Underworld Oblivion With Bells

[Side One; 2007]

Styles: moody techno-pop
Others:  themselves

In 1993, Underworld unleashed their Mk2 full-length debut, Dubnobasswithmyheadman (Junior Boys Own), instantly becoming a touchstone release to many. It was quite a rejuvenation from the Mk1 sound palette that they mined in the ‘80s, thanks to the group trimming to Karl Hyde and Rick Smith while adding younger conspirator Darren Emerson to the mix. Subsequent albums, Second Toughest In The Infants and Beaucoup Fish -- in addition to the song "Born Slippy.nuxx," the track that catapulted the band into the spotlight -- secured their place within the pantheon of the halcyon generation with a rabidly loyal fanbase.

However, when they lost Darren Emerson to the glamor of the DJ world following the issuing of their live document Everything Everything, their creative future was put into question. He was, after all, considered to be a defining force behind their revitalized sound, and it certainly was on the Mk2 albums. When their fourth album proper arrived in the wake of this loss, it was a bit bloodless and by-the-familiar-numbers in comparison to the sacred trinity, confirming the fear that without him their vision would be lost.

Although this lackluster effect was an assured consequence of losing Emeson, any artist seeking to continue their practice needs to advance or risk redundancy. With Emerson now gone, the need for reanalysis was thrust upon them. And though A Hundred Days Off was a flawed step forward, it was certainly not the death knell that some announced. More realistically, it was a case of a false start to Underworld Mk3. They had underwent change before for the better, and they could certainly do so again; the talent was still there within the duo (perhaps this brief period could be referred to as Underworld Mk2.5).

Oblivion With Bells, while by no means a perfect record, is yet another step in their process of reexamination and readjustment that began with the online releases of The Riverrun Project, where the creative upswing of Mk3 officially began. While this release is ruminative in nature, the temperament isn't far removed from the classic record with which this release shares a striking visual resemblance. Dubnobass, though greatly dance-floor ready, was more comfortable sweating, observing, and hallucinating in sideline shadow than basking in the full strobe of the main floor. With this new full-length, they have recessed into this shadow once again, realigning themselves with a previous refocus in order to navigate a place for themselves in the now.

Lead single "Crocodile," a fitting opener with its sweet rush of euphoria nestled within dimly lit sinews of sweeps, tumble ‘n’ roll, and skyscratching vocals, is a mere prelude to its stunning successor and the highlight of the album. "Beautiful Burnout" restlessly shifts with Karl's treated vocals gliding through tonal flourishes, leading to a breakdown where the track all but disappears from sight before rebuilding upon a fluctuating percussive element that rises in rapture. "Holding the Moth" follows with Karl's vocals upfront against a soulful shuffle and glide rhythm embellished with delicate piano. Quite a few of the tracks on Oblivion gradually reveal their beauty with time, and this track is no exception.

Though most have criticized the more ambient slant to a number of the tracks, I welcome it. "To Heal" for example, which I feel certain was used for a sequence in the Danny Boyle film Sunshine, is a snippet, a stargazing interlude, where the criticism can be found in its brevity. It does achieve a considerable amount within such a small time frame, but it desires to be more. The gently pulsating "Glam Bucket" is yet another example where immediacy takes a backseat to hue and mood, as does the flickering smallness of "Faxed Invitation"; however, both tracks also suffer slightly from their too-brief appearances. Each of these tracks could have stretched out a considerable sum more; they feel as if they are just beginning to be explored when they reach their end. "Best Mamgu Ever" compensates, however, with its stuttering vocal loops, arpeggiated piano, and plaintive guitar lines reaching forth into celestial voices. The few minutes longer this track occupies creates a greater sense of completion, where the others fall just shy.

Oblivion With Bells' front-loaded sequencing is where the greatest sum of critical misunderstanding begins -- the climax comes first with the remainder of the story following. The greatest misstep lurks within the torturous exercise of "Boy Boy Boy," which I find simply unlistenable. I fully appreciate their ability to place song structure within the framework of techno, but the execution doesn't work in this context; it leaves me cringing. However, the elements of a fully realized and effective third phase are here within Oblivions' strongest moments. Their ability to invest their music with a wide-eyed beauty has attracted fans for the past 15 years, and it still exists within every note, specifically within the delicate beauty of their pop structures. Underworld Mk3 have not yet achieved the perfection of their three Mk2 albums, but I am confident they will with their future offerings.

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