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LIVE REPORT: Underworld
Julian Marszalek , October 24th, 2014 10:32

Julian Marszalek defies spatial contrictions to revisit the "shifting chemical tastes of the mid-90s" at the Royal Festival Hall. Photo by Victor Frankowski

Much like The Velvet Underground's debut LP or The Birthday Party's Junkyard, Underworld's Dubnobasswithmyheadman – now celebrating its 20th anniversary - had a profound effect on my life. Here was an album - and crucially it is an album, a continual thematic journey into the underbelly of London and its outer suburbs, rather than a loosely hanging collection of material – that took the beats and grooves of the first generation of dance music into previously uncharted waters and expanded its vernacular to a much wider audience. This was music that worked just as well on and off the dancefloor.

It's a uniquely British album, and one that takes a surrealistic view of the capital, its nightlife and the enduring appeal and lure it holds over those from the outside who dip and out of it on a daily and nightly basis. Rather ironically, it proved to be my passport to New York's twilight demi-monde of afterhours establishments and mixed nightclubs when I moved there for two years in the mid-90s. Meeting people who were switched on to the album's twisted charms led to the introduction of establishments fuelled by hedonism and abandon and populated by characters that easily have come from the grooves of Lou Reed's Transformer. Their debut US gig at the Irving Plaza in June 1996 on the back of their Second Toughest In The Infants album drew together a crowd of ex-pats and nightlife freaks who united in a celebration of unabashed dancing that continued well in to the early hours. Not bad for a Tuesday night and the memory of the Wednesday comedown lingers as long as the events the night before.

If any one album deserves the celebration treatment then it's Dubnobasswithmyheadman, but whoever thought that staging a dance event in the seated environs of the Royal Festival Hall needs a serious talking to. For sure, one can appreciate the logic behind it. Underworld follow an illustrious list of artists who have graced its stage over the years and admittedly the venue does lend a gravitas to the event, but its restrictive setting is akin to the BFI staging a Charlie Chaplin retrospective for the blind.

Consequently, your scribe's view is blocked for much of the first half of the set by an inept security representative who can't decide if people are allowed to stand or not by their seats to dance. Finally, like Canute, he realises that he can't hold back the tide and he's soon swept aside as people leave their seats from various corners of the venue to position themselves in the aisles of the front stalls and at the lip of the stage. The trouble is these are hardly conducive spaces for letting go and throwing shapes. Not that this matters for the vast majority of the forty-somethings who are content to frug away in their seats.

Yet despite all this, and a couple of technical glitches that at one point sees the pair of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith leave the stage when their gear packs up altogether, Underworld are on fine form. Hyde still does his twitchy dancing and knows how to strike a pose, while Smith maintains the air of a wartime boffin as he twiddles knobs and flicks switches on his unfeasibly huge desk. The opening pulses of 'Dark And Long' are as much a warning sign as they are a welcoming invitation and within seconds we're plunged into that world that exists between the setting of the sun and its later re-emergence where it acts more as God's flashlight as it blinds the nocturnal creatures for whom the cover of darkness acts as a fuel. Its ability to convey that sense of anticipation for what the night brings remains undiminished over the passing of the decades. Similarly, the urban landscape viewed from "thirty thousand feet above the earth" feels as evocative, dangerous and seductive as it ever did. The metropolitan landscapes of cities such as London and New York are like German Shepherds; treat them with respect and you'll be fine but the moment you start to fuck around with them and they'll quickly bite your ass.

Hyde proves to be a little hesitant at first as if he's seeking solace and security behind his microphone and lectern but as the set progresses ever onwards, his legs begin to shift and move before sending the motion up to his Breton sweater-covered torso. So it is that as 'Spoonman' sees Hyde move in earnest as the chemically induced urban tension is driven along by Smith's work behind the consul.

As with the album, so tonight's highlights prove to be 'Dirty Epic' and 'Cowgirl'. The former, a lachrymose observation on the commodification of sex and the subsequent loss of emotion in the face of objectification, spits once again at the notion that machine made music is cold and lacking in humanity. Conversely, the dance monster that is 'Cowgirl' shows an outpouring of emotion from the audience who fill the aisles of the Royal Festival Hall and you can't help but admire those people whose eyes are rolling as hard as the music.

The first of the encores sees Hyde blowing into harp during 'Bigmouth' but it's the second and unplanned encore of 'Born Slippy: Nuxx' that displays the difference between the world of Dubnobasswithmyheadman and the shifting chemical tastes of the mid-90s which still resonate to this day.

Full marks to the music that easily stands the test of time though a shake of the head is well in order over the choice of venue. Nonetheless, the themes explored in Dubnobasswithmyheadman resonate across the decades which makes it as valid a statement now as it was then.

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