While America remains hung up on mediocre trance DJs like Paul Oakenfold, Underworld, one of the more innovative electronic artists of today, remains relatively obscure in the American pop landscape. If anything, some may have heard their breakthrough hit, “Born Slippy,” which was featured on the Trainspotting soundtrack, but despite their popularity throughout much of the rest of the world, it seems as though many Americans have simply never heard of Underworld.
The group’s fantastic 1999 release, Beaucoup Fish, brilliantly blended genres such as rock and jazz with superb electronic production to create a more accessible form of dance music without sacrificing musical integrity. In 2000, the band pushed the boundaries of dance music even further with the release of their live album, Everything Everything, on which they used live instruments and vocals in conjunction with huge banks of electronic equipment to produce their music in real time. In addition to legitimizing electronic music as a genre that can be spontaneously performed, rather than simply played back on turntables, Underworld proved themselves to be simply an incredible live act.
Dissension within the group shortly after the release of Everything Everything resulted in a breakup of the trio of Karl Hyde, Rick Smith, and Darren Emerson. Emerson has since gone on to a more mainstream solo career, including a release in the Global Underground series. A Hundred Days Off is the product of the reunion of the two remaining members.
Now free of Emerson’s influence, the duo continues to follow a more progressive path in dance music. Drawing, as usual, from influences inside and outside of the world of techno, A Hundred Days Off has a decidedly more jazzy feel than previous projects, and demonstrates even more of the group’s broad, ever-growing range.
The album opens with “Mo Move,” a thumping techno track driven by a deep, hypnotic bass line over which Karl Hyde sighs, “I become chemical.” Much of Underworld’s lyrical content is mysterious and poetically futuristic. The imagery of Hyde’s lyrics beautifully compliments the feel of Underworld’s music.
The centerpiece of the album is a three song progression, beginning with the fourth song, “Sola Sistim,” a slow, shadowy trip-hop track on which Hyde’s aching voice weaves in and out of the dark beats. “Sola Sistim” is a departure from earlier work by the band and, perhaps consciously, is followed by a more fundamental dance number called “Little Speaker.” A funky bassline and a jazzy keyboard riff are punctuated by seductively spoken female vocals on this track, which is perhaps the most immediately catchy of the album.
“Trim,” in the sixth slot, is essentially a rock song with a rolling drum & bass-influenced rhythm. It is one of the more interesting tracks on the album, as it thoroughly demonstrates Underworld’s range and gives listeners insight into some of the group’s possible influences. The sound of “Trim” bears a striking resemblance to the music of the Beta Band, an electronically flavored rock group from the U.K.
Those who are new to electronic music or Underworld may want to begin with Beaucoup Fish or Everything Everything, but A Hundred Days Off is an album that should eventually end up in the collection of any dance music aficionado.