REVIEWS: UNDERWORLD – A COLLECTION (2011) & 1992-2012 THE ANTHOLOGY (2011)
When Underworld released their initial Anthology in 2002, ten years after their first album as an experimental dance act, they probably felt it was apt to wrap up what was in a sense the end of one era and the beginning of another. The young DJ, Darren Emerson, who many believed had transformed the duo from their big hair, synth-pop, euro roots of the 1980s into what became the most cutting edge experimental electronic group of the 90s, had just broke from the group to pursue his own DJ career; for many the game was up. The core duo of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith were given little chance of recreating the sort of ground-breaking sound that they had achieved in the 90s, eyes and ears started looking back to their big hair days in bands like Freuer (with hits like “Doot Doot”) and the first incarnation of Underworld (With a little more attitude and a lot less hair, in songs like “Underneath the Radar” from 1988).
How wrong they were.
Ten years later they are not only were they recently named in MixMag’s top 20 greatest dance acts of all time (No. 7) but are now musical directors of the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony. Not bad!
In an interview with Billboard in 2002 concerning their current album A Hundred Days Off Hyde set out what would define the next era of Underworld:
“My hero Miles Davis once said that in order to remain vital and progress as an artist, you have to destroy the past,” Hyde continues. “This record is our new beginning. We’ve matured, both personally and professionally. We’ve stopped chasing the charts and album sales figures in order to focus on creating an album that was much more diverse and inclusive of the various musical mediums we find interesting, relevant, and viable.”
This “new beginning” would have the duo create more challenging and introspective works like A Hundred Days Off (2002) and Oblivion With Bells (2007) while also focussing on new mediums and platforms for their music, releasing some collections like The Riverrun Series (2005-2006) exclusively through their website underworldlive.com. On top of this the duo would also expand their sound by creating unique and engaging soundtracks for films like Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering (2006, with Gabriel Yared), Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2008, with John Murphy) and even most recently for Boyle’s acclaimed stage production of Frankenstein (2011). They returned emphatically to the limelight with 2010’s Barking arguably their most commercial album to date and one which reminded all those sceptics in at the start of the naughties that Underworld was very much alive and more creative and dynamic than ever.
This time around the release is two fold. On the one hand there is the comprehensive Anthology that brings together a broad range of Underworld’s musical highlights, from 1992’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman right up to Barking in 2010. On top of that they have included a third CD featuring some of the lesser known but much loved B-Sides and rarities (This is where you get more than your moneys worth).
On the other hand they have also released A Collection which is exactly that, one assortment of tracks from their back catalogue that attempts to introduce the new listener to their sound, in short but powerful musical stabs. This is also where Underworld’s more recent foray into the mainstream is most apparent, rich with their recent collaborations and the radio-edits of all their big hits – essentially if you want it short and sweet this is the way to go.
A Collection is the sort of bitter pill that every “die hard” fan of Underworld will find hard to swallow. The idea of taking carefully crafted works of electronic music brilliance that usually last in the region of 8 minutes and slicing them down to a more digestible 3 or 4 minutes is sacrilege. Their beauty is in the measured and restrained way in which the music is constructed and developed, a beauty which is lost in many of the older hits that feature in this collection. That said, A Collection is not there for the die hard fan, it is a brief flick through the hits for the new listener to get a sense of what Underworld are about now and what they were about 20 years ago. The strength of the collection is in its willingness to embrace more contemporary dance music. Collaborations with Mark Knight and D. Ramirez, High Contrast, Tiesto (some die hard fans have most definitely just swallowed a little vomit) and the inclusion of a good selection of tracks from Barking bring their current sound to the fore. This format really suits these tracks however as the songs get older and we move back to those early days there is a horrible sense that a beautiful work of art has been vandalised. The shame here is that new listeners may never hear the full versions, thankfully underworldlive.com features the whole back catalogue for everyone to enjoy free of charge.
