Oblivion With Bells
ow the hell do Underworld still exist? Just past a decade from their cultural peak of the twin bombshells of Second Toughest in the Infants and “Born Slippy,” Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, having been deserted by Darren Emerson in 2000 and reduced to releasing web-only EPs and providing incidental music for ignorable British films, seemed certain to have slipped off the radar and back into the kind of badly-dressed obscurity that typified their pre-techno reinvention circa 1992.
Not that Emerson leaving to focus on his DJ career had triggered a retreat from the drunken prog-techno that had made Dubnobasswithmyheadman, Second Toughest, and Beaucoup Fish so good; 100 Days Off continuing in the exact same vein but perhaps with less direction.
So it’s not surprising that Oblivion With Bells should sound so much like classic Underworld, even when Larry Mullen Jr. is guesting as on “Boy Boy Boy.” “Cuddle Bunny Vs Celtic Villages” is a terrific Underworld song title, for instance, even if the ‘song’ itself is little more than two minutes of ambience beaten up by mechanical monster noises.
Indeed, the first four tracks, “Crocodile,” “Beautiful Burnout,” “Holding the Moth,” and “To Heal” segue together and complement each other in the manner of “Juanita,” “Kiteless,” “To Dream of Love,” and “Banstyle / Sappy’s Curry,” rounds of drums gently orbited by pads and washes of synthesiser and interspersed with passages of ambient nothingness and Hyde’s heavily treated, ever mysterious vocals. There’s nothing quite as spectacularly, rollingly bizarre as “Mmmm Skyscraper I Love You” and nothing even approaching the rollicking, deranged assault of “Born Slippy,” but “Holding the Moth”’s distant, jazzy pianos, and “To Heal”’s wide-open plains of Joshua Tree space are nonetheless beautiful to behold.
Oddly-interlacing pianos and forlornly near-gibberish vocals make “Good Morning Cockerel” a beautiful late intermission before the awesome closing lilt and thump of “Best Mamgu Ever,” psychedelic, unhurried, and ambient dub run through with a terrific bassline and cut-up, inverted scratches of singing.
Slightly less endearing is the deranged talkiness of “Ring Road,” wherein Karl Hyde’s centred vocals sounds like nothing so much as Mike Skinner’s drunken, rambling dad caught in the early morning detritus of some ethno-disco gone wrong. The immaculately produced pulses and scrapes of “Glam Bucket” get things back on track though, but also typifies the problem at the heart of Oblivion With Bells; for all its tasteful craft, aesthetic unity and knowing winks to its makers’ history, it’s simply not very interesting.
The thing you have to consider is that Hyde and Smith are now middle-aged men, and in fact have been for some time. Even given their hard-raving past it would be ludicrous to expect them to still be pile-driving dance-floor slaying bangers at us. Thinking about it though, Underworld were always as good at evoking the feeling that seeps through you after a late-night and early-morning dancing as they were at causing that dancing in the first place. They now seem perpetually stuck in the ‘morning after’ phase, which is fine because they’re exceptionally good at it, but lazing the morning away in bed seems wasteful when your raving days are over.