Underworld’s roots are in the mid-’80s electro-pop new wave quintet Freur (which, in a prescient pre-Prince move, was initially identified only by an unpronounceable glyph), best known for the dreamy pop single “Doot Doot.” The English band’s 1983 album made less impact here than the song did, and a 1985 follow-up, Get Us Out of Here, was released only in Europe.
A few years later, four-fifths of Freur re-emerged with a dance beat as Underworld. Underneath the Radar is a by-the-numbers slice of polished late-’80s British dance-pop: unremarkable and inoffensive. Change the Weather boasts a little more enthusiasm but, at the end of the day, tracks like “Thrash” might as well be INXS on amphetamines. Given the relatively banal nature of the group’s sound, Underworld met with some success, particularly in the US. During a 1990 tour with Eurythmics, singer/guitarist Karl Hyde and keyboard programmer Rick Smith simultaneously decided to call it a day, and Underworld dissolved.
Hyde kicked around the US as a session musician. While hanging out in Manhattan preparing for a Deborah Harry tour, he became enamored of the underground poetry scene thriving at clubs like Jackie 60. The mix of sex, verbal abuse and music inspired a new, more fragmented approach to lyricism. Back in England, he rejoined Smith and, augmented by DJ Darren Emerson, revived the Underworld name. Hyde and Smith developed a new artistic method, creating songs and handing them over to Emerson to deconstruct. They pressed and distributed 500 copies of a single, “The Hump,” themselves; the next, “Dirty,” was released as Lemon Interrupt, with production credited to Underworld.
Following the release of “Mmm Skyscraper I Love You,” the trio discovered that DJs were playing the version that favored Hyde’s sketchy vocals and guitar as opposed to the beat-heavy club mixes. The band’s full-length album, dubnobasswithmyheadman, makes it clear this realization had been taken into account. Tracks like “Dark & Long” and the agitated “Cowgirl” integrate Hyde’s contributions alongside the beats and keyboards with dexterity and innovation (“Tongue” might even be mistaken for the Durutti Column at points), with subtle and sinister results. Fans of the album are encouraged to seek out the domestic CD single of “Dirty Epic”/”Cowgirl,” which includes not only three mixes of each but also “Rez” (the stunning UK B-side of “Cowgirl”) and the seductive “River of Bass.”
Continuing in the direction suggested by a 1994 single (“Born Slippy”), Second Toughest in the Infants works within, but is not confined by, the palette of drum-and-bass/jungle sounds that had swelled in popularity. In line with such peers as Jonah Sharp (Spacetime Continuum) and Orbital, cuts like the spiraling “Juanita” use layers of skittish keyboard lines and breakneck rhythmic programming to disorienting effect. The album loses a degree of steam two-thirds of the way through, but ultimately stands as an important and entertaining chapter in the band’s evolution. Hyde and Smith are also founding members of the Tomato design collective; in addition to producing Underworld videos and an art book, Mmm Skyscraper I Love You, the company has created everything from Nike TV spots to Rolling Stones album covers.