Underworld’s “Moon in Water,” a “Low Burn,” and a “DRIFT” in four parts

I probably should start with early Underworld, and work my way towards the post -Darren Emerson phase. That’s essentially everything before 2000, which would be the proper way to introduce these progressive pioneers of the house, techno, and trance arenas.

Underworld are essentially legends in the annals of electronic music. They chart way back to 1980, with founding members Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, who are curiously also graphic designers, but came to power in the early ’90s, with the addition of Emerson into the band. The combined result of their talents yielded the seminal ’94 album “Dubnobasswithmyheadman,” and it’s brilliant ’96 follow-up “Second Toughest in the Infants.” Electronic music never quite sounded the same after those two.

Anyway, when it came to these Brits, that’s the material I always thought I’d start with. And if you haven’t checked out those albums, you definitely should. They’re practically required listening for fans of the genre. But tonight, I’ve chosen instead to focus on a couple of new-ish tracks, meaning in the last decade or so, mainly because they seem to pop up on my shuffle-ized playlist more times than I can count. I also like them quite a bit.

Plus, there’s this project titled “Drift” that Underworld embarked on last November, where they promised to release new material on a weekly basis for an entire year. So far, there’s four compilations in the series, each with 5-6 songs, all of mixed ideas, styles, accessibility, and experimentation. It’s truly fascinating, and the original reason I wanted to direct tonight’s attention to Underworld in the first place. I guess, I should’ve lead with that. Oh well …

Back to my original post/thought … The first track that caught my ear is “Moon in Water,” from the 2010 album “Barking.” To be honest, I haven’t paid much attention to the latter years of Underworld, or more precisely, the post-Emerson era. But I have wavered in and out of their catalogue from time to time, particularly when they tour the states, which isn’t all that often. I think the last time I saw them was back in ’15 at the Hollywood Bowl.

So “Moon in Water” is one of those tracks that I’ve been hearing a lot in recent months, yet never really latched onto when it was initially released. It doesn’t particularly sound like Underworld of old. But that’s totally okay. It’s a bit more lax, almost simplistically minimal in its melodies, slightly chilled, yet still vocally abstract in a way that’s characteristic of all things, prior and recent. I guess I gravitate towards its ease and clarity, as well as the lucidly progressive cycle of hypnotic motifs, which although repetitive, feel just like welcoming rhythmic comfort food.

Here’s Underworld in chillwave mode with “Moon in Water.”

“Moon in the Water” from the 2010 album “Barking.”

Curiously, while I’ve been settling into this post-Emerson Underworld groove, I’ve actually been finding quite a bit to enjoy. That’s how I ended up with “Low Burn,” which has also been heavy in the playlist rotations. This one’s a bit more akin to the early days, more up-tempo, dreamy yet driving, vocally abstract in a slightly softer lyrical offering from frontman Hyde.

I hear that it’s one they play in their live shows. They didn’t for the Bowl in ’15, but that makes sense, since “Low Burn” was released a year later on the album “Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future.” Also, I might add that particular album has been growing on me with each subsequent listen. Like I said, kinda wish I paid more attention in the last decade.

Here’s Underworld’s “Low Burn” from their last proper album.

“Low Burn” from the 2016 album “Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future.”

That brings me to the “DRIFT” series, of which there’s four EP releases (to date), compiling the weeks of material since last November, amounting to 35 or so new songs. There’s a few more singles that have been released since. But for tonight, I’ll just embed these four.

First off is “Episode 1: DUST.” The underlying tone of this first batch is analog and fast techno, reminiscent of something Richie Hawtin might spin in his DJ sets. But the last track, titled “A Very Silent Way,” is the odd one out, a weirdly rambling improv of meandering guitar, flittering cymbals, a drunken strummed bass, and a destination that doesn’t seem anything near to earthbound. It’s practically jazz at it’s most freeform, definitely experimental, as well as lounge-y in a semi-fucked up way. It also features a piano trio from Australia called The Necks.”

DRIFT Episode 1 “DUST” (2018).

The second batch, “Episode 2: ATOM,” is a slightly more accessible affair, less aggressive and raw, more melodic and refined. There’s still some dance-floor busters to be had. I’m particularly fond of “Brussels,” which starts with some harsher beats, yet settles into a subdue dreamlike groove.

I might add that it’s interesting to observe the tonal evolution from track to track, even if its a bit of a zig-zag more than a straight line. Here, the harsher edges that characterized the start of the “DRIFT” project are now whittled and tuned into more realized and ready harmonics.

My favorite from this one is another collaboration with The Necks, titled “Appleshine Continuum,” which is a whopping 47 minute psychedelic prog-synth dance-trance groove.

DRIFT Episode 2 “ATOM” (2019)

“Episode 3: HEART” is a more ambient rhythmic excursion. These some grooves to be had. But for the most part, these are downtempo affairs. I particularly like the smooth R&B roll of “Dune” and the exotic cabaret sax of “Poet Cat.”

DRIFT Episode 3 “HEART” (2019)

The last and most recent release is “Episode 4: SPACE,” which starts like vintage Underworld, then ventures off into some tangential ambient dub and trip-hop abstractions, all to return to back to their dancefloor roots.

If I’m going to go old school, I’d single out the opener “Listen to Their No,” which holds the most euphoric vibe of all these new songs. And if I’m going to set my sights on the more divergent numbers, I’ll pick “Altitude Dub,” which is, as its title states, a dubby affair.
This one’s painted with an electro-noir haze, moody and melodic, with flourishes of beauty that drift in and out of the smokey mood and brood. Cool stuff.

DRIFT Episode 4 “HEART” (2019)

Once the “DRIFT” project’s complete, I’ll be interested to see how all this material stacks up. I’m guessing I’ll like some tracks more than others, as I already do. And while some pieces will seem more like fragments and ideas, others will feel fully complete and realized. I’m sure they’ll be at least a couple of albums’ worth of solid material. And perhaps, when all is said and done, they’ll refine, revise, reconstruct, and whittle it all down to a more concise and focused offering. Finger’s crossed.

That’s all I got for tonight. I was almost going to conclude this post with some footage from that ’15 Hollywood Bowl show. But I think I’ll save that for another night … maybe a focus on the Emerson years, of which that show featured mostly material from that influential period. Anyhow, I’m not sure it fits with this particular batch of more recent Underworld offerings. Plus, I’m tired, out of words, and I’m pretty sure I’ve meandered a bit during the duration of this writing. Hopefully, it’s not too incoherent. Until the next one …