Underworld’s best music has the ability to evoke a specific place and time in a way few groups can. It’s the reason they’ve become synonymous with Mark Renton’s ‘Choose Life’ rant that bookends Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, or the reason that their music worked so beautifully as the soundtrack to London 2012; there’s something deeply resonant in their gargantuan bass kicks, panoramic synth swells, and Karl Hyde’s enigmatic spoken-word. It’s dance music that soaks up its surroundings and then transcends them completely. It’s both hyper specific and all-encapsulating.
This is exactly the kind of form the duo is on with their latest full length, their first in five years. The space between records has been a positive one it seems, with the group focusing their efforts on solo outings; Hyde’s projects with Brian Eno and on his own were both successful diversions, while Smith’s soundtrack for Boyle’s ‘Trance’ is just as resounding as anything the duo have done for visual media. Now that the pair are back working together, there seems to be a new sense of focus that’s been absent from their several previous albums. In fact, ‘Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future’ might be the most impressive the band have sounded since their ‘Beacoup Fish’ era.
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Opener, ‘I Exhale’, is a wide-eyed stomper that combines Hyde’s anthemic lyricism with a constantly expanding clattering of percussion and unearthly synths. It’s two note bass riff slides up and down ominously, as if signalling extra-terrestrial communication, and Hyde’s emphatic, gritty vocal bounces around the mix. “A light/A glow…/Over the horizon” he preaches, as the sparkling beat gives way to organic hand claps and a primeval horn blows off in the distance. It’s a panoramic banger that’s one of the strongest the duo have crafted in years.
The mood is triumphant and life-affirming as the band move into ‘If Rah’, built from a relentless bass groove that allows room for Hyde’s cryptic lyricism to sink into the listener’s skull. It’s the type of propulsive jam that LCD Soundsystem mastered over their three albums, but with its own sense of purpose as it builds into its shining piano climax. The mix is bursting with detail, with its funk-leaning lead guitar licks, and its perpetually shifting beat. It’s undoubtedly dated, but with the same timeless character that the dusty beats brought to Aphex Twin’s ‘Syro’; For Underworld, age only brings with it a greater sense of time and place.
The album sadly slumps half way through. Though the droning, atmospheric ‘Santiago Cuatro’ and ‘Motorhome’ do bring with them a welcomed variety and vibrancy, their plodding runtime and lack of interesting progressions only serves to kill the momentum the album had going for it. Still, their skill within multiple styles becomes more than apparent here.
The band regain their footing on ‘Ova Nova’, which begins with the kind of delicate guitar loop that would have been expected from Four Tet’s ‘There is Love in You’. The band quickly take the style and make it their own, with a warmly unfolding melody that is heightened by the track’s rave backbone. There’s a nuanced appreciation to texture and build that the band hardly ever get credit for, when many know them for chanting ‘Lager Lager Lager’ and soundtracking thumping comedowns. The music here is anything but tacky, and has a beating heart within it that colours their best records.
They dive into balladry on the sublime closer, ‘Nylon Strung’. It might take multiple listens to reveal the band’s sensitivity and warmth beneath the pummelling bass groove, but once it hits, there’s a feeling that the time and place you’re in is the new moment the duo are heightening.
‘Barbara Barbara’ is one of the sharpest records Underworld have crafted in years. It feels both planet sized and deeply personal, of its time and completely timeless. In short, the kind of thing they do best.
This Underworld article was written by Stephen Butchard, A Gigsoup contributor. Edited by Zoe Anderson.