Release Date: May 7, 2013
Record label: Universal
Genre(s): Electronic, Pop/Rock, Club/Dance
Last year’s Olympic opening ceremony affirmed what a select band of people had known for a long time: there was so much more to Underworld than Born Slippy, their 1996 No 2 hit; though, unlike most groups, their freak hit wasn’t atypical of their work. It introduced Karl Hyde as a cataloguer of the underbelly, with poetic imagery recounting the Hogarthian scenes he surveyed. Working with Leo Abrahams, who’s been discreetly adding textures to both Brian Eno and David Holmes’ work for years, Hyde’s first solo album, Edgeland, is a full realisation of his lyrical imagery.
As a lifelong Underworld fan I had doubts about a solo album from vocalist Karl Hyde. The group’s last LP, Barking, was a mess, marred by guest collaborations and a shift away from electronica towards mainstream pop, with Hyde’s trademark snapshot vocals squeezed flat in the process. The prospect of his solo debut Edgeland felt like a retaliatory vanity project - a tour around his favourite spots on the fringes of the capital - and one that could further taint the benchmark set by Underworld over the last three decades.
Karl Hyde is still best known for his work as half of Underworld, who rose to fame with the inclusion of Born Slippy NUXX and Dark & Long (Dark Train) in the soundtrack of Trainspotting. Whilst the other half of the duo Rick Smith has been working on the soundtrack for Danny Boyle’s post-Olympics film project Trance, Hyde has set about crafting his first solo offering, Edgeland. It’s a debut that sees Hyde working with producer Leo Abrahams, with whom he’d previously collaborated on the Brian Eno project Pure Scenius.
It’s natural to be little suspicious of solo albums, especially the first solo album by someone who’s productively worked in a group setting for years (and maybe extra especially when that group is still a going concern?). Popular music has a rich, sometimes hilarious history of musicians who are famous and/or beloved ditching their usual collaborators, at least temporarily, for all sorts of reasons. But often those reasons range from pointless to megalomaniacal, and not even fans tend to like the results in those cases.
Having partnered with musician Rick Smith in the new wave group Freur and the stadium electronica group Underworld, vocalist Karl Hyde hit his creative stride when he discovered a writing style akin to William S. Burroughs' "cut-up" method, where repurposed phrases, overheard bits of conversation, and surreal incantations formed the bulk of the group's lyrics. Put the throbbing beat of techno underneath and you've got transcendent rave music that's over the top, bonkers, and worthy of reality-ripping films like Trainspotting, but Hyde's first solo effort provides a much different experience, the serene, slow, and subtle experience of willfully falling through the cracks.
The uncertain zone at the margins of London, where city ends and countryside begins, is the preoccupation of this new album from Karl Hyde, on a break from his dancefloor-pumping, Olympic ceremony-scoring day job with Underworld. Like many thoughtful wanderers before him (notably Patrick Keiller and Iain Sinclair), Hyde, a Romford resident, finds poetry in hinterlands dotted with skeletal cranes, disused factories and rundown cafes. However, the album (co-produced with composer Leo Abrahams, and accompanied by a film called The Outer Edges) is strangely underpowered – the music sounds watered down – and Hyde's stream-of-consciousness lyrics are more rambling than visionary.
"Absolutely", Karl Hyde remarked during a 2000 interview, when asked if he was worried that his newfound sobriety would eliminate part of what made Underworld's evocative style so unique. "It wasn't so much that everything I did previously was written that way - it was more a key to being uninhibited: going to places and hanging out longer than I should have. Stories would stick to you: you just had to walk through them..." Hyde has always found the beauty in decay; by making company among the drunks and the downtrodden, he assured himself a constant supply of broken phrases, many of which were written in a tiny notebook to later become scattered among Underworld's lyrics.