Not to sound like a cantankerous old fart, but kids, music really was done better before you were born. In the case of electronic music (sometimes called electronica) a bevy of 90’s acts paved the way for what has become the staple footprint that bands like De Lux, Poolside, Cut Copy and Classixx now reap with joy and ease. It’s easy to forget how in those days, it was considered strange and straight left of the dial to attempt music that did not feature the rock template of bass, drums, guitar and vocals. To boot, there was a few years where the thought of even admitting using a drum machine was considered heretical. Yes, in those days, it was titans of electro dance such as Underworld, Daft Punk and Orbital that paved the way for all that is the big dance sound that is now. Remember, this is before even Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy conquered the mainstream in the big beat era. Celebrating the twenty-year anniversary of their landmark genre-defining album dubnobasswithmyheadman, trailblazer Underworld played a triumphant set tonight at the Hollywood Bowl. Supported by recent UK band Jungle, the band was in top form and effortlessly demonstrated the power and joy of flawless craftsmanship coupled with truly great songs.
Jungle came first with a modest opening slot. Fronted by dual singers Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland the band plays live as a seven-piece with two additional singers, Andro Cowperthwaite and Rudi Salmon. The band plays a colorful array of danceable music, varying between more smoothed-out sounds and a loose form of party funk. The attribute they put the most emphasis into is also the group’s biggest liability. Each of the group’s four singers all sing in a forced falsetto not unlike Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos. Harmony can be used as the simplest way to make music sound impressive, but what’s happening here really isn’t harmony. It’s four singers singing the same thing essentially in the same key. It would be one thing if the amalgamation rendered its own tapestry, but this is really the case of three singers too many. The band would be better served by literally just taking turns, using each singer for the strength of his or her own voice. “Accelerate” was one such example, and failed to cement a solid groove, though it’s commendable that the band played with real enthusiasm. The penultimate number “Busy Earnin'” was the best song in the set, leading to a decent crescendo in the song’s final 120 seconds. Otherwise, this played as decently sloppy compared to the technical perfection that was to follow.
The trio Karl Hyde, Rick Smith and Darren Price of Underworld took the stage to a modest setup of three adjoined keyboard/computer tables. The band was backed by a massive video wall that was scarcely used except to show the names of songs played or the occasional lyric from those songs. Lead singer Karl Hyde was on the right most position stage left and used that side of the stage to sing and dance, managing to look exceedingly cool throughout.
The band opened with the elongated dubnobasswithmyheadman track “MMM… Skyscraper I Love You.” “Spoonman”—not to be confused with the Soundgarden song of the same name—followed and delivered with enveloping trance sequencing, building in stature without building in BPM. Karl Hyde introduced the next song “Rez” stating, “It’s been too long. Thanks for waiting for us.” He explained that as much as he enjoyed being reunited with his band mate Rick Smith, he preferred to leave the stage to let this one exist without any trace of his voice. Even Darren Price left the stage for this one, as Smith persistently tracked out the sonic tapestry behind one of the largest sequencer/mixing board setups imaginable.
The delicate and subdued “Jumbo” off Beaucoup Fish came next, it’s strength being its tender nature and the flutter of light keyboard stabs that served as the rhythmic track’s primary melody. By this point, pretty much the entirety of the venue was on their feet and the faster “Pearl’s Girl” brought the best of Smith and Hyde’s dynamic to bear; Hyde using his voice as an angular repetitious melody all its own while Smith mutated the song from fast sequenced synths into breakbeats and bass drops by the ending. Hyde then expressed the band’s initial hesitation to revisit the dubnobasswithmyheadman-era explaining, “There’s a lot of stuff back there that really hurt,” but ultimately that they all came to the realization “We actually really liked each other.” He introduced the next number “Dirty Epic” as a piece of the darkest of those times way back when. For the hardcore fans of the band in attendance, this might have been the night’s most impressive moment. The song grows, shifts and changes into different electro styles while Hyde sings its tortured lyrics like an elder-statesman Dave Gahan, “I get my kicks on channel six / The light it burns my eyes / and I feel so dirty / Here comes Christ on crutches,” being some of the many memorable lines.
Arguably, what may be one of the band’s most iconic songs followed, and it’s damn hard to imagine anything following the shimmering, juxtaposed, simplistic perfection of it. “Cowgirl” features a series of repeated lines from Hyde chanted like slogans or mantra: “Everything, everything,” “I’m invisible / I’m Invisible,” “An eraser of love / an eraser of love” and “Why don’t you call me / I feel like flyin’ too.” With the same artful command that Daft Punk is famous for, the group then grows the song through an iterative series of alterations, taking those simple words and rendering them like the rallying cry for a generation. More recent tracks “Scribble” and “Two Months Off” brought the set towards its conclusion, the former the most modern sounding of what was included here and the latter a trance ebb-and-tide of titanic proportions.
Rare cut “Spikee” finished up the night strong with Hyde inciting the audience on hand to dance along. Afterwards, Hyde emphatically proclaimed, “I love doing this. I’m loving it now more than I’ve ever done it.” He introduced the final song “Born Slippy .NUXX” as their way of saying “thanks.” This being arguably their most famous song, it was the logical choice for ending the set, and there is a certain adrenaline-fueled pulse to it that makes it enrapturing and unforgettable. In all of its tremendous glory, just a few minutes later the set is over.
What did we learn? Well, as painful as it might be to say, it makes the recycled, generic nonsense so unbelievably popular in the current EDM world seem positively pedestrian. When you have a puree of influences flushed through a blender with nothing more than a desire to pulsate furiously, it stands as utter shit in comparison with something as pristine as Underworld. They struck ground when no one cared, and somehow, this beat-obsessed generation simultaneously missed the boat on one of the forefathers that made it all possible and the spoils of the genre are going to the most derivative excrement currently representing it. Real electro heads know where it’s at though, and Underworld have earned their permanent station alongside Daft Punk, and Orbital as some of the best and most important the medium has ever seen.
– Set List –
Mmm Skyscraper I Love You
Two Months Off
Born Slippy .NUXX