Un­der­world de­liv­ers fresh jolts

Techno mu­sic bands come and go, but the vet­eran Bri­tish out­fit is en­joy­ing a rare per­ma­nence. It lands at Hol­ly­wood Bowl.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Au­gust Brown

Un­der­world’s Karl Hyde ad­mits that when he took the stage at Barcelona, Spain’s Pri­mav­era Sound Fes­ti­val in May, he was a lit­tle anx­ious.

The set he was about to play — a front-to-back live per­for­mance of his band’s land­mark 1994 techno al­bum “Dub­nobass­with­my­head­man” — might have proved a tough sell to a late-night fes­ti­val crowd of tens of thou­sands in 2015.

Would a flighty au­di­ence stick around for a full LP of moody elec­tronic songs with cryptic lyrics, whose sin­gles of­ten ap­proach 10 min­utes? Would young dance mu­sic fans even re­mem­ber the two-decade-old record, a sta­ple of first-gen­er­a­tion Bri­tish rave cul­ture now com­pet­ing with the tor­rents and SoundCloud streams of a new EDM scene?

“Our ho­tel room over­looked the fes­ti­val stages, and we were watch­ing it and thought, ‘Wow, how is this go­ing to go down?’ ” said Hyde, the band’s singer and co-pro­ducer. “We’d played this set to our own crowds be­fore, but never at a fes­ti­val. I never get ner­vous, but look­ing down there I did think, ‘Is this crazy?’ ”

It was not. While his band­mate and pro­duc­tion part­ner Rick Smith wran­gled a bank of lap­tops and mix­ing equip­ment, the 58year-old Hyde prowled the stage like Mick Jag­ger if Jag­ger had just seen a ghost.

On songs like “Dirty Epic,” he chanted lyrics that still felt like mis­sives from the vanguard of dig­i­tal deca­dence and iso­la­tion: “The light blinds my eyes and I feel dirty / the light blinds my eyes and I feel so shaken in my faith.”

When the band brings its “Dub­nobass­with­my­head­man” tour to the Hol­ly­wood Bowl on Sun­day, it won’t be as a ’90s nos­tal­gia act on the re­union cir­cuit. It will be rein­tro­duc­ing one of mod­ern techno’s found­ing doc­u­ments to a scene still reck­on­ing with Un­der­world’s in­flu­ence.

For to­day’s elec­tronic mu­sic fans, reared on a steady drip of sen­sory-over­loaded fes­ti­vals and mu­tat­ing sub-gen­res that feel dated as soon as they’re named, Un­der­world has en­joyed a rare per­ma­nence. It’s an un­com­pro­mis­ing techno act that still loves gui­tars and old-fash­ioned song­writ­ing; it scored a stage adap­ta­tion of “Franken­stein” star­ring Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch, over­saw the mu­sic at the 2012 Lon­don Olympics’ open­ing cer­e­mony and fol­lowed it up with sev­eral of Hyde’s ab­stract, im­pro­vised col­lab­o­ra­tions with Brian Eno.

Only a few other elec­tronic dance mu­sic acts could even feint at the idea of do­ing a full-al­bum live show. Dance mu­sic is a sin­gles medium, with tracks de­signed to be mixed into DJ sets and not gen­er­ally lis­tened to as a dis­crete body of work. The band didn’t set out to make that kind of a state­ment — “Ini­tially, I wasn’t happy about it, we didn’t want to play out and be in a ‘band.’ We were happy to just make 12-inches,” Hyde said.

But their on­go­ing de­sire to push the edges of the genre wound up tak­ing them back to a longer for­mat, one that only a hand­ful of dance mu­sic peers like Moby have pri­or­i­tized.

“It’s rare. It’s the real test for an artist to go be­yond trends,” said Jason Bent­ley, the mu­sic di­rec­tor at KCRW-FM (89.9), which is co-pre­sent­ing Un­der­world’s show as part of its World Mu­sic Fes­ti­val se­ries. “Dance mu­sic is so much about the latest styles or sonic ideas, but Un­der­world has al­ways ex­isted on its own terms.”

