I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
When I was in college in the 1990s, there was a show on MTV called AMP, a late-night electronic/techno video hour, perfect for winding down after an alcohol-soaked evening. Remember that show? It was pretty cool, and it introduced me to a subgenre I hadn’t yet explored at that time. The videos were trippy and imaginative, and some programmer at MTV should be commended for actually taking a chance on the stuff. This all happened as alternative media was championing techno and “electronica” – which of course had offshoots like big beat, IDM, house, etc. – as the new frontier in popular music, the genre that was going to give alternative rock a run for its money. Labels pushed The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, The Crystal Method, and others into the public’s CD-buying consciousness (gosh, remember how cool record stores used to be?), hoping for an influx in capital to bolster record sales. It turned out to be a big PR stunt: electronica never caught on in a big way, and the scene quickly faded back into its happy little niche, the artists content to compose for themselves and their specific audience. Marketing execs surely were canned. Somebody had to pay for Keith Flint’s piercings and tattoos.
And so it was that I was introduced to electronic music. As much as this whole social exercise opened me up to these different styles, it wasn’t until years later that I truly became a fan. I was really choosy to begin with. Burned by crummy BT and Paul Oakenfold records (“No dude, John Digweed is awesome!”), I needed a break. But Underworld was different for me – somehow I got them, I figured out what they were doing. Yes, back in 1997/1998. I admit I had some help though in the form of a sleeper film by Danny Boyle called Trainspotting which featured a little (if a 10-minute song constitutes “little”), well-placed tune called “Born Slippy [Nuxx].” In my opinion, this was the highlight of the late-1990s electronica movement – plaintive vocals over treated piano give way to the most powerful big-beat mayhem laid to tape at that point. Perfect for the ending of the film. Appropriately cinematic, then a big left turn. And thus my fascination with Underworld was born.
Beaucoup Fish came out in 1999, and it had been a couple years since “Born Slippy” caused people to take notice, so the album didn’t garner front-page status upon its release. In fact, it seems somewhat relegated to also-ran status, at least from my perspective as a casual observer. It also saw Underworld going in a smoother, more streamlined and downbeat direction, and while there are a couple of moments on the album worth getting riled up over, primary players Karl Hyde, Rick Smith, and Darren Emerson tone down the tubthumping of earlier anthems, veering instead into more trancey territory. This is not a bad thing, in my opinion. Opener “Cups,” all 11:45 of it, doesn’t hesitate to introduce us to the “new-and-improved” Underworld, as a throbbing bass supports electric piano and treated vocals over a smooth, light 4/4 beat. It’s as though this track was tailor made for your playback program’s full-screen visualizer function. And the surprising thing is that it holds your attention over its runtime – weird, I know, but you can really lose yourself in it. In fact, tracks 1 through 4, lasting 32 minutes in total (!), are the strongest on the record. “Push Upstairs,” the first single, features a nice start-stop rhythm and taut piano runs, and about halfway through synth lines cut in and swirl about, thickening up the soup. “Jumbo” sounds like you’re riding a nigh-frictionless bullet train in a futuristically lighted underground tunnel, such is its weightlessness – contradicting its title – and breathability. “Shudder / King of Snake” hearkens back to the big beats of Second Toughest in the Infants.
But what happens after that? Beaucoup Fish, unfortunately, gets a bit bogged down in meditative hogwash like “Winjer” and “Skym,” losing the steam it so successfully built up over the strong front four. “Bruce Lee” is kind of the outlier as the kickoff to the final third, and “Kittens,” despite its name, kicks some serious ass – much more than “Bruce Lee,” if you can believe it. In fact, I fantasize about busting heads in a Guy Ritchie film, Jason Statham-style, when I’m listening to “Kittens.” But then the record downshifts again to its worst stretch, the mouthy and boring “Push Downstairs” and the atrocious “Something Like a Mama” – if the latter’s title doesn’t signal you away from it, don’t say I didn’t warn you – it throws up red flags instead of shapes. Fortunately “Moaner,” a big beat anthem over which Karl Hyde spouts nonsense, closes the record on a fun high note.
It’s a shame that Beaucoup Fish stumbles as much as it does toward the end, because I can’t reiterate enough how good the first four songs are. They draw you in and win you over, before Underworld pulls the fun plug. And while “Born Slippy” was a singular phenomenon aided unmistakeably by its prominence in Trainspotting, a couple tunes here come close to matching that high (if not quite making it). That should at least be enough to warrant an exploratory listen.
RIYL: The Chemical Brothers, Gus Gus, Daft Punk