Anyone who frequents Death and Taxes and reads the majority of my album, single, video and Dust Bin reviews will know that I have a particular affinity, nay, obsession with electronic music, and that I often reference the electronic music of the ’90s. Boards of Canada, Orbital, Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin, Daft Punk, 808 State, Underworld, Energy 52, Basement Jaxx, etc., are some of the usual suspects. It’s residue from growing up in the ’80s, which was the heyday of synth-driven music. It’s not so much of a genre jump from New Wave to electronic dance music when one’s favorite acts as a child were Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, A-Ha and Gary Numan.
A detour into Grunge, Hip-Hop, Punk and Indie from the early to mid-90s almost made me forget that synthesizers were fantastic machines, but “Trainspotting” brought me back to the electronic music fold, as I’m sure it did for a lot of others. Everyone remembers “that song from ‘Trainspotting’”—Underworld’s “Born Slippy .NUXX,” which soundtracks Mark Renton’s theft of the drug money and pledge to enter consumer culture and whatever normalcy that it would provide.
“Born Slippy .NUXX” was a gigantic track in 1996, finally giving Underworld’s relentless duo of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith plus DJ Darren Emerson the hit they deserved. Emerson had helped guide Hyde and Smith from their previous incarnations as Freur (“Doot Doot”) and Underworld Mk1 to the Underworld we know and love now, beginning with 1994′s “Dubnobasswithmyheadman.” It was on this record that Underworld began crafting their specific brand of electronic music, which combined progressive house, techno, dub, trip-hop and various other styles. The tracks on this record were almost all in excess of six minutes, but it is the 13-minute “Mmm Skyscraper I Love You” that set the stage for Underworld’s various electronic epics.
When it comes to Underworld, fans are rewarded with at least one great shape-shifting epic per album or whatever form of release the duo is experimenting with at the moment (see: “The RiverRun Project” and film soundtracks). Maybe it was never exactly fashionable to be an Underworld fan, but I make no apologies for loving Hyde, Smith and Emerson’s work (Emerson left in 2000). My buddy and I are unabashed Underworld proselytizers. So, to borrow the great phrase uttered by our most illustrious former President George W. Bush “You’re either with us, or against us.”
Still doubt Underworld’s brilliance? The duo is up for an award for their music and sound design on Danny Boyle’s stage adaptation of “Frankenstein,” and they will be serving as the musical directors for the three-hour 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, which is to be directed (again) by frequent collaborator Danny Boyle.
Below, I’ve selected a number of excellent Underworld tracks. Reducing their genius to these tracks is no doubt a disservice to the duo, but in converting people to Underworld fandom, this is necessary. It won’t be a chronological look at Underworld but non-linear, hopping about their discography.
“Juanita/Kiteless/To Dream of Love”
This track is epic amongst a slew of epic tracks. It begins with a skittering beat with Underworld then folding in arpeggiated synthesizers at about 3:40. It shifts into another section before returning slightly to the arpeggio theme. One of their greatest songs.
This is a highly underrated Underworld track, although fans might argue that it’s highly-rated. The point remains, though, that this is not a track that Underworld fans will drop in conversation. It’s psychedelic and acid house-influenced. Just wait for the 4:14 mark.
This song begins with an upward scale of soft but quick synth notes atop of which Underworld lays dialogue from a couple of Louisiana fisherman talking about vests. “Jumbo” contains some of Underworld’s most beautiful and pristine synth melodies and tones and, along with “Dark and Long (Dark Train Mix,” it inspired me to buy synthesizers.
“I’m A Big Sister, And I’m A Girl, And I’m A Princess, And This Is My Horse”
In my estimation, this is one of Underworld’s greatest musical triumphs. It was part of the “RiverRun Project” along with “Lovely Broken Thing” and “Pizza for Eggs.” It begins with ambient, warbling synths and a disembodied, glitchy female vocalization. The washes of sound are beautiful, and then it picks up with a beat that is pure Underworld, conjuring memories of the group’s 1997 track “Pearls Girl.” Before the song is over, it has shifted through several more themes, with one section being an absolute favorite of mine, which runs from 14:48 to about the 18:28 mark. Genius. This electronic suite does not get the credit it so richly deserves.
This little synth-pop gem appeared on “The Beach” soundtrack. It’s not typical Underworld, and that is its strength. Perfect summer listening.
“Dark and Long (Dark Train Mix)”
This is the mix that appeared alongside “Born Slippy” in “Trainspotting.” Remember the scene in which Rent is going through heroin withdrawal and sees a zombie baby crawling upon the ceiling? This is the track. While Trance had been around for a few years by this point, “Dark and Long (Dark Train Mix)” has all the hallmarks of what would make Trance a momentarily great electronic music genre.
Pure club track. This is the type of electronic music that gets ravers dropping Acid, Mushrooms and Ecstasy. Wait for the 10:06 mark. Sublime, and it still sounds current and ripe for pilfering from ’90s-obsessed electronic acts.
“Rez” is one of the more well-known Underworld tracks, appearing on the reissue of 2006′s “Second Toughest In The Infants.” There’s clearly a debt here to fellow UK electronic group Orbital, but it’s satisfying nonetheless—especially toward the end when the beat expands.
The foundations of this track are pure percussion, which has elements of progressive house and drum and bass, but it’s also quite psychedelic with its Balearic elements. Running beneath the frenetic beat is an underground river of gorgeous ambient pads. Perfection. “Cherry Pie” was also included in the reissue of Underworld’s 1996s album “Second Toughest In The Infants.”
“Two Months Off” is the obvious anthem of Underworld’s 2002 LP “A Hundred Days Off,” but closing track “Luetin” is its sleeper. It’s very much a club track, but you’ll find yourself humming along with it in no time at all.
2010′s “Barking” was a mixed bag of tracks co-produced with various electronic music producers. Among them, “Hamburg Hotel” is likely the best. Slow to develop, it hits its stride in the last few minutes with inventive synth leads.
“Two Months Off”
Above all else, “Two Months” is anthemic. It’s structure is simple but its effect is euphoric and a great release. (Above is the 4-minute music video version. The LP cut is longer.)
This one is probably the strongest track on 2007′s “Oblivion With Bells,” although my friend and fellow Underworld fan would probably disagree. He loves the entire album, which came hot on the heels of the duo’s work on Danny Boyle’s science fiction thriller “Sunshine.”