That in­de­pen­dence comes, in part, be­cause there were many ear­lier in­car­na­tions of Un­der­world. Hyde and Smith’s col­lab­o­ra­tions be­gan in the ’80s, as the poppy but flinty new wave band Freur that en­joyed brief suc­cess in the U.S. and Europe, scor­ing the sound­track for the 1985 Bri­tish film “Trans­mu­ta­tions” (a.k.a. “Un­der­world”), writ­ten by Clive Barker. Even af­ter the film inspired the band’s name change in the late ’80s, its first al­bums in that alias sounded like a much dif­fer­ent band than what came later.

Though they later be­came su­per­stars of the first elec­tronic dance mu­sic wave of the ’90s — di­rec­tor Danny Boyle’s “Trainspot­ting ” helped launch their sin­gle “Born Slippy” into a global hit — part of the last­ing in­flu­ence of “Dub­nobass­with­my­head­man” is that it seemed to come out of nowhere. Even for long­time fans, the al­bum in­tro­duced a whole new struc­ture for writ­ing and pre­sent­ing dance mu­sic.

The acidic bass churn of “Cow­girl” and the clang­ing arpeg­gios of “Dark & Long” still sound new when paired with the band’s ex­pan­sive guitar lines, tribal break­beats and Hyde’s elu­sive but evoca­tive lyrics about shame and self-de­struc­tion, driven by his abu­sive drink­ing at the time.

For dance fans of a cer­tain age (Un­der­world played the first Coachella Val­ley Mu­sic and Arts Fes­ti­val in 1999), these live per­for­mances are in­tended to take you back to a cer­tain time and place. Hyde feels it too when he plays this


“I’m grate­ful I don’t live in that same space, as I prob­a­bly wouldn’t be alive to­day,” Hyde said. “But this was an op­por­tu­nity to do some­thing we’d never done be­fore, to re-cre­ate this state of mind. It’s amaz­ing, it’s like go­ing back into a room I thought was sealed up.”

But for younger artists, like the Bri­tish disco and R&B group Jun­gle (which is open­ing Un­der­world’s Bowl show), the band’s ideas about hav­ing a com­plete aes­thetic and an em­pha­sis on live per­for­mance still ring true.

“They’ve al­ways had a strong vis­ual style, which for us is re­ally im­mer­sive. It’s amaz­ing when you can get lost in the ideas that sur­round the mu­sic,” said Josh Lloyd-Wat­son, one of Jun­gle’s two found­ing mem­bers. They rec­og­nize that for bands who de­pend on elec­tron­ics, it’s im­por­tant to imag­ine more hu­man ways to present them on­stage — some­thing that’s long been a strength for Un­der­world. “For us it’s all about that ex­tra bit of im­pro­vi­sa­tion. Things go wrong, peo­ple make mis­takes, but there is a beauty to that.”

Dance mu­sic to­day is cul­tur­ally mono­lithic, yet last­ing state­ment pieces from its artists re­main rare. The imag­i­na­tion and emo­tion on “Dub­nobass­with­my­head­man” feel more nec­es­sary than ever.

What­ever Hyde and his band thought they were mak­ing at the time, they ended up with a clas­sic, and on this tour fans around the world are be­ing re­minded of how new their mu­sic still feels.

“Rick al­ways told me, ‘You are enough.’ It’s not the equip­ment, it’s not the tech­nol­ogy, it’s walk­ing on­stage and ask­ing what you are go­ing to bring to this ex­pe­ri­ence,” Hyde said.

“I’m the last link in the chain and I’m not pro­gram­mable. But I’m enough.”

Vic­tor Frankowski

RICK SMITH, left, and Karl Hyde per­form to­gether as Un­der­world. The pair’s Dub­nobass­with­my­head­man tour stops at the Bowl. “Un­der­world has al­ways ex­isted on its own terms,” says Jason Bent­ley of KCRW.

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