The path Underworld took to get to Dubnobasswithmyheadman, their extraordinary “first” album in the second phase of the band, was full of dashed hopes and improbable left turns. Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, to this day the nucleus of the band, were previously known for being in the synth inflected new wave band Freur, whose “Doot-Doot” was a minor hit in 1983. A couple of albums as Underworld followed, until that phase of the band flopped quietly to a close after a 1989 North American tour supporting Eurythmics. It’s unlikely many people noticed the band had gone on hiatus, although Smith in particular appears to have seen it as a fresh start rather than an ignominious close. While Hyde stayed behind in New York, hurtling toward anonymity as a guitarist in Debbie Harry’s band, Smith was holed up in his studio in Essex, arguably the birthplace of rave, working on material with a much younger collaborator, DJ Darren Emerson.
The backwards way Underworld evolved was typical of similar UK acts of the era, most of whom were similarly inclined toward blowing dance and electronic music out into bigger spaces. The Orb’s Alex Paterson backed into ambient music through stints as a roadie for Killing Joke and work as an A&R man; Primal Scream went from pleasant Byrds-inspired jangle merchants to acid glazed indie-dance pioneers; Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, got his start playing bass in the politicized effete rock of the Housemartins. The effect worked in reverse, too: the Prodigy were dyed-in-the-wool ravers who blew up by taking on certain characteristics of rock, even hiring a live guitarist with the none-more-punk name of Gizz Butt. Underworld’s roots were also in rock, giving them a sensibility that looked far beyond dance music’s insular white-label culture, coupled with an approach that was more album oriented than the average dance act. In short, despite past mishaps, their ambition was completely off the charts.
It’s easy to ascribe this in retrospect, but Underworld’s ascent fits perfectly with the surge of confidence that flowed through both overground and underground music in Britain in the early-to-mid ’90s. You can hear it in the sharply defined angles of jungle and drum’n’bass, or in the masterfully lethargic grooves of trip-hop, or, of course, in the major Britpop acts. In 1990, the KLF launched their “stadium house” trilogy (“What Time Is Love?”, “3 a.m. Eternal”, “Last Train to Trancentral”), giving it a name that suggested house was moving beyond the club and chart environs it had largely existed in up to that point. They weren’t wrong; by the end of the decade, bands such as Orbital, the Prodigy, and Underworld were headlining major stages at festivals in the UK. Dubnobass, released in 1994, is a key release in both that journey and the planet-sized thinking of EDM, which plays out as a further manifestation of its ideas.
This five-disc release offers an exhaustive trawl through Underworld’s archives from the era, presenting a fuller picture of where the band were at immediately prior to the release of this record. There’s a disc of singles, including vital pre-album tracks such as the version of “Dirty” released as Lemon Interrupt, and the all-encompassing “Rez”—the latter such a strong part of their identity, especially in its live incarnation all wrapped up in “Cowgirl”, that it shows what riches they had on their hands that it didn’t make the final album. There’s also a disc of remixes, a disc of unreleased takes, and, most curious of all, an entire disc devoted to a series of live rehearsals that would become the Dubnobass tracks. The idea that these weren’t studio creations, but actually came out of something approaching live improvisation, feels improbable when hearing the strongly executed final product, although it’s likely a key part in explaining how adept Underworld were at pushing this stuff out into a live context.
The album itself has been considerably sharpened in its remastered form, with Smith taking it to Abbey Road and subtly pulling out textures that occasionally sounded muted on the original pressing. Hyde’s lyrics can still be problematic, with his cut-up style veering wildly between inspiration and moments of corniness, although the force of ideas on Dubnobass largely covers up the lyrical patchiness in ways other Underworld albums haven’t always managed. Here, he imbues the songs with a feeling of seediness, of bad sex and nights slumped in regret, giving the album a deeper undercurrent than something you can just get mashed off your face to in a club (although it also serves that purpose). Hyde’s at his best when lost in short mantras, such as the repeating verses of “Spoonman”, where he matches the trance-like flow of the music, his voice tweaked so it barely sounds human at times, becoming totally subsumed in groove and forward momentum.
The stretch through “Spoonman”, “Tongue”, “Dirty Epic”, and “Cowgirl” shows what acute listeners this band were, but it also highlights how skilled they were at assimilating contrasting ideas into their sound. “Tongue” borrows something from the ambient drift echoing through chillout rooms at clubs during this time, with Hyde multi-tracking his vocals in a way that makes him sound not unlike future collaborator Brian Eno. On “Dirty Epic”, Underworld demonstrate their mastery of subtle builds and strange fusions, cutting plinky-plonky house piano across needlelike bursts of electric guitar, with Hyde’s central lyric (“I get my kicks on channel 6”) suggesting someone lost in a world as lonely as it is unsavory. “Cowgirl” remains their most carefully honed club banger, drawing on screaming acid lines and dense drum patterns that feel like a precursor to LCD Soundsystem’s “Yeah”. It’s not hard to see some of Hyde in James Murphy and vice versa, especially as both were old hands coming to this game, bringing a dose of reflection to music that’s so often focussed solely on the now.
There are highlights in the rest of the material here (the Irish Pub in Kyoto mix of “Cowgirl”, the big beat workover of “Mmm…Skyscraper I Love You” in its “Telegraph 16.11.92” mix), along with things that are little more than historical curios (the 18-minute version of “Spoonman” on the rehearsals disc; the country-fied, Thrashing Doves-indebted “Bigmouth” from the same disc), and an admirable willingness to put things out there that don’t appear to fit anywhere in their career (the lite pop/reggae of “Can You Feel Me?” on the disc of unreleased material, which feels like an unexpected callback to the Freur era). It’s a well put-together set, with a logic to each part that offers insight into Underworld’s working method, but never falls into the kind of barrel-scraping to which reissues like this sometimes have to resort. Mostly it’s worth it to hear how hard Dubnobass still resonates: this was an album about community, about coming together through shared experiences—a chance to take club culture out of the club without losing a shred of nuance or sheer visceral excitement.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1vMHCsS