Dance bands tend to belong to zeitgeists which capture the spirit of the times. Consider New York disco, Chicago house, Mancunian acid rave; all crucial and forward-looking for their time.
Enter Underworld. Formed in the late 80s, the band have shapeshifted through all styles of electronic persuasion, and then at the tail-end of 2019 announced the release of DRIFT Series 1 – a boxset laden with 7 CDs, a Blu-Ray, and an eighty-page colour book telescoping the band’s journey across the world over the past twelve months – for which this is the sampler.
Collaborating with Australian improv-trance band The Necks on opener Appleshine, there are eastern soundscapes, sitar-teasing and Moroccan brass sashaying over a synthesised pulse before any of Karl Hyde’s pained, high tone vocals emerge. If this is a desert, then the frontman’s voice seeps into view like a smoky mirage.
The follow-up repetition of techno-trap This Must Be Drum Street is a crepuscular transmission with the unchanging lyric ‘Do you want to buy my car?’ leading the listener towards tones of electric 80s.
The sparky electro-cardiography and positive delivery on Listen To Their No has obvious shades of 2010 hit Scribble owing to its analogue riff and Ibiza-vesper backing vocals.
However, the edgy, nocturnal menace which Underworld are so prominent for emerges on Border Country, one of the best tracks on the record. Ashley Burchett aka O Phase’s understanding of how to warp and bend Hyde’s hypnotic vocals and sculpt Rick Smith’s agitated, electronic hurricanes beautifully conjures a nightmare in colour, a spider in a dreamcatcher.
Entirely antithetical, Mile Bush Pride is a short, lyric-leaden, club-thumper. Words and images groove throughout – ‘Copper blonde, skin-tight black’ … ‘one leg crossed, marking time with eternal clock’ … ‘Greased. Erect as a stickleback’. Hyde’s cut-up poeticism is never stronger than here before halting abruptly for Smith’s stripped, bass-driven tones on Schiphol Test to butterfly stroke into the headphones, swimming in escapism.
Released in 2018, the Icelandic-influenced, otherworldly, ambient textures of Brilliant Yes That Would Be is a haunting inclusion on the band’s eclectic map of sound before the unhinged, awkward nursery rhyme of heroes who feature in S T A R (Rebel Tech). Just as Mylo had accomplished with Destroy Rock n’ Roll fifteen years previously, this track forces the listener to zero in on which musical influence features in the unconventional story-rhyme.
Equally feverish, Imagine A Box invokes the fizz and tizz of New York over a looping beat, before soothing with the divine Custard Speedtalk – a glorious ending which would not have sounded out of place on the quixotic playlist of 2016 record Barbara Barbara We Face A Shining Future.
With ripe sounds mimicking a computer dial-up and the natural essence of piano humming underneath Hyde’s sentimental croon – ‘You’re really good at making people feel good’ – this ten-minute conclusion pulls the band back under the water and into the flow of a mermaid’s surf. Think of the conclusion of the film Splash when Tom Hanks leaps in after Daryl Hannah, and you’re three-quarters there.
There are few bands better at taking the listener on a journey. Let’s continue to enjoy whichever way Smith and Hyde choose to drift. The overworld and Underworld show no signs of tiring of each other.