Harmony in Discord
Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future is the first proper album from veteran British electronic music duo Underworld in six years, though they’ve been far from silent in that interim period. On the contrary, Rick Smith and Karl Hyde have been branching out, refining their craft, and exploring a variety of diverse horizons. Their reunion of sorts marks a return to the high-quality music they’ve been making together for decades, bringing together eclectic influences and a kind of musicianship that can only be developed over countless hours of devotion to the craft.
It wouldn’t be worth trying to pin a genre on Barbara, and even describing its tone is difficult. In the time since their 2010 album, Barking, Hyde and Smith have been working on film scoring for Danny Boyle, musical direction for the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, and collaborations with Brian Eno, in addition to their own solo projects. Melding six years of disparate musical exploration leads to interesting results, such as the Krautrock sound of “I Exhale” and the meandering Spanish guitar-inspired “Santiago Cuatro.” Rather than a particular genre or sonic palette defining the record, its sound is shaped by something deeper, rooted in the artists’ expert songcrafting.
The moody elegance of “Motorhome” feels almost hymnal, driven by plodding drums and bass, and bolstered by piano and glitchy synthesizer lines that sound like an oddly robotic amalgam of bagpipes and Irish fiddle. “If Rah” on the other hand, comes across more like a futuristic science-fiction anthem with its quick-moving back beat, tension-inducing melodies, and an emotionless half-sung vocal delivery. Later, Hyde and Smith bring out a tight house groove on “Ova Nova,” mixing in still more musical influences. Somehow, it all fits together nicely. The driving rhythm of opening track “I Exhale” is echoed in the closer, “Nylon Strung,” creating a nice sense of symmetry. A transition between tense sci-fi and romantic melancholy is made smooth by the relatively neutral palate cleanser, “Low Burn.”
These songs may seem like they should all be on different albums, and most artists would likely not be able to work in such wildly varying points of view without completely losing focus. Barbara avoids feeling frantic or disjointed by virtue of Underworld’s subtle artistry. This duo’s vast experience and musical sensibility affords them the ability to craft a melting pot rather than a hot mess.