Release Date: Mar 18, 2016
Record label: Astralwerks
Genre(s): Electronic, House, Trip-Hop, Techno, Trance, Pop/Rock, Club/Dance
It would be really easy for Underworld to feel some pressure around the release of their ninth album (or seventh, if you want to ignore the two very different records they made when Underworld was a rather undistinguished synthpop band in the late ‘80s). Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have been making music together for a very long time, and while they certainly count as elder statesmen at this point, they wouldn’t be the only long-running act to feel some angst about the fact that they are probably mostly preaching to the choir at this point (regardless of the quality of their music). You can slip into the trap of trying to recapture your previous pop culture prominence without even noticing it, sometimes.
It would’ve been easy to have written off Underworld at the start of this decade - the bar being set so high with their first three albums as Underworld (MK2) meant anything less than exemplary wouldn’t do. It’s not as if they fell off since their last great album, 1999’s Beaucoup Fish, but subsequent years saw diminished returns, and a flirtation with being a heritage act, busting out “Dark And Long” to rave uncles whose favoured album of theirs is The Best Of. 2002's A Hundred Days Off and Oblivion With Bells five years later were...
Let’s talk about love—with Underworld, you kind of have to. Though still best known for shouting "lager, lager, lager" in their epochal 1996 hit "Born Slippy.NUXX," the long-running dance duo, consisting of singer-lyricist-multi-instrumentalist Karl Hyde and producer Rick Smith, have quietly but persistently placed matters of the heart at the center of their best songs. Their breakthrough single "Cowgirl" pledged "I wanna give you everything," robotically chanting the final word like a mantra for emphasis.
Barbara Barbara… comes hot on the heels of Underworld’s recent masterclasses in how to reissue 90s dance albums. The anticipation surrounding its release serves as proof that blue chip electronica acts are as much of a gift that keeps on giving as rock acts of a similar vintage. That they began as refugees from Freur and their earliest releases as Underworld have proved to be mere footnotes in their history shows how far a group can come – and that the best by no means always comes in a rush at the start of careers.
Review Summary: Creative and melodic, this is a step forward in their career...With such an aspiring title, Underworld look like they have returned with a fresh perspective. After reissuing the two classic LPs, Dubnobasswithmyheadman & Second Toughest in the Infants, the veterans seemed eager to move forward, establish new goals in order to continue expanding their horizons. Overall, Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future presents a rather elegant approach when compared to previous works.
As naff genre labels go, how does ‘pastoral techno’ sound? At the very least, it’s a vaguely accurate way of describing Underworld’s direction on their ninth album. It is also in keeping with the record’s curious but optimistic title, reportedly one of the last things Rick Smith’s dad uttered before he died. This music is a long way from the edginess of mid-1990s high points Second Toughest In The Infants or Dubnobasswithmyheadman, even their last album Barking.
Since Underworld’s last major release in 2010, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have been busying themselves with other matters: solo albums, film soundtracks, directing the music at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. The hiatus has done them good. Their seventh album radiates vitality and a renewed sense of purpose, impressive for a dance act nearly 30 years on the move.
In the six years since the release of their merely good effort Barking, electronica veterans Underworld were tied up with big things, like solo projects, Eno collaborations, film scores, and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, where they were musical directors for the opening ceremony. Take all that into consideration, and this excellent 2016 LP seems more closely linked to its predecessor, and acts like a natural swing-back-into-action after getting the too-busy-/tries-too-hard/return-to-form album out of the way. Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future is also an album longtime fans will instantly embrace, but it's an evolution as well.
While Underworld’s Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have retained what was special about their greatest triumphs – Dubnobasswithmyheadman and Second Toughest in the Infants were two of the most revered dance albums of the 1990s – Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future is never weighed down by its makers’ history. Karl Hyde’s “found” lyrics (using snippets of overheard conversations) are affecting, fractured evocations of the disorientations of modern urban life. Even the album’s title is a real-life utterance, a phrase Hyde’s father said to his mother shortly before he died.
Underworld’s transcendent Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future arrives in one of those windows of release-date alignments with anniversaries that further confirms the cyclical nature of music trends every 20-ish years (along with fashion and designer drugs) — in this case, what was dubbed “electronica” in the mid-’90s. In 2014, the U.K. festival vanguards reissued their 1993 rave-rock reinvention, Dubnobasswithmyheadman, followed a year later by a comprehensive re-release of its staggering follow-up, 1996’s Second Toughest in the Infants.
