Underworld: Dubnobasswithmyheadman [part 3]

undrworld - dirtyepicUSCD5A[continued from previous post]

“Dirty Epic” managed to maintain my interest for another ten minutes. After the palate cleanser of “Tongue,” it formed another pair of strong songs anchoring the second half of the album. The low-bpm track had a piano figure loop that emerged after the long track’s halfway point and it sort of reminded me Book Of Love’s cover of “Tubular Bells.” The appearance of guitar lines at the same mid-point added a bit of messiness to the long, relentlessly paced, methodical track. The one chaotic element to the song was Karl Hyde’s vocals, which continually added cryptic lyrics that kept my interest on the repetitive song.

underworld - cowgirlUSCDAThen, the track segued to the next number; one that occupied my mind at awakening this morning. “Cowgirl.” It opened with a synthetic jaw harp and Hyde looping the world “everything.” Then other lyrical fragments were looped and added against that backdrop, gradually building up in complexity with tambourine loops until the track was ready for the drum machines. The relentless, rhythmic buildup just kept building up in intensity as Hyde’s voice dropped in and out of the mix. Synth solos hit a third the way through as the track’s momentum kept building up. When Hyde returned to the track he was singing in almost a talking blues style that was most effective. His vocals were filtered and certain hook phrases were looped throughout the song and then the drop occurred at about six minutes in for some squelchy synths, the temptation to hear Martha Wash sing “everybody dance now” could be almost excused. The track’s coda was fully instrumental and went out cooking before fading out on a placid note.

It set the mood for the next track, “River Of Bass,” a low-key track that was Underworld’s version of reggae as they saw it. The gentle shaker percussion and deep bass chords were joined by a tiny guitar lick here and there. Vocal samples were pulse-gated for an abstract feel throughout the 6:29 track. The languid chill-out vibe was an effective comedown to the intensity that “Cowgirl” had culminated in. That was followed by the final track, “M.E.” It was the closest thing to an Underworld MKI track here, and given that the cut was “Mother Earth” from a 1992 one-off single that suggested the direction in which the band would immediately go following their first phase, that makes sense. It’s certainly the most conventionally song-like track here. It fit here in spite of its conventionality, due largely to the reggae-like bassline here that carried on from the previous song. The vocoder that got a lot of use in Underworld MK I was dusted off here and Rick Smith’s jazzy piano solo near the end of the song was a pleasing way to end a sometimes intense album.

The ability of the band to modulate the energy levels, sequenced throughout a long 73 minute album, showed ultimately, that “Dubnobasswithmyheadman” fulfilled the high end of my expectations for it. For decades, I imagined that if anyone could make this work, The Band Formerly Known As Freur® could. This I put down to their innate musicality, having come to dance music from something more conventional. At its best, the material here was certainly connected to the Welsh band with the icon for a name. And even at its worst: the merely faceless tracks “Surfboy and “Spoonman” were still eons better than wrist-slitting techno/electronica I have had the displeasure to hear and even own.

shriekback - scaredcityGREEKLPAAgain, I harken back to the time that Karl Hyde threw in with Shriekback for their “Sacred City” album of 1992. Even Freur had that je ne sais quoi that aligned them with Shriekback in my mind as being on the artier side of Post-Punk, so when Hyde participated in that 1992 album, it was not jarring to me. It made more sense than much of what Underworld MK I had done prior. Again, I’d point to not only the inclusion of the proto-Underworld MK II track “Bastard Sons Of Enoch” on that album as a link, but also to the cover art by John Warwicker/Tomato as another thread of shared DNA between the two bands as they blended their genetic traits before Hyde and Smith had emerged from their chrysalis renewed.

At the end of the day, I fairly enjoyed “Dubnobasswithmyheadman.” It was more interesting than most of Underworld MKI, which was faceless in worse ways than the worst of this album. The best of this album allied closely with Shriekback for me with its dark, insidious dance music that you didn’t need to dance to if you weren’t of that persuasion. Did it trump Freur? Not even close. I hold a brightly burning candle for that band as one of my close, personal favorites things in the 80s, but I already have purchased another Underworld CD; this one from their post-Emerson phase. I seriously need to give it a spin after having listened to this for much  of my week and see how it stacks up.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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6 Responses to Underworld: Dubnobasswithmyheadman [part 3]

  1. Echorich says:

    Dirty Epic rises up from the chillout opening to build to a comfortable level and expand out instead up. Hyde carries the track here for me. It’s only equivalent I can think of is the music The Beloved was exploring on Happiness, but even that was much harder edged.
    Then there’s Cowgirl. You certainly don’t need chemical enhancement for this brilliant track to invade your mind and spread like a welcome musical virus. There’s a sort of sleazy blues feel that underpins the song as it builds and builds. It’s a track built for the dancefloor as well as the one in your mind. Rhythmic repetition at its best.
    Monk you are spot on with your comparison of River of Bass and Shriekback. Art Rock on the dancefloor – leftfield in every way.
    Ending with M.E., Underworld reminds us that they know how to put together a good pop song.

    I have to say that I would be let down by most of their output after Dubnobassinmyheadman. I have always put this down to Darren Emerson’s increased influence on the the direction of the band as well as my personal move away from this side of the House/Dance world back towards a more soulful, deep sound. When the pared back down to a duo of Smith and Hyde in the early 2000’s I admit I found a lot more time for them – 2010’s Scribble single a personal favorite of the new millennium.

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  2. nick says:

    Dirty Epic is the one that, still to this day, sends shivers down my spine because it evokes such personal memories. The opening ‘boom’ sets it off so well [ have to agree with Echorich here concerning The Beloved, having just recalled ‘Your Love Takes Me Higher [ Calyx of Is..]. I have always thought that John Foxx did some backing vocals on this – listen to ‘her comes Christ o crutches’ ??

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    • cdave2 says:

      No Foxx connection to my knowledge – it’s definitely Hyde singing “Christ on crutches” – but you’ve nailed one of my favorite passages in the song. Because Hyde once described “Dirty Epic” as “a journey,” it became the shadow sister of “Trans Europe Express” for me: a tour of the obsessive thoughts circling within one’s own head in addition to its evolving sonic vistas.

      Years later (last July in fact), I witnessed a stunning live performance in which Hyde dramatically evoked the wounded self-loathing within the lyrics – I hadn’t realized how bitter the song was until then and was floored to hear a longtime favorite redefined so vividly. Thankfully, he now seems to be years beyond that place – these days, although Underworld’s music retains a very human shadow, it’s centered within a very well-lit space.

      Nice write-up, Monk! Thanks for taking the time and wishing you and Mrs. Monk a very happy 2016!

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  3. critterjams says:

    Glad you liked this one. I agree with the other commenters, UW occupy a space that’s a bit outside of what came to be known as house or techno music, and I think that’s why they’ve done so well over the years. dubnobass has always been a huge favorite of mine, an intersection between electro, New Wave, and prog…

    You may want to seek out some of the nonalbum tracks that were done around this time. “Rez” is an absolute classic, the tune that eventually became “Cowgirl” (live shows segue the two together), pure symphonic techno bliss. “Thing in a Book” is a 20 minute epic that may be one of their greatest (and chillest) tunes. “Dark Train” became a hit, supposedly a remix of “Dark and Long”, but there’s almost no similarity there. “Most ‘Ospitable”…gorgeous.

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