Second Toughest In The Infants (Reissue)

As the MDMA-fuelled 90s ticked their hand past noon, a scything electric guitar echoed over the wind from Romford. Waves lapped against lake shores and river fronts, over oceans and across the private dimensions of electro-shocked dreamers. There is sanctuary yonder, it seemed to whisper.

Or so Underworld’s 1996 album Second Toughest In The Infants beckoned and bewitched. Twenty years on from its birth, its soft handcrafted synths and angular go-for-the-jugular beats remain perfect forms of juxtaposed calm and menace. Shaded with the synesthetic observations and word-streams of singer Karl Hyde, it’s a Dickensian masterstroke of British techno.

To mark this milestone, the band and its storied home label Junior Boys Own take us back with a deluxe reissue, including an immersive remaster, revelations in the form of ‘Born Slippy’ live demos and three album’s worth of B-sides and unreleased gems. Every true electronic music lover should have it. For longtime fans, it will make you feel infinitely youthful.

For those new to Underworld, the edge of a great continent awaits, from when rave was a collective virtual reality, the "dreamtime" of a new highly interconnected global folk. On the outskirts of London in Romford, Essex, the bard Hyde, studio wizard Rick Smith and a young DJ Darren Emerson reinforced that freedom with working-class faith, stray dogs, broken glass, restless circuits and grit – connecting the “water on stone, the water on concrete, the water on sand, the water on fire, smoke…”   

Those lyrics from the album’s peak song, ‘Pearl’s Girl’, capture Infants‘ gentle yet explosive power in fractal frames. Tied to rhythm, they reflect an era of immense creative energy. The music itself floods Hyde into a rubber-band room of breakbeats – fierce, elemental, tempered – a madness that alone sees the truth. The speed of light crackles in our fists. We snap to:

”Old man Einstein, crazy in his attic.

Wise room, sun room, shadow room

Night transmitting cars across the room.

These things sent to dance across the room.

I’m watching from your bed, returning to you.”   

Underworld embrace with daring escapes. ‘Rowla’ pounds the ground under scratching static. ‘Blueski’ entwines three guitars, each ringing from Hyde’s fingers, trailed by Smith’s slow filmic tones. The closing ‘Stagger,’ recorded in one live take, spirals its piano high as Hyde’s "straight in" pings like a steady submarine, a twanging whir carrying him past drums into harbour.

And still more great works lie ahead, all classics beyond genre. The b-side ‘Cherry Pie’ shimmers in a cosmic sea. ‘Oich Oich’ unfolds in a dub trance, splashing and hushing, its guitar strummed with stoic grace, echoed in the robot country blues of ‘Mosaic’. The original instrumental ‘Born Slippy’ lights your neurons in a polyrhythmic full spectrum blaze.

But the best gift here is the wealth of previously unheard songs and experiments. It proves just how bright Underworld’s sun burns. Not one of them is throwaway. ‘Bug’ moves to a snake-hissing groove deep in an electro swamp, smiling from a rocking chair. The languid funk of ‘D’Arbly St’ struts under the same full moon as Aphex Twin and Stevie Wonder, woozy and virtuoso. Jungle rhythms spring on ‘D&B Thing,’ its cold Wendy Carlos synths dripping from icicles. ‘Bing Here’ bounces in a hypnotic repose. ‘Bloody 1’ zips bullet trains by in the midnight distance.   

Last come several live recordings and demos that evolved into Underworld’s most famous track, ‘Born Slippy’, immortalised in the closing scene of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. The range is astounding, best heard on a ‘Liquid Room’ live recording from Tokyo in 1994, which at the seven-minute mark drops into a joyous groove of skittering riffs and zero gravity weaves.

As you listen, it allows for quiet reflection. Of one idea exchanged with enough time to be re-imagined by another. The thrill of anticipation anchored in communion. From the beginning of Infants, Underworld know who they are. A quarter into its 16-minute opening on ‘Juanita’, Hyde answers the acid house revolution with a three-stroke guitar riff. It clangs five times.

Then his voice reports from the shore with timeless longing:

"Walking in the wind at the water’s edge

Comes close to covering my rubber feet

Listening to the barbed wire hanging.”

You look up at the overcast sky, searching for a winged thing catching rays. Second Toughest In The Infants is an attitude, an album that recedes into the future. We sleep awake again.

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