I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (and again), I hate musical ‘style labels’. For those who have nothing better to do than categorize it with largely meaningless and limiting tags, music can’t be much fun. And everyone who really does love music surely knows that the greatest enjoyment normally comes from sources which defy petty classifications.
The rock ‘n’ roll versus dance music dispute is an extension of the same idea. Anyone — artist or punter — who suggests that they are mutually exclusive is demonstrating the same degree of narrow-mindedness as them folks who were so freaked out by Elvis. (More of him later, by the way). Sure, there’s a lot of trashy technopop out there: but there’s a big stinky pile of crappy poprock too. And, granted, there have been some pretty dire attempts at fusion: but some monumentally marvelous ones as well. For me, the best electronic acts are those who show their respect for and their knowledge and understanding of ye olde school, embracing and exploiting the newest of technologies to do it.
Underworld are a prime example. Karl Hyde and Richard Smith had been playing in bands together since their early eighties college days, from post new romantic to proto electropop, if you need the labels. As ‘Underworld’ (now usually referred to as ‘Mk 1’), they released two not too successful albums at the tail end of the decade. As that lineup was fizzling, the dance/rave/club scene was sizzling in the UK. Joining up with a young DJ, Darren Emerson, Underworld (Mk 2) became a trio.*
The band quickly started making plenty of noise as a live act, Smith and Emerson handling the electronic elements with Hyde live-vocalling: not common practice for the genre, and playing …gasp… electric guitar! (The LP credits include “thanks to gibson”). The taster single, “mmm skyscraper i love you” became an instant clubland smash — despite its staunch avoidance of the standard 4×4 beat formula and trite ‘lemmeseeyerhands’ sentiments.
They were soon being sought out as producers too, mixing for other ‘techno’ acts, such as Orbital and Leftfield, as well as more commercial artists like Björk and Simply Red. There is a very distinctive ‘Underworld sound’, prevalent throughout the album and smellable a mile off on their remix work. And no, that doesn’t mean it all sounds the same, but rather that there’s a particularly human and personal style with which they play those machines.
dubnobasswithmyheadman was, then, one of the most hotly awaited albums of 1993 (though it wasn’t finally issued until January ’94). It did not — and does not — disappoint. It’s not an album to be taken lightly: “dark & long”, as the opening number warns. There’s turmoil and detachment, observation and introspection, on a [train] journey through the highs and lows of an Essexboy caught up in the drugscene (“eighteen years and all the weight”). Unusual, again, for a Dance act to acknowledge that a dark side even exists…
Hyde’s often whispered mutterings, with dadaist snatches of seemingly but maybe not entirely unrelated lyrics looping in and out of the backing, are aided and abetted by snatches of eavesdropped comments and conversations, answerphone messages and assorted electronic noise. Sex’n’drugs’n’trance/house/techno. And a whole lot more.
An acid test for discerning the true quality of electronic music is to turn it down. You’re happy enough to hear pretty much anything going boom-boom-boom at blast level if you just want to dance yerself into submission. Cut the volume, slip on the phones and listen to find out if it’s really any good.
The sleeve art was created by Smith and Hyde’s graphics/video sideline interest, Tomato, who were also responsible for much of the band’s stage visuals at the time. The stark black and white imagery is a perfect reflection of the album’s moody depths: a near full circle; a raised hand to shield the blinding light; smudgy words and symbols, superimposed to form skyscrapers (i love you) in much the same way as the fragmented vocal samples help to build the soundscapes of the songs. Looks great embossed onto the silver disc, too: with the tracklisting showing a healthy disregard for capitalization and punctuation. mr cummings the poet wouldve been impressed he was not e e for nothing
The CD ‘booklet’ folds out to an eight-square barrage (the double vinyl’s inner sleeves, I’m guessing): collages of seemingly random, headline-sized words and letters moving across to longer blocks of smaller text — perfectly legible, but equally unintelligible. As meaningful or meaningless as the notes on old Dylan albums: “all high density random blonde country…” Then there’s a big black inkblot on the back to finish it all off: make what you will of that, as any shrink would have you do.
*Emerson left the band in 2000, leaving Hyde and Smith to continue to work as ‘Mk 3′.
Underworld — dubnobasswithmyheadman: Track-by-track review
1. “dark & long”
Some very dubby bass notes open dubnobasswithmyheadman. A shuffling train rhythm worthy of any fine tech’n’roll toon, the drumbeat kicking it in harder. The opening track is well titled: “dark and long” indeed is the journey on which you are about to embark. Prepare to have your head dubbed in:
Thunder, thunder, lightnin’ ahead
Kiss you, kiss you dark and long…
A chance encounter with just a waitress who just bought herself a new head.
