Underworld - Royal Festival Hall 11th October 2014, Photo by Paul Carless flic.kr/p/pm3Uou
For thirty-seven years, Rick Smith and Karl Hyde have been creating their own unique flavor of music, ranging from New Wave (with their first effort, a one-off single sold from the boot of Karl’s car as the Screen Gemz), to synth pop as Freur and Underworld Mk1, to progressive house experimentalism with their breakthrough self-reinvention on the album, Dubnobasswithmyheadman. From there, Underworld’s sound grew infinitely richer and more adventurous, with everything from dancefloor anthems to ambient scores for film and the stage, to a soundtrack for the London 2012 Olympic Games.
By the present day, their catalog boasts an impressive tally of 510 albums, EPs, live releases, collaborations, solo efforts, and singles. At 56 and 58 years old, the duo have been producing music longer than many of their listeners have been alive. Releasing a new LP, the band’s first new recordings in six years, would be a daunting task for any artist. But instead, as Ian Mathers notes in his review for PopMatters, “This might be the most relaxed, subtly confident record they’ve put out in Underworld Mk II’s history.”
True veterans of electronic music, Barbara is artful and inventive and easily the freshest-sounding album I’ve heard all year thus far.
Casual listeners hoping for an album of “Born Slippy”s be warned. This is instead an intimate and reflective album capturing the emotive spirit the band has shown in the past in their more meditative and mid-tempo tracks and, as Mathers notes, “is more of a slow burn, a ‘Banstyle/Sappys Curry’ instead of a ‘Pearl’s Girl’.”
Slant Magazine revealed that “the album's title came from the mouth of Smith's dying father, being among the final words he uttered to his wife." And Spin Magazine adds that the album’s “stirring background vocals over ever-turning arpeggiated synths are provided by Smith’s daughter, Esme, and Hyde’s daughter, Tyler, carrying the torch (almost literally) for future ravers." This is what four-decade veterans of electronic music sound like in their most intimate and thoughtful moments.
The theme of the record approaches the shimmery, reflective territory Karl explored with an early edit of “Always Loved a Film”, (then dubbed “Silver Boots”) broadcast only once (on May 19th 2006) from the band’s Lemonworld Studio. The track has long been a stand-out favorite of mine, with its danceclub anthemic, four-on-the-floor beats delicately balanced by more complex and thoughtful elements which reveal themselves over the eleven minutes of the track.
And ever-present are Karl’s trademark vocals - stripped bare of effects and showcasing curious conversational fragments expertly-described by The Guardian's Jon Dennis as “affecting, fractured evocations of the disorientations of modern urban life." Karl speaks, “Maggie’s a doll and I’m a big sister / She’s a little girl and I’m a little princess / These are the weeds that live in the cracks / and these are the rails at the edge of the world.” The phrases are puzzling and disconnected, but function beautifully in an abstract sort of elegance. This is what Underworld does best - and precisely what they’ve achieved with their wonderful new record.