In some ways, Underworld are just three guys who, consistently sustaining the most distinct sonic signature, think up ways to make endless series of dancebeats sound riveting—but that’s a little like saying the Rolling Stones were just five guys who figured out how to make long series of guitar chords arresting. Kraftwerk may have beamed out more presence, and Yellow Magic Orchestra—Japan’s frillier response to the Germans—may have made more esoteric musical moves. But in the last decade, over the course of three studio albums that now have culminated in Everything, Everything, a flat-out incredible live recording, the English trio Underworld have very quietly and very loudly become pop music’s hardiest and most sublime machinists.
Like most players anywhere near the U.K. dance scene these past 10 years, vocalist-guitarist Karl Hyde and programmer Rick Smith—both now around 40—began by cultivating a certain shadowiness, a certain reluctance to force themselves systematically, as pop stars would, on people’s consciousness. Techno addicts and dashing remixers-for-hire whose own dance-album debut, 1994’s mysteriously taut and sweet dubnobasswithmy-headman, appeared a couple seasons after straight techno itself seemed already pretty old hat, Underworld went their own way from the start. They reclaimed devices like vocals and soul-toned grooves and catchy little tunes, all things on which the techno devout then frowned hard; Underworld insisted, within a field that had mandated the strictest switched-on instrumental kicks, on creative freedom as though they were Miles Davis’s plugged-in inheritors.
But they always seemed like introverts with their big ideas, sliding their electric streams into the same kind of shy packages in which New Order had specialized a decade before. As practicing graphic artists at their London-based business umbrella Tomato, Hyde and Smith, still calling themselves Underworld, signed themselves to the smart acid-house label Jr. Boys Own. They preferred inky splatter and pop-cult junk to New Order’s pastel vistas and romantic roses. Still, Underworld were like New Order in that they never quite showed up in their own pop presentations. Even with Darren Emerson—a hotshot DJ who has recently left the band—recruited for the project, it was as if Hyde and Smith still felt the failure of their first band called Underworld, which released two flop U.S. albums in the late ’80s.
The Hyde-Smith-Emerson Underworld, though, radically reworked the ratio of rhythm to rock; their goal, unlike so many ’90s electronicists inspired by Kraftwerk and YMO, was nothing less than to relaunch the most passionate music they knew—from Iggy Pop to Verdi—inside machine-tooled beats, and Hyde soon joked about how the band’s first incarnation now sounded to him like a bad Eurythmics. The ambition was staggeringly obvious when, with little fanfare, Second Toughest in the Infants, the trio’s second album and one of the most robustly elegant recordings ever made, appeared in the U.S. Right away, on “Banstyle/Sappy’s Curry,” Hyde looked up from a windswept field of dancegrooves and wordslinging, crooning the proud eureka, “I think I found the real stuff.” The rest of the album, in funny and grand and unerringly acute ways, kept demonstrating his claim.
Next thing you knew, Underworld in 1996 had proved their ideas beyond the relative sanctity of electronic album-making, in the tough realm of international film. With “Born Slippy,” they ended up the John Barry of Trainspotting. The piece, a genius juxtaposition of old-world hush and late-’90s rush, defined the druggy yet ecstatic emotional terrain of that film as utterly as Barry’s “Born Free” had captured the musical tone of its African world of lions and khakis. These Underworld guys, no doubt about it, they were something: They had erased the novelty of being a machine band; they were just a great band, period.
On Everything, Everything they leap beyond the fatter, harsher, less fine-lined tones that make Beaucoup Fish (1999) the least immediately accessible of their three extraordinary albums, and simply rock the house their way. The new recording, as the Everything, Everything DVD makes clear with documentary-style audience frenzy, colorfully zippy computer graphics, shots of gorgeous dead-calm mountain ranges, and Hyde compulsively shaking his ass, is a concert party; it’s Underworld as nonstop high, a disc that for 75 minutes keeps seizing and re-seizing the air.
It opens with “Juanita/Kiteless,” where Hyde’s voice slows down and pumps up, traveling down some new-century highway like a dilapidated Rolls. The beat keeps stretching out for miles, an almost cruelly vibrant and modern surface. Hyde continues to “sing.” Then, out of nowhere but in perfect rhythm, a guitar riff sounds—the very brightest guitar riff that Underworld can ring out like life itself—as though the old car and the new road are able to produce something heretofore unheard. This drama unfolds throughout the piece, living off minimalist keyboards that frenetically repeat themselves—high-octane fuel. And then Hyde, in a more normal voice, makes his big announcement. “There is a sound,” he offers evenly, “on the other side of this glass.” Epiphanies have never scared them.
The set crests on “Born Slippy Nuxx,” done as a wild march that Smith and Emerson slowly twirl into more wildness; then majestic synth phrases bloom unhurriedly, signaling both the end and the beginning of something awesome, before Hyde starts to throw out mixed-up words about boys and girls and smiles. With the slightly crazed verbal momentum of a pent-up rock or blues growler, Hyde keeps going. His adenoidal voice orbits the drum crashes and beats that Smith and Emerson work in and out of his rants, the arrangement occasionally returning comfortably to those rosy synth fanfares. In between are “Push Upstairs,” which pounds with locomotive force; “Pearl’s Girl,” which unleashes a loop of Hyde barking out the word “crazy” as the music around him shakes and shimmies and limbos; and “Shudder/King of Snake,” built on the archetypal trance riff from Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.”
If you wanted to ponder the intersections of woolly rock and roll and sleek dancebeats while listening to Underworld music, you could, because at some level their compositions include fun commentary about all that. But aside from radiant craft, Underworld recordings are great because at heart they’re really quite beyond the cozy living room of aesthetics: Their only true topic is the high-sensation sound of the inexpressible, like when you see something and go temporarily speechless. All Underworld music requires is a working set of ears.