Underworld - Second Toughest in the Infants (Deluxe Edition)

by Rob Taylor Rating:8 Release Date:2015-11-20

A label executive once told Underworld’s manager “If you want to make that kind of music, get rid of the singer. If you want to keep the singer, get a drummer and be a proper band.” Clearly devoid of musical foresight, he failed to recognise a revolutionary hybrid in the making. Then again, the creativity of record executives generally extends only to making money, a mathematical exercise dictated by risk aversion rather than inspired vision. 

Of course, trance, techno and drum and bass kicked off earlier than 1994, and no-one was used to an enigmatic frontman and his band conflating stadium rock/pop into dance music quite the way Karl Hyde did. Robert Christgau’s review of Underworld’s Second Toughest in the Infants was the most amusing, because he disparagingly brushed off Underworld as an ‘art collective’ spawned from ‘the famously bad new-romantic band, Fleur’, and that their more famous predecessors Pink Floyd had greater purity of purpose. What ?

To like Underworld though, as so many do anyway, is to tap into the dark laddish humour and ecstatic, though frequently vacuous, beat framework. The only emotional state that really applies to Underworld is rapture and ecstasy. Hyde’s voice was never meant to convey emotional depth beyond getting the audience off their tits, or assisting that objective. 

So here’s a funny excerpt from a review of the Dissonance Festival in 2002 (would you believe) in The Wire Magazine  “One of the largest names to play here was Underworld. Karl Hyde’s onstage gurning and spazz-dancing was engaging for about 2 minutes, setting up a curious contrast with a vocal style that’s rendered impersonal and strangely passionless by its vocoder feel….much of Underworld’s hour [on stage] is by-numbers clomping trance techno” 

You see, what I’m getting from that was the authors didn't have a good time, and they made the critical error of applying thoughtful analysis to a situation that called for brainless immersion. You have to flush those critical thoughts down the bogger, trainspotters. 

The music of Underworld is the equivalent of an over-friendly welshman buying you beers when all you asked for was directions. It’s fantastic fun until you’re staring into your ninth pint and forgot why you were there. Herein lies the problem with Underworld’s super-deluxe 4 CD version of Second Toughest in the Infants. It’s great fun for about 2 hours but Karl Hyde is not Max Richter, and there’s no grander purpose to listening to 4 hours of it. 

So, what’s worthwhile in this release you haven’t heard yet ? Well, the fourth disc has seven chronologically evolving live and studio versions of 'Born Slippy NUXX', and is immense fun. The live in Leicester is a rugged and seismic floor stomper, techno in inspiration. Live in Brighton is more drum and bass, with some sharp breaks and dynamic drumming. Live in Amsterdam is pure trance which is kind of fitting for the locale. All building up to the original, which is of course a classic, but what this brilliant disc proves is how malleable 'Born Slippy' proved to be in clubland. Also, Underworld are always best heard live in my view. 

The other bonus disc of unreleased material proves uneven. One of the exceptions is ‘Bug’ which sounds like a lost Shriekback track, i.e Hyde emulating Barry Andrews, and the pace of the track is low on the BPMs. An earlier version of ‘Rowla’ has darker tones and more drum and bass than the original. Unfortunately, some of the bonus material, such as ‘Techno Thang’ really is by-numbers techno dance.  

By bringing together the original album with all the singles, including the Pearl’s Girl EP, and the fantastic disc of NUXX variations, the Universal company may just avoid the ‘cashing in’ criticism. Only just.       

I'll probably stick with the Live at the Oblivion Ball (actually Makuhari Hall Japan) 2007 release, the Live at the iTunes Festival from 2010, and the anthology from 2012. 

 

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