Believing, screaming, smashing, weeping. It’s all part and parcel of the cerebral upgrade.
“How much longer?” enquire the persistent sample-loops as they morph in and out of the instrumental backing, with the keyboards clattering over the points. For the dark lengths of the album, at least…
Shout your love!
Released as a single, in various formats, with the band themselves responsible for all the production, versions range from the rattling “Dark Train” to the weird and wonderful “Thing in a Book” mix.
2. “mmm skyscraper i love you”
A chill wind and grandiose synthesised overture carry us 30,000 feet above the earth. Man, this is some skyscraper to’ve fallen in love with. But, then again, what else can you expect with your perceptions starting to peak? And with the track itself clocking in at a skyscraping 13 mins, you’d better be ready for anything!
In slams the wonderfully offbeat drumbeat, smartly sidestepping that formulaic four on the floor pattern, underpinned by ever-evolving subrhythms of an oscillating electronic pulse.
A monstrous rhythmic recoil, and things that can’t possibly be true start to become evident:
I see Elvis!
The inevitable paranoia interval, zig-zagging on the underbuzz:
I see porndogs sniffin’ the wind for something violent for me and you.
Delusions of grandeur:
I hear God on the phone!
“The city is a whore tonight:” ours for the taking, but not to be trusted.
A chattering keyboard fanfare takes the flight even higher. The King makes a comeback, served up with a little whipped cream; those Hound Dogs keep on sniffin’ round and The Lord’s still on the line. “A total big disorientator”: is there any sense to be made of it all? Listen to the mechanised voice which intermittently chips in with its opinion:
The law of pharmaceutical gravity comes into effect, and symphonic synth notes bridge the gap into a very different rhythm: call it a dub reggae house riff, if you will.
I’ve got a feeling…
Very drifty-floaty, riding the breeze in slo-mo, carried on the undulating keyboard washes and shuffling drum patterns. Enjoy it while you can: it ain’t gonna last, and well you know it!
In whacks a manic — and very Underworld — militaryesque beat, accompanied by tweedling electronics. The subrumble goes a-growing; at times underpinning the drum machines, at others overtaking them.
A female voice cuts in:
Talk to me:
Talk to my machine.
Probably past actually understanding words, but the voice is company.
“Company, attention!” Or some such unintelligibly drawled battlecry. A call to dance.
Launched skyward by a turbocharged elevator, we emerge into a refreshing shower of the prettiest of electronic raindrops. That damn tweedling keeps playing with your brain, though; while the churning resonances deep below go straight for the gut.
Talk to me:
Talk to my machine.
The drums continue to metamorphise their rhythms to a stuttering deadstop. Then back with a vengeance to the playout. A complete and utter head-dub!
A tortured stretched-out groan:
Ohmygod: Bank Holiday Monday’s over, but still feelin’ the after effects of the long weekend. Back to work, outta yer brain on the train again. A little something by way of a pick-me-up, perhaps?
I’m the spoonman, talks to god:
Whatever was on the spoon takes little time to get “into the blood”, the lyrics devolve into a stream of (un)consciousness: semi-caught chit-chat merging with the billboard slogans flickering past dilated pupils, riding once again on the Intercity’s rattling rhythms, “like a beggar’s dog tasting the wind.”
As always with Underworld it’s the evolution of the percussive patterns which stands them out from the majority of their peers, and successors. The overlapping textures of the component parts are never predictably repetitive, giving a sense of urgency and freshness so often lacking in electronic music.
Swirly wineglass harmonics flow into some very tasteful trippy guitar, introducing Karl Hyde’s detached, double-tracked voice:
Thank you for the time.
Like a razor, kiss my wound.
Once again, a bit of comfort company wouldn’t come amiss (better still from a stranger). An extreme chill-out point musically, the lyrics trying to work out just what the hell it’s all about. And the “tongue” of the title is surely the furry one that’s having trouble staying in your mouth.
The guitar arpeggio unravels, string-squeaks ‘n’all, and some sensitive synth notes echo the questioning, with the lightest of percussive touches giving a little extra texture. A wonderful fusion of musical elements, traditonal and modern: this is Underworld at their mellow best.
6. “dirty epic”
The opening synth notes suggest the melancholy wail of a blues harp. The subrhythm’s there from the start, but slaps in with a vengeance to introduce the vocal (I somehow pick up a hint of Peter Gabriel in Hyde’s voice here). There’s plenty of inner turmoil going down as we “ride the sainted rhythms on the midnight train to Romford”, both in the lyrics and the music.
