As the title might suggest, Underworld’s seventh album finds them not returning to the source of their success but facing forward and forging a new creative path, and, after an initial listen it is hard not to feel that their recording hiatus and pursuit of other creative avenues has influenced their refreshed outlook.
For one of electronica’s most seminal bands there would always be the expectation that they had out-stayed their welcome; that the acts they had inspired would overtake them creatively. The break since 2010’s Barking saw the duo work with Danny Boyle on his stage production of Frankenstein and also soundtrack the director’s 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony. Underworld’s production half Rick Smith teamed up once more with Boyle to organise the soundtrack for Trance while vocalist/instrumentalist Karl Hyde recorded a solo album and two works with Brian Eno. It was clear that after Barking, from the level of work they had committed to, that there was no creativity lacking but a desire to refresh their individual inspiration. Like Leftfield proved last year with the dense, contemporary sound of Alternative Light Source, Underworld have regrouped and are ready to push onto the next phase of their electronic journey.
Opener ‘I Exhale’ throws the listener straight into one of the album’s highlights. It’s a groaning beast of a song, recalling the stomp of 70s glam rock coated in an electronic gauze. As Hyde proclaims “Things/ start happening” we get ushered into a swirling sandstorm – it is slow in pace but layered with such attention that it will envelope the armchair listener as well as those lucky enough to witness them live this year.
From this intense opener through to the lull of the mid section we are treated to a band reinvigorated. Even the sombre sitar of ‘Santiago Curato’ is not out of place, letting Underworld flex their creative muscles and broaden the scope of the album – this track and follow up ‘Motorhome’ show that this is no retread; they are still brimming with as many new ideas as when ‘Born Slippy/Nuxx’ defined the musical tastes of a generation of club-goers.
As the final act of the album slides into tempo with ‘Ova Nova’ they masterfully prove that they can still cut tracks that are not only miles ahead of their Top 40 counterparts but also considerably more inventive – it would be right at home on daytime radio or the floor of any club.
It is testament to the relationship that the duo have formed over the years that this record feels in no way a cash in – there are ideas spilling over the edges. While the finale retreads much of the album’s material – perhaps a tad lazily and somewhat of a mistep – it is the only element that stops this from being a true classic, though this is a minor complaint.
Barbara, Barbara We Face a Shining Future is one of those records that demands a repeat listen and unlike the current waft of dance acts that litter the radio like pretenders to a throne that is far from vacant, Underworld deserve kudos for striving for artistic betterment – the sense of hope in the album’s title pointing to where the gleaming years ahead might bring us.