Oblivion With Bells
The new album by Underworld, Oblivion With Bells, hits stores- or free download sites, your choice- October 16, and wow, is it amazing. I’m still kicking myself for missing their Hollywood Bowl show in September, which I’m told was not just one of their best live shows, but one of the best live shows ever, by any band, anywhere. I’ve tried to console myself with the fact that I’ve seen them at least ten other times, but it doesn’t help.
That said, their 2002 album, A Hundred Days Off, showcased a band in a bit of a tailspin, playing with sounds but not giving off a whole lot of confidence that they knew what to do with them, resulting in half an album of songs that didn’t really go anywhere. Considering it came on the heels of the departure of bandmate/DJ Darren Emerson, who was with them on their three incredible albums in the 90s, it wasn’t a complete shock to hear Underworld sputter a bit. But I never expected them to come back with as much force and beauty as they do on Oblivion With Bells. The cover art hearkens back to their landmark first album (not counting their questionable 80s output) Dubnobasswithmyheadman, and there’s definitely a darkness to the music that hasn’t been heard by them in years. However, they’ve also updated their sound with a depth and layering to the songs that make other so called “electronic music” sound like something made by children.
Case in point: opening 1-2 punch “Crocodile” and “Beautiful Burnout,” the two songs running together in a 15 minute long story arc, underpinned with dark keyboard strokes reminiscent of Carl Craig, and punctuated with lead singer/guitarist Karl Hyde’s incredibly jazzy acoustic guitar, hidden deep in the mix but acting as an obvious counterpoint to the crazy, galloping beat. Don’t misunderstand, though; the band isn’t just going through the motions, aping other sounds and their own past. This is music for now, for today, for all of us who need hope to get through the days and nights of uncertainty that is 2007. And also for those of us who need beauty in our dance music.
They’ve incorporated a lot of new sounds as well that haven’t been heard in their music before. “Ring Road” starts off a bit like a “Bruce Lee” clone, with Hyde’s nearly shouted rap over a stuttering beat, but suddenly gives birth to what sounds like a Middle Eastern street carnival, the background palette filled up with chants and fluting whistles and what could be the laughter of children, the beat suddenly becoming full and huge, otherworldly. “To Heal” comes from soundtrack of the criminally ignored Danny Boyle film Sunshine, and it’s a beautiful instrumental piece, all elegiac synths and squiggles. It could be a fitting coda to their hallmark song “Born Slippy.”
There’s of course much, much more- the album flows from beginning to end, each listen rewarding patient ears with more and more details, a sonic depth heretofore only hinted at in Underworld’s music. And it’s also danceable as hell, along with being perfect night driving music. Oblivion With Bells is, indeed, Underworld’s triumph.