Thrilling. Perhaps an odd word to start an album review with, but then, Underwolrd always were quite a weird band.
It seemed so on first listen to this album twenty years ago and it seems even more to be the case listening to it again twenty years after. Don’t let the dull black and white typeface fool you; this is an album full of life which positively pulsates with energy right from the moment you take the disc out of the case (or, for the youngsters out there, the first mp3). Forget the daft title, opener ‘Dark And Long’ serves it’s purpose perfectly. An insistent, loping bassline collides with sparkling electronica and a dense dug of a backbeat and the in Italian to join in is simply irresistible. Then, just when you begin to think that things can’t get any more unhinged or surreal, ‘MMM Skyscraper I Love You’ drops in to take over. While it is debatable as to whether or not this really is a paean to a building, it certainly sounds as large as one. Letting the bassline (both kick drum, synths AND bass guitar) act like a drill into the skull and the psyche, this track seeps you, the listener, up in a kind of sonic jet stream, moving you up floor by floor of the titular creation, disinfecting any height (or sonic) fear by constantly force feeding you Karl Hyde’s relentless stream of conscious lyrics so that you feel like you’re on some kind of sonic LSD trip, from which it will watch you jump off to some kind of glorious oblivion, 30,000 feet above the earth – such a beautiful thing indeed.
Then comes the real sonic heart of the album (and, perhaps, of Underworld’s whole career thereafter). ‘Cowgirl’ is one of these tracks that seems to exist in a universe all of its own. One imagines futuristic games such as rollerball being ferociously played to death, thanks to the manic speed of this track. It follows the rules and regulations of the word classic damned near to the letter – a snagging hook line, a slow (almost snail-like) build up, an underlying sense of tension and explosion right from the get go: it really could not be any better.
Rather than stand out as the exception to the rule, Cowgirl is both joined and surrounded by a real dense sonic patchwork of tracks such as ‘Spoonman’, ‘Tongue’ and the all-too-aptly-named ‘River Of Bass’, each of which serves to complement and expand upon its themes, air and beats while also adding their own special ingredients to the brew.
This could be more funk, it could be an even more menacing bassline or it could simply again be Karl Hyde dementedly rabbiting gibberish in your ear, just daring you not to lose it along with him (whatever ‘it’ is in the first place). Hyde is ably backed up by a real dense sonic patchwork of sound which complements, rather than swamps, his pretty instrument.
Hyde’s lyrics get deep inside your head – whether you want them to or not. Even at this early stage, he was (and still is) a master of the memorable hook phrase, which you will now be repeating for evermore, should you wish to or not. These words get deep inside your head and, while what they mean may not be important, the feelings of sheer joy, terror and sonic electrification which these phrases manage to convey, means everything.
Underworld play, programme and sample throughout as though their lives depended upon it. This album was clearly years in the planning and it sounds (now) at times as though they thought it would be the only one they would ever get the chance to make. Put simply, though they have produced a fine body of quality work since they would never be this good again.