, soaring past dingy, metropolitan skylines. Simultaneously, it’s also like drunkenly stumbling through the worn-down labyrinthine alleyways of the city: I see Elvis … I see porn dogs sniffing the wind. It and the rest of Dubnobass are brilliant for their unique urban aesthetics, down to the art direction and imagery they conjure: a gritty, grimy cityscape.

When the promiscuous sleaze dies down, the listener enters sobriety. It’s amazing how quickly Underworld can switch from one mood to another in the same track, without it being jarring. Mmm…Skyscraper I Love You concludes with a heavenly synthpop beat informally titled After Sky. It’s a magical piece. Here, the sun has finally started to rise, and one proclamation best suits this moment: mmm… Underworld, I love you.

 

Life, it’s a touch / Everything is golden, Hyde opens impassioned. Life is indeed beautiful. I Exhale introduces Underworld’s 2016 album which also had their longest gap between releases – six years! It’s titled Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future, and all interviews mention the amends the duo made with each other exiting their hiatus. The resultant record, much like their reconvened friendship, is their most pastoral and sublime. Although I Exhale may initially seem otherwise with its mechanical denseness, it’s a cacophony of liberation.

Gargantuan crashing bells ring between the ears, curls of glittery feedback appear, then Hyde precariously notes his surroundings. I Exhale is largely unchanging in its eight-minute duration, but that doesn’t dismiss the impeccable production on this banger. How did they even produce the sounds on this? Corrugated rhythms, Hyde brings up – the music’s screeching, towering industrial cries resemble exactly that.

 

Tree And Two Chairs arrives fascinatingly late in Underworld’s career, during the Drift series. It was a year-long public experiment in 2019, where Hyde and Smith released a new song and accompanying film every Thursday. The result was more Underworld music being released in one year than in the past two decades. In other words, an entire career’s worth, gifted to fans forty years into their career – that’s downright unheard of! So too was the range of musical diversity they covered: acid techno, spoken word, and even avant-garde jazz.

Avid fans might think Tree And Two Chairs is a peculiar choice for a favourite song. It’s instrumental and more so background music, but its sound design is impeccable; it softly opens with bubbly minimal techno that melts and sparkles separately in each ear, whilst staying in tune with the crispy nu jazz percussion. It’s effervescent, smooth, and filled with enthralling polyrhythms.

Halfway through the trip, the keyboards become more pronounced, as ambient pads begin to lift both the soundstage and listener. A gorgeous subtle saxophone embellishment from Lewis Evans of Black Country, New Road (a bandmate in Hyde’s daughter’s band) farewells the adventure. This luminous musicianship through natural instrumentation makes Tree And Two Chairs an exciting outlier in the band’s discography. By moving away from their signature fusion of progressive house and techno, Underworld flex their complex musical muscles. Truly spellbinding music; no one else does it like Underworld.

 

Like Tree And Two Chairs, this is another fascinating addition to the list because of its newness. Denver Luna is one of a few new Underworld songs debuted live in 2023. Many others at this point in their career might prefer to settle down and revel in being a legacy act, however, a legacy act they are not. Underworld continue to prove themselves as forward-thinkers by bestowing one of their most visceral techno tunes upon ears after forty years in the game.

It has all the ingredients for a quintessential Underworld song, representative of their namesake: an unrelenting build-up, kinetic hi-hats, and Hyde’s free-form poetry about things like a strawberry jam girl and a man in stone wash jeans. As Hyde’s delivery becomes more intense, so does the music. It’s reminiscent of Spoonman from Dubnobasswithmyheadman, with the consistent building of layers and words plastered above it. It’s as if the 90s Underworld never left; energy cut from the same cloth yet with a newly lustrous sheen.

The most beautiful thing to come from Denver Luna is its a cappella track of the climactic crescendo. Even with just their voices, Underworld bring me to tears. It takes a great amount of valiance to present any song dismantled like so, but Underworld are absolutely capable. The interplay between Hyde’s raw voice and Smith’s, beautifully vocoded, is emblematic of their long-lasting creative partnership. An enthralling harmony and unbelievably late-career innovation. Denver Luna is comfortably an Underworld classic.

 

The next snippet from the Drift project is Border Country, a collaboration with English techno producer Ø [Phase]. Collaborations are novel in Underworld’s discography, but Drift made them the norm.

Border Country deserves a placement because of how viscerally electric it is. It recalls the raving breakbeat of Pearl’s Girl (Second Toughest In The Infants, 1996) and dark build-up of Born Slippy .NUXX. Fizzling hi-hats repeatedly chatter until Hyde’s voice, like a big unwavering flag, envelops the listener until a blasting cacophony of cyclone vocals commence an aural assault. As you think it peters out, your certainty ricochets you with another crescendo to the ears. In the live setting, that sneaky drop can be felt at the very pits of your stomach. It’s the pinnacle of Underworld’s techno side.

What’s even more impressive, like the rest of Drift, is how late into their career this was conceived. At the time, they were just shy of forty years working together. Hyde and Smith have never lost their touch over the decades. Still remaining true to their original sound, while leaving room for innovation – the sheer ferocity and drive in Border Country attests to that.

