Underworld’s got a massive cult following in the rave world, but with everyone I know, I have to go through the whole “Well, you know that movie Trainspotting?” (Sometimes they do.) “You remember there’s music playing when he takes the drug-deal money?” (They never do.) And this is weird to me, because the first time I heard “Born Slippy” was when seeing the movie, and my hair stood on end. And then there the label attached to the band—for both people to the left of me (the electronica crowd I run with) and people to the right (all the rock dinosaurs), the reaction is usually “Oh, don’t they play techno or something?”—with intonation on those last two words the same as you would use when saying “that piece of dogshit I stepped in on the street this morning.”
Anyway, Beaucoup Fish, whose title refers to the punch line of an old lightbulb joke (“Combien de surréalistes…?“), is Underworld’s new album, their third as an electronic dance trio. Beaucoup expectations would be more like it: how could anyone possibly top “Born Slippy,” named 1996 Single of the Year by no fewer than six British publications? Like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before it, the song achieved anthemhood by summing up the lives of its subculture audience in a way that dispenses with logic and syntax in favor of a drug-addled, lager-sodden, and somewhat gender-fucked stream of consciousness. At the climactic moment of Trainspotting, when “Born Slippy” kicks in as Renton grabs for that bag of cold hard cash, his life opens outward, and our lives do as well. The song’s technical trick of dropping vocals out halfway through without at all affecting its headbanging momentum is like Hitchcock’s doing away with the point-of-view character only 40 minutes into Psycho.
Underworld’s achievement isn’t limited to “Slippy,” either: among their albums, their second has proven to be the toughest of the imprints, producing two other techno anthems (unless you’re so pedantic as to insist that an anthem have lyrics, in which case “Rez” doesn’t count). The real accomplishment behind “Pearl’s Girl” isn’t Karl Hyde’s phrasing of the words as though they don’t scan, but getting tens of thousands of fans from Glastonbury to Tokyo to memorize all the Moroccos and Reverend Al Greens in the lyrics then accent them just as off-kilter as Karl does.
This was 1996—the year that Mixmag, the de facto bible of the British club scene, charged that Underworld had been “cruelly robbed” of the putatively prestigious Mercury Music Prize. The photo accompanying the piece showed the trio in black trenchcoats, looking both natty and grim, like the crack team assembled for a spy thriller: Darren Emerson, the consummate technician whose DJing is in demand across the globe; Rick Smith, roughhousing lad and guitar whiz; and Karl Hyde, the impish artiste who in the late ’80s allegedly honed his lyric skills by cutting up personals from the newspaper you are now reading. Their personalities are as distinct and complementary as the Beatles’. In a musical subculture whose initial beauty lay in its dispensing with the celebrity system, they’ve paradoxically become superstars.
Now they’re back with a shiny little appliance that fragments its 11 tracks into nearly as many subgenres, doing away with the seamless sprawl of their earlier records. Only dedicated fans will want to experience such an eclectic range in one sitting, but what really matters is whether Beaucoup Fish makes you want to jibber along with all the samples. Does it make you want to break windows, but in a good way? Well, “Kittens” is one of those much ballyhooed “workouts” featuring “kick-drum.” (What work? What drum? One of the blokes in the studio pushed a button and went to lunch, that’s all!) But the recidivistic laddishness of “Bruce Lee” wouldn’t be out of place either on Here Come the Warm Jets or as background music behind Trainspotting‘s Begbie lobbing a beer glass off the pub balcony. And “Push Upstairs” begins as a pleasant enough cruncher until halfway through, when romanticism rears its head only to evolve into out-and-out dystopianism; if that weren’t enough, later on the song is reprised as Karl the Entertainer’s hallucinatory lounge ballad “Push Downstairs”—imagine a futuristic Vegas á la Terry Gilliam.
Then there’s this year’s anthem, “King of Snake,” which opens with a brilliant processed-and-glitched guitar sample and soon tears into a Chicago house piano loop played at double speed, rolling along under an impeccably constructed riff hammering away for 32 beats each time before it resolves. Unlike “Slippy,” whose linear progression stands in the way of its being played more than three times in a row, “Snake” will hold up for as long as it takes your neighbors to object. More important, it exemplifies a new direction for the group—a shift from ’80s synth-pop’s lush round tones to state-of-the-art white digital glare, from architectural and urban motifs (cf. “Skyscraper”) to biological and organic imagery, and from wide-ranging musical narratives to compact modularity. All this, and lyrics inspired by illegal Japanese street contests, depicting the primal struggle between man and snake—let’s call it “Master and Serpent.”
Underworld play Hammerstein Ballroom April 21.