Have you missed them much? It’s been three years since their last studio album, but Underworld is pulsating back onto the dance floor with their latest release A Hundred Days Off. The group, a trio turned duo when in 2000 DJ Darren Emerson left Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, continues to do what they’ve been doing best for the past 10 years: throbbing beats with catchy vocals dispersed here and there. The music, including first single “Two Months Off”, is as hypnotic as a strobe light, but in the same way, the tracks get tiresome, as if your ear drums have been dancing to their energetic rhythms for way too long. Let me elaborate.
First off, it’s not the kind of music you can listen to while sitting in front of a computer typing out a CD review. That’s why it’s called dance music. When you listen to their songs, you feel like you’re slipping into an alternate reality, where Underworld is the soundtrack to a trippy existence, and for a few songs, it’s a nice, happy flow. It’s gesturing towards you, urging you to let go and move. And don’t make the mistake of thinking this album is anything like the group’s break-out, Trainspotting hit “Born Slippy”; Hyde’s smooth vocals on this album are more carefree, airily floating on the beats, especially in songs like hyper-happy “Mo Move”, easily adorable “Two Months Off”, and the cool and hazy “Sola Sistim”.
But after a while (let’s say around the third track “Twist” — how ominous), the music becomes repetitive and, well, uninteresting. Yes, Underworld’s songs have elegance and a recognizable stamp, but are they innovative? Have they created something bold and daring with A Hundred Days Off? Or is this duo simply playing in the same comfort zone, mixing the same formula that has proved so successful over their decade in the biz? Don’t take my questions the wrong way. I’m certainly not knocking their music off the turntable. In all fairness, Underworld’s latest effort is a glamorous mix of everything that has thus far defined dance music; it’s fun, boppin’, and playful. I can appreciate songs like the bluesy, western “Trim” and the sweet, coy “Ess Gee” because they stood out — they traded in the traditional, generic dance beats for something a little bit different, guitar twangs in “Trim” and charmingly hushed instrumentals in “Ess Gee”. But then in the middle of this pleasant sweetness, the group switches back to a quickened techno beat in “Dinosaur Adventure 3D”, draining all the pleasantries out of the last two tracks.
The majority of these songs also lack an intensity and depth that might make their music more introspective, less giddy. If I wanted to get cute, I could say the album title is a gross understatement. The inherent calm in A Hundred Days Off sounds more like the DJs took a thousand days off to chill out (reflective in the first few tracks), and then towards the end of the album, it was like they wanted to break out of their maxing and relaxing with a frenzied release. The music was too comfortable as if Hyde and Smith spent too much time sleeping on cloud nine, and then suddenly felt the need to come down to earth and celebrate.
To say the group’s music has any deep meaning would be an exaggeration. There are glimmers of feeling and emotion here, but they are veiled in predictable patterns and don’t really provoke too much thought. But the thing is they’re not supposed to and they don’t claim to be anything other than what they are. According to the band’s own press material, they are “dance music that allowed you to ‘have it’, or chill, depending on the tune, but also let your mind romp.” I couldn’t have said it any better.