So British dance music has reached its middle age, and seems to be accepting it. Shortly after The Chemical Brothers “Singles 93-03”, those other dance titans Underworld also find it timely to release a retrospective. “1992-2002” is a double best of that goes on forever. And then a bit.
If Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers turned British dance music into pub rock, like my colleague Mattias Huss wrote a couple of years ago, then Underworld can be said to have turned it into arena rock. At least that’s what the big, dumb arrangements of some of their songs suggest. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve always appreciated Underworld. The problem is that the full length versions of their songs included here feel like they go on forever. In some cases the ten minute versions work. But some of their earliest material sounds way too corny a decade after they were produced. “Bigmouth” from 1992 is almost as annoying as The Grid’s banjo techno hit “Swamp Thing”. “Dirty” and “Rez” are better, metallic and nasty like a robot biting your leg, but frustrating in the way they feel like very long build-ups that never climax.
I also have a problem with the way they cloak some of their tunes in suffocatingly many layers of inane ambience. “Dirty Epic” works brilliantly, since it’s not a dance track but a contemplative ambient hymn, but even dancefloor filler “Born Slippy Nuxx”, from the soundtrack to the horribly overrated “Trainspotting”, risks to disappear somewhere in a sonic fog that would be more in place on a Tangerine Dream album. Or amid the pointless neon lightshow excesses of a Pink Floyd live show.
The trilogy of “Push Upstairs”, “Moaner” and “Shudder/King of Snake” hit exactly the right spot, though. Relentlessly monotonous, skeletal and angry, they show a path Underworld should have treaded more often. A path that leads to great electro rather than to arena rock heaven/hell.