For Whom the Bells Toll
Unlike the movie industry, blatant wholesale repetition doesn’t happen so much in music save for albums with “live,” “acoustic” or some Roman numeral in the title. Somehow, no less a respected act than electronica pioneers Underworld do this dirty deed on their new LP Oblivion with Bells and they damn near get away with it. From the gauzy black-and-white artwork on, Karl Hyde, Rick Smith and Darren Price want this album mistaken for their 1994 classic dubnobasswithmyheadman or at worst part two of a series.
Significant sections of Oblivion with Bells actually manage to ride the coattails of prior successes. “Crocodile” and “Beautiful Burnout” form Underworld’s best opening one-two punch of intelligent big beat since Second Toughest in the Infants; the former is pure anthemic groove, while the latter is another Underworld train ride through sonic landscapes from ambient vocals to tuned drums to clattering trance. “Glam Bucket,” meanwhile, holds back the percussion in favor of slow-burning glitchy beeps and Hyde’s airy guitar stutter-steps.
Hyde has always flirted with being an over-amped Beat poet of a lyricist. Some of his best work here (as in the past) comes wrapped in vocoder textures for songs like “Faxed Invitation” or delivered as fun-time declaratives in “Holding the Moth.” That song’s refrain, “One foot goes down in front of the other,” suggests it can be remixed away from its extant chill house purgatory. Then the road—”Ring Road,” literally—gets unconscionably treacherous, full of domineering cut-up vocals that address little more than Hyde heading to work at Underworld-affiliated design firm Tomato.
“Boy Boy Boy,” likewise, sounds full of everyday first-person observations, and approaches guitar/bass/drums territory not heard since Underworld’s forgettable New Wave days. Most of what’s left then seems co-opted from their recent soundtrack work for Breaking and Entering and Sunshine. Average Underworld music still destroys a lot of stuff out there, but Oblivion with Bells—with its sweeping Mobyesque interludes, its alt-rock stabs, Hyde’s overt utter meaninglessness and a lack of an affecting centerpiece like “Born Slippy” or “Cowgirl”—is not what their faithful are used to.