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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

'Oblivion With Bells' a failed experiment

UK duo Underworld moves away from dance on new album.

Oct. 16, 2007

Underworld has always been a little hard to peg.

Attempts (in vain) to label the band typically end up in a blissed-out grocery list of influences: dance, trance, trip hop, techno, ambient, kitchen sink.

In its role as one of the few electronic acts to survive the '90s rave craze, Karl Hyde (the man at the mic) and Rick Smith (the man at the board) have long championed the club stompers, but the London duo has traded sweaty clubs for dark bedrooms on its recent release, Oblivion with Bells.

And like the band's genre, this latest move is a gamble.

In the good ol' daze of acid house, Underworld proved itself a formidable blip on the music radar through its insistence upon staying under it.

Even before the band's electro epic "Born Slippy" sold thousands of copies off the Trainspotting soundtrack, Hyde's stream of consciousness lyrics, paired with darkly propulsive synthesizer, made the band's songs hits — instant gratification in a dance world that ignored the hitmaker.

On Oblivion with Bells, the band's fifth full-length release, Underworld is back from a five-year silence with what seems like an extreme fear of the pigeonhole.

This is a band that tries hard not to be labeled, and the end result is an experiment for the sake of being

experimental.

Although the album is evidence that The Chemical Brothers aren't the only band that can mix things up, it might be proof that it's the only one that should.

As opening tracks go, "Crocodile" is a surprising one, a funky far cry from the omnipotent pulsing that is often hard to escape on Underworld albums.

Instead, the song's soft synthesizer builds slowly until an orchestra unfurls in the background, laying an atmospheric foundation the majority of the album builds on.

It's not the aggressive rap-speak we're used to, and it ends uncomfortably close to ubiquitous party mix

territory.

The song's successor, "Beautiful Burnout" picks up the pace without lifting spirits. Hyde robotically bleats, "Burnt on the tissue on the floor of a train ... Burnt ... Chrome," an unsettling picture of urban decay.

It's good to know that Hyde hasn't lost his ability to nail the plight of everyman in incisive, sometimes cryptic, lyrical focus.

It would be better to know he could maintain it.

"Faxed Invitation" finds Hyde detachedly abstracting on human nature.

"Mmm deep voice, dome head, chewing behind the glass eyes and walking on the piss stains of a beautiful day/Craving company and legs." It's this short-circuit voyeurism that removes Underworld from the company of its silent and sensible peers, and the fragmented rhythm brings back the danceability the album lacks as a whole.

Oblivion with Bells, although a return to frenetic kick drums, computer-distorted vocals and urban observation, is a more passive aggressive, less club-friendly

Underworld.

Hyde and Smith, with the help of Darren Price, have left behind the frenzy of movement with which the success of Dubnobasswithmyheadman was equated to and have fallen into unfamiliarly ambient territory listeners won't be able to dance themselves out of.

On Oblivion, Underworld falls prey to the grand design, the pressure to try something new — anything — to resist being pegged as

predictable.

And it's too late.

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