Underworld review – born-again dance legends show no sign of slipping

Sydney Opera House
Karl Hyde and Rick Smith level the Opera House with a relentless two-hour set that doesn’t stop to draw breath

On Rust Never Sleeps, Neil Young sang: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” But what if you’re two sixtyish techno artists whose works have always evoked a steely futurism? Well, based on Underworld’s thrilling set at the Sydney Opera House on Tuesday night, a third option exists.

The Opera House, being a seated venue, is an exceedingly odd choice for a dance act – a bit like driving Robyn Nevin to the Hordern Pavilion and demanding she open for the Prodigy. Nonetheless, any fears that the venue that hosted Dame Joan Sutherland’s final performance might keep a lid on outbreaks of dancefloor euphoria are soon allayed as Karl Hyde and Rick Smith whip the crowd into a frenzy with the build and release of Mmm Skyscraper I Love You, the thrilling Juanita and a bludgeoning rendition of I Exhale, the opening track from their latest (and Grammy-nominated) album, Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future, which has been hailed as something of a creative rebirth.

Indeed, with a frenzied two-hour set in which they hardly stop for breath, Hyde, the group’s self-proclaimed “poet, philosopher, bullshit artist”, and musical mastermind Smith bulldoze any reservations the crowd might have about the venue.

As documented on their 2000 live album, Everything Everything, Underworld’s specialty is unleashing a beat so constant and unending you lose all sense of time and place – and on that front they certainly deliver.

Rick Smith and Karl Hyde: you half wonder how, 20 years after Born Slippy, they’re still standing. Photograph: Daniel Boud

The subterranean groove of Cups builds slowly to a staggering climax while Cowgirl is, to use a technical term, bananas. King of Snake and Moaner are even more intense than you remember and Dark Train is greeted with near-religious euphoria. Only Ring Road, one of the weaker tracks from 2007’s Oblivion with Bells, slightly lets the air out of the balloon.

Their visual style is as intense as ever – blitzkriegs of white light, a screen permanently set to sensory overload, and more strobing than a Gaspar Noé film.

Hyde, who looks as though he could take up the role of Sick Boy in a third Trainspotting film should Jonny Lee Miller be indisposed, completely dominates the stage. While he begins like a slow-moving ninja, he soon picks up the pace and by the many crescendos of Two Months Off looks like nothing less than Jesus stuck on an electric fence.

Smith, on the other hand, looks as though he’s just wandered down from a university library, and conducts proceedings from behind banks of equipment – part techno Philip Glass, part Phantom of the Paradise.

Their visual style is as intense as ever – blitzkriegs of white light, a screen permanently set to sensory overload. Photograph: Daniel Boud

But at the centre of all the bells and whistles is the relationship between Hyde and Smith. If you count the original electropop iteration of Underworld, they have been working together for 30 years. If you count their work together before that, it’s almost 40.

The duo have survived the departure of London stock exchange runner turned-DJ Darren Emerson in 2000. They have survived intraband animosity. They even survived the somewhat worrying mid-album tendency towards rapping on Oblivion with Bells. Just as for the junkies in T2: Trainspotting, which they helped soundtrack, you half wonder how, 20 years after Born Slippy, they’re still standing.

Underworld may be at the age where, as they told the Guardian last year, they’re “glad that festivals have better food and decent toilets” than 20 years ago. But their collision of techno, trance, house, dub and ambient influences hasn’t really aged – the alien aspect to their music means they don’t sound like 1994 any more than 2017.

By the time we receive the parting gift of Born Slippy, Underworld have, to paraphrase one of their latest singles, given us everything we need.

Underworld’s second Australian show is in Melbourne on 12 April


Stuart MacFarlane

The GuardianTramp

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