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“I’ve got a nice little techno shed.” Rick Smith is laughing on the other end of the phone. “I’ve got a posh techno shed where I made the album.” As half of the duo Underworld, one of the most successful music acts of the past 20 years, Smith can probably afford to build whatever kind of shed his heart desires. He and Karl Hyde formed Underworld (Mk II) in 1991, having wound up the first electropop iteration of the band two years earlier, and by the end of the decade they were headlining music festivals and selling millions of albums. Their debut album, dubnobasswithmyheadman, is considered one of the most important dance albums of the ’90s, if not ever, and their global reach climaxed four years ago in front of a TV audience of billions when their specially commissioned music accompanied the lighting of the torch during the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games. Yes, I’m sure Rick’s shed is very posh indeed.
Next week, the world will get to hear the latest product of Smith’s backyard studio when Underworld release Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future, their seventh studio album and first since 2010. Part reinvention, part rejuvenation, the techno pioneers have deliberately unshackled themselves from the narrow confines of commercial dance floors, resisting the demand for utilitarian club bangers. In so doing, they have reconnected with their rave/trance roots. The beautiful music on this album pulsates and shimmers, seducing listeners rather than kicking and punching them. This album comes from the heart; it’s their strongest work since 2002’s A Hundred Days Off.
The album opens with the dance floor-friendly “I Exhale”. At 125bpm with a shuffling dubstep-flavoured groove, this is the closest Underworld will get to hard techno this time out. A phat synth blurts out bass notes like a foghorn. As if to subvert its drum ’n’ bass purity, the song is almost top heavy with lyrics:
Life! It’s a touch.
Everything is golden.
Open. Rider. Stumble. Catch.
Karl Hyde’s spoken-word delivery is more akin to beat poetry than singing. Percussive and impressionistic, the lyrics ricochet off the backing track at odd angles. “I’m no good at articulating how I feel,” Hyde told me. “I can’t really write my feelings, but what I can do is collect images together, describe how I feel by those images.”
Track two, “If Rah”, sounds positively leisurely after “I Exhale”. But it still clocks in at 105bpm. That is relatively slow by club standards but is still a fraction faster than one of the most successful disco songs in history, “Staying Alive” by The Bee Gees. Again, Hyde’s fragmented lyrics are front and centre.
Tattooed shoulder speaking.
You say, “Fall before you fly”, but I don’t look
And you don’t look old enough to have suffered so much. What do I know?
Look – a heart on your arm. What does it mean?
I mean, what’s THAT about?
A new tattoo? Wild man, I cried. It’s so nice.
Unusually for Underworld, there are a lot of vocals on the album. They also broke with tradition by utilising backing vocals extensively, recruiting both of their daughters to sing on a few of the tracks. Underworld fans may also be surprised by the amount of guitar throughout, though they may not always be able to tell exactly what they’re hearing. As Hyde put it: “Quite often things that sound like guitars are synthesisers, and things that sound like synthesisers are guitars.” Smith says all of this was more by accident than design. “These were things that were not a big intention or a plan, or an end goal for me; they were just the way things evolved.”
There was one deliberate choice made by the duo before they started recording, and it had a huge impact on the way the album turned out: for the first time in their career they devised each of the songs together, completely from scratch. “We absolutely didn’t bring any material as a basis to start from each day,” Smith says. “I felt it was important, ’cause traditionally I’d do prep, and there’d be grooves and basses and ideas, and we’d work on those together… This was a way of turning it into more of a journey, something which was about capturing the moment, you know?” Hyde agreed that this approach was crucial: “We were both in the same room at the same time, improvising, making it up as we go along. We never did anything like that before. We do it onstage, we’ve done it onstage for 25 years, but we’ve never done it that way in the studio and it’s fun.”
Hyde and Smith have a habit of reinvention, frequently challenging themselves with new technology and exploring different working methods to keep their collaboration fresh. It was Smith’s idea for their previous album, Barking, that the pair should work in tandem with a variety of name producers to disrupt their usual work habits. For that album they sent partially completed versions of their latest tracks to dance luminaries, such as Paul van Dyk, High Contrast, D. Ramirez and Mark Knight, and gave them free rein to rearrange them. It was a daring concept but the results sounded a little restrained and inhibited to my ears, as if the band was working with one arm tied behind its back. One of the glories of Underworld is the incredible production of Rick Smith. Apart from his inherent musicality, Smith’s sense of sonic “colour”, all the space, atmosphere and dynamics he creates when arranging and mixing their tracks, is peerless. As simpatico as their co-producers may have been, in many ways Barking was more like an album of Underworld remixes, and the dilution of Smith’s input was keenly felt.
