Underworld review – pulse-pumping euphoria with dank dance superstars

Village Underground, London
The electronic alchemists serve up rich rave manna with tales of love, lust and squalor in a career-spanning set that shows them still at the height of their galloping powers

Those dirty numb angel boys and mega mega white things who are here on a nostalgic trip to the church of lager are welcomed by Karl Hyde with arms spread wide. The ferrety Underworld singer knows full well that Born Slippy .NUXX – the throwaway 1995 B-side that accidentally made them dank dance superstars – defined the narcotic breakdown of the 90s as distinctly as Parklife encapsulated its winking Britpop high; a feverish alcoholic’s diary entry pounding over the closing scenes of Trainspotting.

So he presents the track’s iconic space echo to the throng at this low-key club show (Underworld’s last London gig was at Alexandra Palace in 2017) like so much rave manna, worshipping the hook with the trancey pose of a synth-summoning shaman. But only at the end of the night, well into the early hours, once Underworld have proved themselves more pivotal electronic alchemists than the one-hit ponies behind Renton’s theme.

Underworld.
Urban tribalism … Underworld. Photograph: Mike Massaro

They arrive, at midnight, inauspiciously, shuffling on stage flashing peace signs like Sleaford Mods on giro day. Rick Smith, in charge of the music, could be the Rev Richard Coles on dress-down Sunday, Hyde a clubland Michael Sheen. They soon shake off the discomfiture of the sixtysomething raver, though. As the noir-ish beats of 2016’s Low Burn canter, then gallop and burst out into the kind of oceanic disco that Aquaman might DJ, Hyde becomes a shameless show stealer, no move too wild or outmoded for his arsenal: the Madonna vogue, the Marc Almond shimmy, the Jacko crotch grab, the Travolta finger-sweep. It’s a wonder he never goes full Gangnam.

Spinning stream-of-consciousness tales of love, lust and Romford squalor, his monotone ghost-in-the-machine vocals act as a percussive instrument, an extra rhythm mingled and mangled within Smith’s compulsive urban tribalism.

Good job, too – when he tries a spot of proper singing over the locomotive Juanita, Howard Jones’s lawyers could demand an injunction. Yet it’s Juanita’s hints of Depeche Mode guitar, and Dirty Epic’s homage to New Order, that highlight Underworld’s long-standing role as cultural reimaginers. Later, the punktronic Pearl’s Girl is a spaced-out cousin of Firestarter and Two Months Off, from 2002’s A Hundred Days Off, reaches the astute conclusion that Discovery-era Daft Punk could be improved if they were strapped to the bonnet of a Nascar truck.

If tonight’s career-spanning set is designed to showcase such inspired rewirings, it also proves Underworld still have the tools. The gig marks the release of Drift – Episode 1, a collection of tracks they’ve been putting out weekly as part of a year-long project combining music, film and writing. Tonight’s cuts may still be rooted in rave culture, but they boast a breadth and attack largely lacking in contemporary laptop electronica.

Another Silent Way is a crazed junglist skipping song that soundtracked a film they made about UK drift racing; if Dexter’s Chalk soundtracks anything, it should be Squidnado.

Best of all Border Country, an unreleased collaboration with the producer Ø [Phase], creeps in as a mumbled mundanity then, two minutes in, kicks the entire venue hard in the gut. It all makes for an intense, pulse-pumping blast of a night, culminating in the ice-cream van euphoria of Rez and the lagertarians united in praise of Born Slippy .NUXX’s silvery tale of lipstick boys hunting babes and babes and babes – dance music’s most angelic soliloquy. And, like Underworld, still mega.

Contributor

Mark Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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