 

My favourite of their multipart songs is the second journey on Second Toughest In The Infants, which is preceded by Juanita : Kiteless : To Dream of Love, an oft-contender for anyone’s top ten. As much as I adore that entrancing soundscape, personally, it narrowly falls below the atmospheric drum ‘n’ bass of Banstyle/Sappy’s Curry. Where Dubnobass fostered an urban atmosphere, Second Toughest takes that further, opting for cruisy breakbeat conjuring neon-lit nightlife. The smeared bleached blue strokes across its cover artwork reflect the looseness of this very song.

Hyde’s opening words are simple yet profound: If they don’t know / And they don’t know / They’re gonna find out soon enough. For any young person, it’s a mantra as optimistically resonant as any classic Oasis tune – you stand out from the rest. This wordplay continues in the Banstyle portion, until it fades into street ambience and the downtempo acoustic-laden bliss of Sappy’s Curry.

Now, we’re leaving the city. We’re going elsewhere, somewhere far and away from mundanity, levitating at the same time. The music steadily creeps forward, with acid squelches flickering beneath Hyde’s seductive whispers. The cathartic climax is onset, jittering at first – initially unsure of itself – but we’re proven wrong. The hypervigilant whirling synths swarm the ears, as you’ve reached nirvana. Anyone would want to live in that moment forever as the colourful squeals keep you twirling upward. There’s no grimy cityscape anymore, neither is there claustrophobic suburbia – there’s only being enveloped in total bliss. As much as I’ve already heralded this band, I’ll admit, they’ll never do it like this again. That ‘it’ can only be properly understood by giving this spiritual journey a full listen.

 

The mid–2000s were an interesting period for Underworld, experimenting and performing their most prolific live shows. Producing hundreds of tracks scattered across the digital Riverrun EPs, webcasts, live improvs, and for their next studio albums – they were working like a machine. Emerson was essential, certainly, but they somehow became even more abstruse without him. Some of their music from this era could’ve been neatly collated into a single album.

Note the “could’ve”. The truth is that Hyde and Smith’s working relationship was very strenuous at this time. They’ve since made amends, as noted earlier, but tracks often feel unfinished and the lack of dialogue between them dampened what could’ve been. You Do Scribble is the ‘what could’ve been’.

Its final appearance was brutally neutered on Barking, where their forward-thinking songs of the mid-2000s were sterilised by external producers, resulting in Underworld’s most commercial-sounding and, dare I say, dated record. It’s not all bad, though. The finished product, neatly titled Scribble, is an uplifting drum ‘n’ bass anthem with help from Welsh electronic music producer High Contrast. It’s outrageously happy, optimistic, and life-affirming.

Meanwhile, You Do Scribble, an outtake officially delivered on Barking’s deluxe edition, strips down this polished sugar rush for back-to-basics breakbeat. It’s an insurmountable beast of rapid and intelligent drum sampling. Once the glimmering synth stabs slow down, the song does too – we’ve entered the comedown. Meditative, oneiric ambience comforts the listener from the hyperactive drumbeats. Somehow, it feels like the culmination of techno.

The saddest part is how overlooked it is. You Do Scribble is viscerally nocturnal, and yet glows with rave culture’s gleeful tolerance. It’d be a marvel on the dancefloor, but even at home, this composition begs to be listened to for its bombastic punch. In their entire oeuvre, it is by far one of Underworld’s most overlooked compositions.

 

Underworld photo 2
Underworld 2019: Rick Smith & Karl Hyde
– promo photo by Rob Baker Ashton

 

It’s remarkable that, essentially, two retirement village lads are putting on the best electronic live show today. They remain in top form in the studio as well – my selections cover decades of Underworld’s existence. Those choices weren’t by accident; very few artists, even their contemporaries, have remained as consistent and prolific as Underworld. Sure, they’ve had their gaps in output, but it speaks volumes when any artist’s song from 2023 can justifiably stand alongside one from 1994 in a top 10 list.

My words might only do so much to sway you into exploring Underworld’s discography. I might be wholly obsessed, but good music is good music. My ethos is that any good music deserves to be heard. If you love and enjoy music, please, you need to try to experience the spellbinding, entrancing soundscapes that Underworld crafts. There’s a song for every occasion and they’ve engaged with music in ways that most bands haven’t. Their longevity as musicians and friends must account for something special. What’s next is that you give them a go and discover the rest for yourself. Underworld will eternally prevail, so long as people keep on listening deeply and they keep on creating, until the very end of time. A mere electronic band they are not; creative geniuses they are.

 

 

Underworld official website

Underworld Instagram

Underworld Facebook

Born Dirty – An Underworld fan website

Underworld biography (AllMusic)

Dom Lepore is a music journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. He publishes music reviews to his blog ‘For Grounded’ and can be found on his Instagram @dom.lepore.

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2 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Nov 30, 2023

    A terrific article on a band who I am ashamed to say I had not noticed. I’ll look forward to listening to this list again then digging down into the rest of the back catalogue.

  2. Simon
    Dec 2, 2023

    Excellent write up and superb choices. Dirty/Epic would have to be on my list. John Duran of The Quietus quite rightly said they were a modern electronic version of CAN when he was discussing the Drift project

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