Listen to Your Eyes
Like many Americans, the first time I heard Underworld was in Trainspotting, the 1996 Danny Boyle movie when "Born Slippy.nuxx" plays over the ending. Eleven years on, I still explain Underworld this way, and some people remember it. I think that's a testament to both the song and the movie.
In the fall of 1998, I bought the single for "Cowgirl/Dirty Epic". It was already four years old, but sounded current. And it (specifically, the album version of "Dirty Epic") changed my life. This twisting, dark tumble, its loneliness and wonder, evoked the corner of Second Avenue and St. Mark's (I was living in New York at the time), in the new darkness, the sky still lit enough to be blue velvet. It was not the real place but the idea that introduced me to possibility -- anything could happen.
This kind of song only happens a couple of times in a life. I still feel lucky that it happened to me. But it wasn't all luck. Underworld makes the kind of driven, flowing, atmospheric electronic music that transcends genre.
Underworld started as a guitar band with Karl Hyde and Rick Smith (who had been in a few bands together before) in 1987. They made what Wikipedia calls "funky electropop" music (2 albums worth) until Darren Emerson joined in 1991. The trio worked on numerous projects together and didn't produce their first album until 1994's dubnobasswithmyheadman, but it was brilliant, containing "Cowgirl", "Dirty Epic" and "Dark and Long." Next came the critically acclaimed Second Toughest in the Infants. I think it has some good songs, but comes nowhere near the greatness of Beaucoup Fish.
The first time I saw Underworld was when they toured with this album in 1999, at New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom. (The second was later in that tour, when they played the first Coachella.) The stage show they had put together with art collective, and creative partners, Tomato, elevated the experience of seeing an electronic band to a whole new level. The combination of images and words (projected words, not words in the songs) served all the senses, opening you up to a world so stimulating and intuitive that you could do nothing else but stand and wonder (and perhaps dance) in this river of art. The boys must've known they were onto something good, as they released the live album and dvd Everything, Everything to commemorate the experience (and if you come to my place and I drink enough, I will inevitably want to show it to you.)
Shortly afterward, Darren Emerson left the band, leaving fans concerned. Someone characterized the break-up to me thusly, "A car without wheels is still a car, but it doesn't go anywhere." But Karl Hyde and Rick Smith put out the serviceable A Hundred Days off without him. Darren Emerson put out a Global Underground album. The best part of his show at Spundae was when he played John Digweed's version of "Cowgirl." I saw the band a couple of times on this tour, at Coachella and the Wiltern. Karl (who does vocals) was frenetic and intense. The band played "Dirty Epic," a song they didn't play before. But the flickering lights and lasers didn't touch the sublime.
After five years, Underworld is putting out a new studio album next month, called Oblivion With Bells. They've been off doing online albums (combined with photos), and a few movie scores. I can't wait to see them play at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday. Have they been working with (or as) Tomato again? Will they once again set us afloat?
It may sound silly, but if magic is a way of speaking to the world in a way it can't help but understand, then the music that Underworld makes is magic. They use the conventions of electronic music, combined with lyrics that evoke the surreal (or aren't used for their meaning at all, just for their sounds) to make something primal that sears and bangs at you until you are a part of it. It swirls and coaxes until you give in. It blasts away at your boundaries until anything is possible.
Photos by louisiana, via flickr