Underworld have the most unlikely of narratives. Although founded in the late Eighties by Rick Smith and Karl Hyde, the first two records they released are often referred to as Underworld Mk1. 1994’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman is generally considered their first record as the Underworld we know today. The techno/rock fusion created on that album united indie fans and club goers alike - and then Trainspotting landed.
Underworld have always hid a decidedly punk aesthetic beneath their crunching electronics. While hardly as confrontational as the all-gobbing, safety-pin-punctured acts of the late 1970s, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have tended to take a similar sneering look at the subcultures around them, never afraid to call out bullshit over their propulsive techno throbs. .
Underworld manage to remain highlight influential, widely known, and underrated all at the same time. The British electronic duo has been pushing the limits of dance music ever since they formed back in 1980. Karl Hyde and Rick Smith’s history is rich with milestones, including a tour with Eurythmics, to song dedications from Radiohead, to Hyde playing guitar in Debbie Harry’s band, the two have spent more than their fair share of time contributing to, if not directly calling, the shots that dictate the state of music.
Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future represents just one of the many signs of the graceful aging of dance music. It’s not a classic by any standards, and it certainly isn’t a milestone in Underworld’s glittering career. That this is completely integrated into the history of “dance” music (conceived rather broadly) is their gift and their curse.
British pop-techno outfit Underworld crested creatively when the songwriting duo Karl Hyde and Rick Smith were joined by DJ Darren Emerson. The Emerson years, which reached their apex with the full throttle 1999 masterpiece Beaucoup Fish, were characterized by a chameleonic flexibility, with the group's sound adapting to exhilarating rave throwdowns, dystopian dirty epics, and melancholic electro ballads alike. Following Emerson's departure, Underworld didn't land many attempts to recapture the fiery side of things.
Underworld’s first album in six years starts with what could arguably be described as their biggest banger since Beaucoup Fish's Kittens from 1999. I Exhale distils all that's good and deliciously nasty about the veteran duo in an eight-minute slice. Followed by the distinctly downbeat If Rah and marginally more propulsive Low Burn, by the time you hit Santiago Cuatro (Underworld in Jose Feliciano country; you expect it to take an acoustic guitar and explode.
On their ninth album Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future, Underworld have made some of their most vital work without compromising any of the aspects of their sound that a modern audience might scan as dated. All of these songs sound like they could have been made in 1997, perhaps even earlier. The drum sounds haven’t been in vogue since the first Clinton administration, and Karl Hyde—who spends most of this record speaking rather than singing—sounds like every cartoon of the aging British raver still prattling on about wankers and acid.
For a healthy portion of Gen-Y American music fans, the sound of electronic music’s potential for emotionally stirring resonance was heralded by a single track: “Born Slippy (NUXX),” the thunderously anthemic song from the 1996 Trainspotting soundtrack. The ’90s arrival of a new kind of European house music on U.S. shores had many avatars, but Underworld always possessed both brains and heart, going beyond the casual fan’s desire for something to dance to—or headbang (thanks, Prodigy).
It's that time again when writers Juan and Carl go through their previous month's custom playlists in search of a handful of albums that deserve your attention. After being a bit tough with some of last month's notable electronic offerings, it's curious to see that Juan's two highest scores out of ….
Underworld's Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have never quite fit in. They are, in basic terms, creative shapeshifters in a dance music landscape that values genre and micro-genre artists. This has been as much by design as a consequence of the times in which they've lived and recorded. When house and techno producers manned the decks in the 80s and early 90s, Underworld turned the rave into performance spectacle, fusing live vocals, guitar and synths with mixed samples.
When the British techno band Underworld played the Hollywood Bowl last year for the belated 20th anniversary of its 1994 breakthrough LP "dubnobasswithmyheadman," it proved that live dance music could be as fun to watch as a rock show. Singer Karl Hyde prowled around the stage, spinning abstract tales of substance abuse, isolated modernity and hopes for redemption in his muttery sing-speak vocal style. Behind him, Rick Smith and touring member Darren Price worked a mixing board and racks of analog synths and computers.