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Underworld

+ {Freur} + {Lemon Interupt} + {Rick Smith} + {Karl Hyde}

Uncovering more than just the “lager, lager, lager” thumping threads of a translucent “Trainspotting” track (`Born Slippy’ for those on an outer planet fix), Romford’s UNDERWORLD are as important as trance-techno adversaries The PRODIGY, The CHEMICAL BROTHERS, ORBITAL and LEFTFIELD. A dozen albums into their “dark & long” career (more if one can count their groove-less chapters as FREUR), Messrs Karl Hyde and Rick Smith proved their staying power when serving up music for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Tracing their trend-setting, trail-blazing footsteps back to the turn of the 80s, when guitarist Karl (not Rick) had fronted indie synth-pop quartet, The Screen Gemz (on indie 45 `I Just Can’t Stand Cars’), the enterprising pair duly formed FREUR – actually translated from a squiggly-line symbol; the purple PRINCE was not indeed the precursor! Based in Cardiff, Wales (Rick Smith was born in Ammanford, Carmarthenshire), bassist Alfie Thomas, keyboardist John Warwicker Le Breton and Scots drummer Bryn B. Burrows (ex-FABULOUS POODLES), the Euro-friendly `Doot-Doot’ secured a minor hit when released by C.B.S. in spring 1983.
Too late to fit in with the electro-dance post-new wave in-crowd already saturated by ABC, OMD, TALK TALK et al, subsequent flop 45s `Matters Of The Heart’ and `Runaway’ did no favours for the bright and breezy pre-techno set, DOOT-DOOT (1983) {*6}. When sophomore set, GET US OUT OF HERE (1985) {*4} was given short shrift by the public and critics alike – despite catchy pieces `The Devil And Darkness’ and `Look In The Back For Answers’ – the FREUR concept faded into history.
Given a few years to lick their wounds, Hyde, Smith, Thomas, Burrows and bassist Baz Allen re-surfaced with the more conventional club-tronic UNDERWORLD moniker. A trans-global signing for Seymour Stein’s Sire Records, America would shift sufficient copies of the title track from UNDERNEATH THE RADAR (1988) {*5} to warrant a Top 75 peak position. Similar now in some respects to WAY OUT WEST and their ilk, it was again hard to see where the group could fit. Despite their lack of success on home-soil, “…Radar” would become a No.1 smash in Australia, whilst they toured the States supporting EURYTHMICS.
Switching producers from Rupert Hine to Smith, himself (Pascal Consoli replaced Burrows, who joined Worldwide Electric), UNDERWORLD had no answers to the disappointing CHANGE THE WEATHER (1989) {*4}. It was clear this was not the direction for them.
In the meantime, Hyde worked on a 1991 Paisley Park-sponsored album with Terri Nunn (ex-BERLIN); he also appeared on WILLIAM ORBIT’s `Watch From A Vine Leaf’ and ORBITAL’s `Lush 3’, and remixed BJORK’s `Human Behaviour’ track.
Dropping off Allen and Consoli to D-Influence, Hyde and Smith would find an alliance with DJ Darren Emerson and, after a handful of false starts in among the early-90s trance/techno movement (some as LEMON INTERUPT), an all-new UNDERWORLD (Mk.II) quickly developed into a bona fide chart proposition.
A product of Terry Farley and Steven Hall’s Junior Boy’s Own imprint from 1992, the lyric-free trio released some seminal techno works at this stage; the crescendo of the exclusive `Rez’ the following February (in all its 10 minute glory), pure heaven. Ditto the equally marathon-ic `Spikee’, a Top 75 double-A entry, backed by `Dogman Go’. Previewing the near Top 10 and critically-acclaimed DUBNOBASSWITHMYHEADMAN (1994) {*8}, was the affecting and minimalist vocal chorus of `Mmm… Skyscraper I Love You’ and a nouveau-psychedelic climax of the delirious trance-inducing `Cowgirl’; the glorious `Dark And Long’ was soon UNDERWORLD’s second minor hit.
Their big break came with the track `Born Slippy’, a modest dance-floor hit (#52) first time around in May ’95 that spiked when featured on Danny Boyle’s ground-breaking Trainspotting soundtrack. When re-issued as an exclusive single a year on, the track stormed to No.2, boosting sales of their follow-on Top 10 album, SECOND TOUGHEST IN THE INFANTS (1996) {*9}. Ranked highly by the NME, Melody Maker and several other mags, the absence of `Born Slippy’ affected little who experienced the side-long double-marathon `Juanita : Kiteless : To Dream Of Love’ and `Banstyle – Sappy’s Curry’. Shortened to a manageable single, `Pearl’s Girl’ (another title of a greyhound!), cracked the Top 30 twice on either side of the other aforementioned front-runner, `Born Slippy’.