From blinding lights and visions of a crippled Christ, to rueful reminiscences of a wrecked relationship and candid confessions of addiction to phone-sex and triple-x cable channels, with the hypnotically persistent bassline accentuated by increasingly intense splashes of processed guitar chords and a cracking snare drum.
Never mind the dirt; this is indeed an epic (close on ten minutes). Remixes abound, all of which are well worth checking out. As always, Underworld play the rhythmic possibilites to the full, never content to stick with a straightforward formula (or not for long, leastways).
“I will not be confused” vows the narrator, but that’s easier said than done. “Connector, connector, connector,” cosmic chemical consciousness can be hard to assimilate with everyday hang-ups. What else could we do?
We all went mental,
An amphetamine buzzed metronome fades up from the chattering keyboard.
What more could you ask for? Except maybe that it wouldn’t all kick in at the precise same moment. The rhythm block, nevertheless, kicks it in even harder.
“I’m invisible, I’m invisible,” flying in another dimension, imperceptible to ordinary eyes. “An eraser of love” or “on a razor of love”: whichever way you hear it, whichever way they say it, it don’t sound like the most comfortable of flights.
“Why don’t you call me? I feel like flying in two…” Already am, though I’m not sure how well I’m going to handle the altitude and velocity: could use a co-pilot here.
We finally hit cruising speed with the clattering keyboard fanfare giving the lift of a traditional horn section. A deadstop false finish heralds the frenetic return of the rhythmic pummel — ever-so-slightly off-kilter — before leaving you spinning on a whistling fadeout into one of the very few passages of silence on the album.
One of the standout tracks from the LP, “cowgirl” is a perfect encapsulation of the big rush, “ev’rythingev’rythingev’rythingev’rything” all at once: go with it, fly it out. Scary? Sure, but get into it, it’s all part of the trip: “you know what I mean — it’s an electric stream!” And you just gotta love the way they sneak in those cheesy cymbal splashes, sonar pings and tacky handclaps. After all’s said and done,
I’m hurting no one, hurting no one:
I wanna give you energy, I wanna give you ev’rything.
Live, Underworld generally performed it blended with the equally stunning non-album track “Rez”: a trick most djs employ too –- a) cos it’s so easy [even I’ve been known to pull it off] and b) ‘cos it sounds ace. They were released as the two sides of a 12” (black sleeve, white vinyl): nice marketing move, two copies required to mix it!
Together with “Rez” and “Dirty Epic”, remixes were put out on a CD maxisingle: a megavalue 70 mins of music for £2-99! The “Irish Pub in Kyoto Mix” is especially recommended if you really, really “feel like flying.”
8. “river of bass”
A loopy melodic bassline is counterpointed by guitar to introduce a welcome comedown from the manic heights of “cowgirl”, the mellowly muttered vocal this time bringing to my mind, at least, JJ Cale of all people(?!!).
To touch, to taste, she flows like a river of bass vibration…
Chopped-up chatter from almost inaudible ansafones bobbles across the backing like an electronic jaw-harp. “She,” it seems, isn’t a ladyfriend, but rather the contents of a hypodermic. And while I’d never condone the drugs in question, you can’t help but to be drawn into the “sweet cocoon” of the user by this magnificent musical evocation, in much the same way as, say, The Stones’ “Sister Morphine” calls you:
Goin’ down, down, down, down, down
To your river of sweet release.
An incongruously poppy intro leads into a dark contemplation of the state of “Mother Earth.” A slightly incongruous finale to the album, in fact, seemingly stepping away from its loose concept: but a great track nonetheless.
A foreign female voice makes some comment (I can’t even make out the language: any insights appreciated), then a Hawking-style vocoder enquires:
Can you follow me in your dreams?
The rolling bassline lollops in, backed up by the percussion and doop-doop scat backing vox.
Perhaps it is, after all, the final comment from the drugged-out protagonist of the rest of the album:
I don’t want to kill time: I want it to live.
I’m not wasting this life: I’m letting it in.
Accusations of eco-violation are wielded, together with threats of vengeance:
You just rip off the planet and take what you want.
I’m coming to get you, if you don’t give up.
Nevertheless, they seem half-hearted, given the apparent hopelessness of the planet’s situation and the muted, sombre tone of the music and vocal. Some disparate (but very lovely) jazz-tinged piano tinkles in, then the desperate (though unintelligible) shout of a child.
Is there some kind of Raëlian “After the Goldrush” expectation of extraterrestrial liberation going on here, or simply resignation to an inevitable slide into non-existence? Your guess, my friend, is as good as mine:
It’s a beautiful destination, for what it’s worth.
It’s a beautiful destination, goodbye Mother Earth…
dubnobasswithmyheadman by Underworld
“dark & long”
“mmm skyscraper i love you”
“river of bass”