Review Summary: Thirty thousand feet above the earth, it’s a beautiful thing...
The story of Underworld is for all intents and purposes the story of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith. Hyde met Smith in the late 1970s while the latter was in college studying electronics and co-opted him as a synthesizer player for local Cardiff-based post-punk/new wave band The Screen Gemz
. The affair would be relatively short-lived though, with the two moving on to form Freur
in 1982, a synthpop/new wave band whose 1983 single “Doot-Doot” achieved moderate success. Following the release of two studio albums the group disbanded in 1986, and reformed as Underworld, named after the horror film that Freur had scored. The late 80s saw another two studio albums under this name and lineup, continuing in a similar vein to their previous band, albeit a bit more dance-oriented and funk-influenced.
In 1989, the group experienced dissatisfaction with their musical careers following a tour in North America supporting Eurythmics
. Between a creative rut and financial issues, a break was in order. Hyde would remain in the United States, while Smith would return to the UK and develop a growing interest in the burgeoning clubbing scene. After relocating to Romford, Essex and setting up a home production studio geared specifically towards electronic music, he met a young up-and-coming local DJ in Darren Emerson, who helped him delve deeper into the dance and club styles emerging at the time. Hyde’s return to the UK saw the reforming of Underworld with the co-option of Emerson who would serve as its third pillar between 1991 and 2001. The trio would tackle the creative endeavour once more, with a fresh perspective and a fresh sound, releasing a number of remixes as Steppin’ Razor and a couple of original singles under the moniker Lemon Interupt
, experimenting and iterating on the formula that would eventually give birth to Dubnobasswithmyheadman in 1994. Success and acclaim would follow thereafter, including a lucrative partnership with film director Danny Boyle and even the 2012 London Summer Olympics, not to mention influencing countless producers and even video game composers.
The point of this preamble was not merely to serve as a history lesson of sorts for the curious; it is important to understand and contextualise that Hyde and Smith were not doe-eyed youths eager to take on the club scene, they were veteran musicians from an older generation, who’d been active in the post-punk-derived UK scene, and this would inform their breakthrough material. For starters, despite unabashedly being a dance album, Dubnobass is extremely varied and refreshing. You would be hard pressed to peg it into a singular subgenre of electronic; one can argue it’s Trance as much as it is (Progressive) House and as much as it is Techno. Tongue and River of Bass are moody ambient pieces making use of guitar, while spacy closer M.E. would not sound out of place on a record by The Chemical Brothers
One of the album’s most unique features is its prominent use of vocals. While it’s far from unusual for electronic dance music to feature either sampled vocals or session singers, here we have the producers themselves stepping up to the task, with Hyde taking the lead and Smith backing him up. This gives the album a more personal and intimate feel, making it more accessible even for listeners who might otherwise find club music cold or inexpressive. Moreover, their delivery is just as varied as the rest of the music: hypnotic during Dark & Long and Spoonman, passionate during the climaxes of Mm… Skyscraper and Dirty Epic, vaguely brooding on River of Bass, comforting on M.E. and mostly ethereal throughout. Hyde also provides the lyrics - a surreal stream of consciousness flowing from sensual to moody to bizarre in order to fit the music - mostly written during his stay in the US, and reportedly inspired by Charles Bukowski as well as Lou Reed
’s New York.
Smith and Hyde have noted in various interviews over the years that they grew up with quite the eclectic musical selection, from expected influences such as Kraftwerk
and Tangerine Dream
, to Can
, Soft Machine
, Talk Talk
and even Hawkwind
. While most of them are not overtly evident in Underworld’s sound, some parallels can certainly be drawn in terms of composition. Especially obvious is the penchant for longer tracks, that build upon a relatively simple core and hypnotise the listener while continuously adding layer upon layer on top. It’s repetitive enough to be suited to the dance floor, but at the same time each track subtly evolves and develops naturally, entrancing listeners in a way not unlike the German music of the 70s. With care and fine attention to detail you have basslines, synths, vocals and even the occasional guitar coming and going at just the right times, while tracks such as Mm… Skyscraper and especially Surfboy display a notable complexity in percussion compared to most electronic music. Also notable is the atmosphere and sparseness on Tongue which perhaps bear some resemblance to early British post-rock.
Dubnobasswithmyheadman is not only ahead of its time in many ways, but it’s so obviously brimming with passion, creativity, skill, ambition and a broad range of influences. It’s so varied, yet so consistent in quality. It straddles the line between various different styles, shifting gears effortlessly between moods, and somehow remains a cohesive monolith of fantastic electronic music that can appeal to those looking for something more stimulating just as well as it appeals to club-goers and just as well as it appeals to more casual non-dancing listeners. A timeless, peerless record yet to be surpassed, having shown the world everything, everything that electronic dance music can be and should aspire to be.