UNDERWORLD remained one of Britain’s best loved techno acts and, with the Stateside success of The PRODIGY, there was still a chance that they might break in America. Indeed, 1999’s long-awaited BEAUCOUP FISH {*8} took them into the Top 100, having already reached Top 3 in Britain. Highlights from the set were undoubtedly back-to-back hit singles, `Push Upstairs’, `Jumbo’ and `Shudder / King Of Snake’, whilst `Moaner’ (the theme to 1997’s `Batman & Robin’ film flick) was its 10-star piece de resistance.
Their first live album of their decade-plus career, EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING (2000) {*7}, was as thrilling a recreation of UNDERWORLD’s unique techno-meets-rock concert experience as one could hope for, featuring a fair clutch (with some notable omissions nevertheless) of their best-loved dance-floor marathons, including a `Rez’ / `Cowgirl’ medley and `Born Slippy (Nuxx)’. Sadly, Emerson officially departed for a solo career in spring 2000.
The first post-Emerson album, A HUNDRED DAYS OFF {*7}, followed in 2002, a strangely muted affair undoubtedly affected by the alteration in group chemistry. There were still touches of the sly genius of old, notably on the marathon, 9-minute `Two Months Off’ (a near Top 10 breaker) and modest hit, `Dinosaur Adventure 3D’.
The collaborative meeting of two giants from the music business: regular film composer GABRIEL YARED and first-timers from the rave/dance/rock scene, UNDERWORLD, BREAKING AND ENTERING (2006) {*6} joined the ranks of techno-orientated OSTs that have delved into dual film scores, notably ORBITAL (alongside MICHAEL KAMEN) on Event Horizon, from almost ten years back.
UNDERWORLD’s acid-house/techno party finally back in full swing a la OBLIVION WITH BELLS (2007) {*6}, Hyde and Smith were unfettered by the minor critical backlash it received, which resulted in its lowly #45 position. Opening with a Gregorian-type noodle, `Crocodile’, that recalled ENIGMA, no one could accuse them of changing the sheet music, and in `Beautiful Burnout’, `Ring Road’, et al, that was indeed the trouble.
On the back of yet another movie soundtrack collaboration, this time on SUNSHINE (2008) {*5}, with John Murphy, 2010’s Top 30 BARKING {*6} tried so hard to redefine the boundaries of techno/trance. Pulling in outside producers Paul Van Dyk, Dubfire, High Contrast, D. RAMIREZ, among others, the gloss pop aspect of the set more or less brought them into line with modern-day mainstream. Through heavyweights, `Bird 1’, `Diamond Jigsaw’ and a piece penned with their resident DJ, Darren Price: `Between Stars’, UNDERWORLD were indeed barking up the wrong tree, so to speak.
Dusting off their glam and glitzy lapels from the aforesaid summer Olympics of 2012 (directed by “Trainspotter” Danny Boyle), the UNDERWORLD motif was rested awhile until Messrs Smith and Hyde respectively got their own albums out of their system. Having given limited fans a taste through BUNGALOW WITH STAIRS 1 (2010) {*5}, RICK SMITH surprised no one with his soundtrack to Boyle’s TRANCE (2013) {*6}. Although underlining other artists, the majority of tracks were served up by Rick, who split two with EMELI SANDE (`Here It Comes’) and Rosario Dawson (`Sandman (I’ll Be There)’).
Nowhere near soundtrack-land, but just as adventurous, KARL HYDE’s EDGELAND (also 2013) {*7}, was a micro-chip off the old block-rocking-beat. Working with co-producer/co-writer LEO ABRAHAMS and inspired by J.G. Ballard’s book, Concrete Island, the vocals were effective enough in its urban soundscape bubble; the uneven journey beyond the Underworld proved worthwhile on `The Boy With The Jigsaw Puzzle Fingers’, `The Night Slips Us Smiling Underneath Its Dress’ and `Your Perfume Was The Best Thing’. If one was aware that Karl’s next ventures would be with ambient icon ENO (`Someday World’ and `High Life’; both 2014), then one would hardly be in shock.
All the better for their batteries into re-charge mode, UNDERWORLD were back with a bang – and Top 10 form – for “comeback” album BARBARA BARBARA, WE FACE A SHINING FUTURE (2016) {*8} – the title taken from the lips of Rick’s dying father (Barbara referring to his mother). Something akin to The CHEMICAL BROTHERS meeting JOHN FOXX, opening salvo `I Exhale’ had a confident vocal, while the stately rhythms of `If Rah’ presented like an unfamiliar work by William S. Burroughs on something other than “lager x3” (here the chant equalled “lunar, lunar, lunar”). Capturing the essence of bed-sit trance for fans long-since too old to rave all night long, UNDERWORLD – for many the modern-day NEU! (and then some!) – `Low Burn’ eased into the finger-pickingly good `Santiago Cuatro’, a pleasant interlude from the paradigm of the unfolding `Motorhome’ (think STEVE HILLAGE shredding The VERVE), the uplifting `Ova Nova’ and the climactic `Nylon Strung’.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS // rev-up MCS Mar2016

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