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With the recent U.S. release of Second Toughest in the Infants, Underworld--Karl Hyde and Rick Smith (the duo once led a God-awful Europop band called Freur) and hotshot rave deejay Darren Emerson--continues to graft the rock aesthetic onto the techno form.
Lyrics have traditionally been taboo in techno, unless they were disembodied strings of sounds ripped from the mouths of divas, or looped phrases taken from another artist's recording. But starting last year with its first album, the England-only release Dubnobasswithmyheadman, Underworld cracked that mold by melding Emerson's seamless mixing and sampling skills with Hyde's live guitar and vocals and Smith's keyboards (Smith also programs samples for the band).
Like techno's crossover champion Moby--whom Hyde dismisses as "kind of a cartoon character"--Underworld was instantly reviled by rave purists for incorporating outside elements and taking the art of techno beyond the studio to the live stage.
Half rock concert, half rave, Underworld shows are frequently four hours long and see Fender amps stacked next to a 32-track mixing board that takes center stage. The band's even been known to destroy a piece of equipment or two, Pete Townshend-style.
Guitar-smashing performances aside, Underworld's new Second Toughest in the Infants is about as straightahead as a krautrock recording, the band's techno-colored dreams more about beats and textures than narrative thread.
"Our roots are in dance, and rhythm comes first," Hyde says from his label's New York office, "although vocals and guitar were heavily integrated and not just laid over the top. What we do is try and take from the best of traditional instrument-oriented groups and deejays, the way that, say, a great jazz improviser takes motifs and walks with them. Being in a band that really plays doesn't make us any less groovy or less of a dance act than someone playing to a backing tape.
"The thing about most traditional rock bands is that they will rehearse and be in some ways more programmed than most techno bands, and certainly more so than deejays."
On pulsating, trippy songs like "Pearl's Girl," the vocals are blended in as just another rhythm-enhancing instrument, evoking a mood or sense of place rather than a story. Hyde doesn't even term himself a vocalist, but a "producer of sounds out of my mouth."
"My words are very specific to place and time," Hyde says. "I write everywhere I go, things I associate with where I am. Every song we've done is from a place. I could pinpoint it on a map. I get off on urban environments because they're so information-intense, so, consequently, my books just fill up with lists of events that happen along a train journey or a night in a bar, some alleyway in some city. Add water and reconstitute the place again." While "Stagger" conjures up London's Soho neighborhood, "Pearl's Girl" invokes the notorious red-light district of Hamburg, Germany.
Keeping Hyde's obvious fascination with seedy underbellies in mind, the producers of the film Trainspotting, an adaptation of Irvine Welsh's black-hearted novel of Scottish ravers and drug addicts, were adamant about incorporating Underworld's music into the soundtrack. "Dark Train" is used to chilling effect during an overdose scene, while "Nux/Born Slippy" closes the film. Hyde says that the single had become something of an anthem for beer boys, which made him realize how easily any lyrics, whether hazy or concrete, are open to gross misinterpretation.
"That really upset me," Hyde says, "because we meant to say the opposite thing about that kind of life. People can become just pieces of meat when they get off their face, and it was the film that actually put the song back into context. When this one character is revealed as just a nasty piece of work, the music kicks in. That moment was more powerful than a book of lyrics.