Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future
, March 29th, 2016 19:24
Underworld's Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have never quite fit in. They are, in basic terms, creative shapeshifters in a dance music landscape that values genre and micro-genre artists. This has been as much by design as a consequence of the times in which they've lived and recorded. When house and techno producers manned the decks in the 80s and early 90s, Underworld turned the rave into performance spectacle, fusing live vocals, guitar and synths with mixed samples. And though craftsmen of some of the most identifiable dance tunes of the last few decades ('Born Slippy' 'NUXX' and 'Rez'), Underworld have also brought experimental graphic design, automatic poetry, and eclectic genre-hopping to dance, outputting their own brand of multimedia in the process.
But After 2011's Barking, it seemed as if the idea of Underworld had suddenly encountered some creative and sonic inertia. A bit of a surprise giving the genius of The Riverrun Project only five years earlier (see: 'I'm a Big Sister, and I'm a Girl, and I'm a Princess, and This Is My Horse'). Apart from some standout tracks ('Hamburg Hotel' and 'Scribble'), the oscillation between the duo’s long, hypnotic rave tracks and more experimental excursions, Barking showed some rhythmic and melodic homogeneity. But when I spoke to Hyde in late 2014, just as Underworld re-released their iconic debut LP Dubnobasswithmyheadman, he suggested the duo might return to some of their longer, stemwinding song structures of yore. This is true on their latest album, Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future – up to a point. There aren't any 10-minute plus tracks, but Hyde and Smith clearly dip into their past reservoir of maximalism without veering into nostalgic plagiarism.
When Underworld introduce the beat of album opener 'I Exhale', for about ten seconds there is some reason to worry. At best, the beat is glam-rockish. At worst, it sounds almost like Peaches. But any semblance of glam or electroclash disintegrates when the synths and drones appear, marking the track as more of Underworld’s attempt at updating Krautrock. Somehow, Hyde and Smith gradually mutate 'I Exhale' into a convincing dance track. It’s a celebratory return for Underworld, showing that not only have they not lost it, but they might never. But then 'If Rah' finds the duo slipping, as they so often do on albums, into a mid-tempo range. While it’s by no means a bad track, the song doesn’t quite work, though it will probably make for a solid live number.
With 'Low Burn', Underworld reassert themselves—not just on the album, but within their own history and the larger context of dance music. This is the track that Underworld fans live for. The one they hear in their mind, or with headphones on whilst moving on a train, airplane or dancefloor. It’s the pure, the essential Underworld. There is the galloping uptempo beat, the ambient synths spinning a warm cocoon, and arpeggios percolating here and there while Hyde spouts his automatic lyrics as a mantra: "time / first time / blush / be bold / be beautiful / free". And like the best Underworld tracks, its shape is that of a parabola—a crescendo that gives way to a cushioned come-down. It’s the type of sonic journey that Underworld has always done best, and it’s the clear highlight on Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future.
Then, out of left field, Underworld drop 'Santiago Cuatro', a mesmerising little interlude played on a cuatro, a Latin American instrument related to the guitar. As the song dissolves in static, the spare opening piano chords of 'Motorhome' sound. It's another mid-tempo track that sounds like Underworld reinterpreting the famous 'Baba O’Riley" synth arpeggio. It shouldn't work. The very notion sounds like absolute horror. Yet somehow, despite The Who ghosting this track, it works. And it works because Underworld let their experimental pop impulses override any potential it had of crashing miserably.
'Ova Nova', a melodic and rhythmic slow burn, is generally pleasing—the classic Underworld template updated for 2016. But it’s something of an hors d'oeuvres for album closer 'Nylon Strung', on which Underworld once again reclaim the momentum of their parabolic dance arcs. On it, Hyde, his daughter Tyler, and Esme Smith harmonise incredibly around the lyrics, "Open me up / I want to hold you, laughing". It's a bit too gentle to be a true Underworld club banger, but it does have the feel of a new anthem for the duo’s famously energetic live sets. And it’s a fitting finale to Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future, an album on which Underworld reestablish themselves as supreme dance music architects.