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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Underworld underwhelms with new album

Lucy Du
Lucy Du

Extra! Extra! The latest installation of the beloved action-techno LP series “Underworld: The Major Motion Picture” is set, this time, in the wilderness of Barbara’s eyes — the band-members’ newest muse interpreted by award-winning synthesizers and drum machines — and once again directed and produced by the infamous Rick Smith and Karl Hyde. Unlike their past work, however, “Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future” features fewer action sequences and places greater emphasis on emotional tension in the frame; it is a deviation from the duo’s traditional aesthetic, but though an admirable step it puts the piece at critical risk among polarized electronic elites.

While in the past Underworld’s albums have been wonderfully three-dimensional, their latest work is everything but cinematic. That might not necessarily be a bad thing, but for a band that takes pride in its fabrication of surrealist techno and jungle landscapes, a release that shirks these comes across as uncharacteristically flat. Fortunately, the band is plainly talented enough to pull off some great moments, and in fact several of the songs on this LP successfully build towards a satisfying climax. However, in most cases these come at the price of overlong and rather tired musical foreplay.

The song “If Rah” is the most egregious abuse of this sort. The seven-minute song takes about five to evolve into one of the album’s catchiest cuts, but that front half is quite arduous with its repetitive and rather unoriginal saw synths. Also, Hyde’s pseudo-poetic slam-Sprechstimme was interesting on “Dubnobasswithmyheadman,” but throughout this LP it often sounds tedious and exhausted — evoking LCD Soundsystem on diazepam.

Perhaps because they are most congruent with this mood, the slower, more emotive tracks here are the most effective. “Low Burn” is particularly memorable with its skillfully-crafted ambiance, but once again Hyde’s vocals, awkwardly devoid of pitch, are a bit jarring. The track “Motorhome” is similar but a definite improvement, with a moving tone and quality to match the band’s earlier work. On the other hand, songs like “Santiago Cuatro,” a track that is almost entirely acoustic guitar solo, is likely to calm you to sleep, but not at all in a good way — it detracts from the pace the album had theretofore set.

After finishing this album, I was left curious about which steps the band should be taking as regards their future output. Just a couple of years ago, Karl Hyde teamed up with electronic luminary Brian Eno to release two albums, “Someday World” and “High Life.” I have yet to listen to the former, but the latter was an impressive showcase of Hyde’s ability to warp sound in unconventional ways to revolutionize, as he accomplished with Underworld in the early 90s. Of course, “High Life” was leagues more oblique than “Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future,” but it could easily and comfortably have borne the name of the latter. The shining future of “High Life” was surrealist, skillful, pleasantly wonky, but ultimately optimistic. This LP is somewhat more somber, certainly more subdued and overall less impressive, leaving the listener with a more uncertain outlook.

To me, it seems clear that Underworld as Underworld has overstayed its welcome. While the group may continue along this path with confidence that it will produce decent releases in the future, it is difficult to imagine it producing anything nearly as revolutionary as its past releases. It is time for these gifted artists to take greater risks, embracing the lengths of their creativity with a cutting-edge project that will once again take the world by surprise.

Artist: Underworld

Album: “Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future”

Label: Universal

Favorite Track: “Motorhome”

If you like: The Chemical Brothers, Cybotron, Brian Eno

Shamrocks: 3/5