The Anthology (1992-2012) is the reverse of A Collection… literally. Beginning with the tracks that made their new fans, and the group’s first record label “Junior Boys Own”, sit up and take notice and gradually bringing you through over 4 hours of relentless electronic exploration that made Underworld one of the greatest Dance acts in the world. The beauty of this collection is that many of the best tracks exist in a sort of ambiguous place in the group’s back catalogue. The hit “Born Slippy (NUXX)” which catapulted the group into worldwide fame after it featured in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting in the mid-nineties was never released on a studio album (only ever on the film soundtrack, and as a single), it finally landed a place on the band’s 2000 live album release Everything, Everything.
On the first disc, tracks such as “Big Mouth”, “Spikee” and “Dark and Long (Dark Train)” similarly existed only as singles and would become centrepieces of the group’s legendary live performances. This Anthology (and its predecessor) finally placed all of these epic hits in one place for fans of the band to enjoy. This gives the Anthology a role beyond the simple “best of” that so many bands will release, for many who are not in the know, it is the only place that they will ever hear these songs. The first disc therefore wraps-up what Underworld were doing before they hit the world stage right between the eyes with “Born Slippy” – bringing the listener right up to about 1995/96, just before the release of Second Toughest in the Infants. The importance of these first 3-5 years of the group is underlined when you consider that the second disc covers the subsequent 15 years of releases. They want you to know what it is all about, where it all came from and how it all started – it is worth a listen.
Disc Two starts appropriately with “Born Slippy (.Nuxx)” and proceeds to select at least one track from every album release from 1996 to 2012. Every track is a highlight, and although there is a lot not there, there is enough to get a sense for how the group changed and developed over time. “8 Ball”, which only ever featured on Danny Boyle’s The Beach soundtrack and this collection, has become a cult favourite and yet has never been performed live. The track aptly addresses the change in attitude that the group, and more importantly lead singer Karl Hyde, experienced in the early 2000s as he dealt with an alcohol addiction and their sound morphed into euphoric sense of clarity and positivity. Lines like “That stuff makes me feel happy” (8 Ball) and the now legendary chorus of Two Months Off, “You Bring Light In” underline the change in direction that Hyde talked about in the aforementioned interview.
With only “Scribble” featuring from their latest album the difference between these two collections is stark. There is an acceptance that A Collection is for a different listener, while the Anthology is the hard stuff that will get you hooked and have you borrowing money off you loved ones for the latest release.
The third disc is an effort by the group to emphasise their other side. Tracks like “The Hump” feature that iconic Junior Boys Own sound that filtered through the label’s early 90s hits. B-Sides like “Minneapolis” and “Why Why Why” feature a sort of experimentation that wouldn’t sell records but would blow your mind if you gave it a chance. These rarities are also chronological and feature the only hint of the limited Riverrun series released online and on vinyl from 2005-06 with the final tracks “Simple Peal” and “Jal to Tokyo”.
Overall the decision is not whether you want to buy a best of Underworld, more so what type of Underworld you want to hear. If you want to hear something that belongs on MTV dance and sounds a bit like Deadmau5 then buy A Collection at least they do it with a bit of class… however if you want to hear the music that paved the way for artists like Deadmau5 and formed the basis for contemporary electronic music as you know it, then buy The Anthology – you wont regret it.
What is missing? Underworld are famed for their improvised, experimental multimedia live shows. Here each release only features one live track which fails to do justice to the experience that is UnderworldLive. I suppose if you are looking to hear the best example of what Underworld really do, then listen to 2000’s Everything, Everything. Furthermore, the group’s original compositions for soundtracks throughout the 00s are skipped over, perhaps understandably, but are well worth a listen if you want to hear something more ambient and experimental.
Underworld have always been part of and worked in tandem with Tomato so it is worth taking some time to appreciate the album art and video art that come with a lot of the albums and tracks featured on this collection. Even the artwork of the collection itself is worth a stare while you listen!
With the Olympics around the corner and the group’s activity seeming to increase ten fold over the previous 10 years it is to be expected that Underworld are far from finished… whether there will be a 1992-2022 compilation and what it will consist of is really too hard to tell. You can be certain though that whatever happens it will be of the same high standard that has cemented Underworld’s place in Dance music’s hall of fame.
Rating (A Collection): 6.5/10
Rating (1992-2012 The Anthology): 9.0/10