For the new album, Hyde had purchased a lot of exotic acoustic instruments on his travels and the ones he brought to the recording sessions were usually the ones he found most difficult to play. More importantly, they were the kind of instruments that wouldn’t normally appear on an Underworld album. There can be no mistaking the fretted instrument on the album’s fourth track, “Santiago Cuatro”, for any kind of synthesiser, although it’s obviously not a conventional guitar either. “Santiago Cuatro” is not so much a song as a brief interlude on the album. At only four minutes, it is the shortest track by far. It’s free form, improvisational and completely unbound by the strictures of genre, which is not a bad description of the album in general. The track ushers in the glorious second half of the album, a smooth, harmonically rich journey through a series of increasingly beautiful musical vistas.
Though Hyde writes all the lyrics, Smith reshapes and remodels them extensively in the arrangements, frequently picking out a few key phrases, or even words, to build upon. A perfect example of that is in “Motorhome”, one of the standout tracks on Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future and the song that immediately follows “Santiago Cuatro”. Hyde described its genesis to me: “I think it was a Post-it note I’d written to myself: ‘What don’t lift you drags you down, keep away from the dark side.’ Rick kind of cut out the rest. What I like about working with Rick… the singer is just an instrument, an oscillator really, that’s there to bring a texture, and the fact that there are lyrics and that they do mean something to me… that’s great, but that’s to be discovered after you’ve heard the tone and the rhythm and the patterns of the sounds that the voice makes. Somewhere down the line people begin to think, ‘Oh, he’s singing something’, and that’s great. It’s kind of like an unfolding discovery of the material.”
“Motorhome” builds slowly, like a mantra. A simple major chord and a softly throbbing bass note accompany Hyde’s multitracked vocals, his voice humming sweetly in the background as he sings the simple lyrics. Layers of instruments and sounds join in as the track progresses. The song floats along like a canoe pushed by a light breeze, barely moving. A subtle chord progression appears about five minutes in, nudging the song to a satisfying conclusion. It is not so much a finale as fulfilment. A complete relaxing of tension.
“Motorhome” is followed by “Ova Nova” and “Nylon Strung”. Though both songs are at 120bpm, Underworld resist the urge to combine the tracks into a single mix. As it stands, the momentary silence between them is more like a sigh than an interruption. “Ova Nova” has a psychedelic delicacy that bewitches as it soothes. The singsong vocals resemble an internal monologue, though one without any trace of paranoia. Hyde is almost cooing as he sings along with the gently loping groove. By now, without you noticing, Underworld’s music has lulled you into a completely tranquil state.
The album’s crowning glory and its perfectly blissful ending is “Nylon Strung”. Underworld have always had a gift for creating an altered state in the synapses of their listeners. The best way I can describe this tender epic is to say it’s the closest Hyde and Smith have ever come to a musical evocation of lucid dreaming. There is such a warmth and optimism about the track that is simply impossible to resist, and why would you want to?
There is no single way to experience Underworld. Their music is as enjoyable on headphones as it is on the dance floor. Even at their most peaceful, there is a swing and heartbeat to everything they do. “I love a groove, Dave.” Rick Smith is laughing again. “So it’s inevitably going to try and sneak into every nook and cranny, every crevice in what we do.” Amen to that.
When they are at their best, Underworld’s music can seduce listeners and dancers alike. They are at their best here.
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, March 16-26
Arts Centre, Melbourne, until March 21
MUSICAL Matilda the Musical
Princess Theatre, Melbourne, March 18-July 13
CIRCUS Cirque Adrenaline
Crown Theatre, Perth, March 15-27
OPERA The Rabbits
QPAC Playhouse, Brisbane, March 17-20
MULTIMEDIA StArtUp: Top Arts 2016
NGV Design Studio, Melbourne, until July
Botanic Park, Adelaide, until March 14
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 11, 2016 as "Born trippy".
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