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AAA Music | 2 March 2021

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Underworld – Live @ The Royal Festival Hall

| On 13, Oct 2014

Underworld-9903 (Credit Victor Frankowski)

Friday 11th October, London

When the last echo of ‘Born Slippy‘ faded away and Karl Hyde, wearing his distinctive sailor shirt, pronounced the last “thank you” of the night, I eventually tried to reach the exit of the Royal Festival Hall. But it was quite a facer. An exhilarated and jazzed crowd completely surrounded me – flushed 40-year-olds with smiles fixed on their faces, teenagers with dreamy expressions, old glories of the London rave scene with their minds deeply lost in the memories of a one-off night and blokes mantrically repeating “the best gig I’ve ever been to”.

Through my laborious way-out, I also found time to wonder if, back in ’94, Rick Smith and Karl Hyde could have expected all this. If, 20 years later, they could have imagined to be an inspiration and, even now, trendsetters of the club culture.

All along the event that brought back to life a 20-year-old work, one of the most successful electronic projects of the ‘90s was exalted and regarded as if it still was the hippest act around and I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t just a trick of nostalgia. Underworld are, today like in 1994, one of the best embodiments of what the club culture represents and their Dubnobasswithmyheadman album, now as then, an essential vademecum.

Throughout the evening, the Royal Festival Hall came to be the most exclusive club in town: stylish, groovy and with an overwhelming showy attitude. There was no chance to let the audience – a wild bunch of aficionados who arguably bought Dubnobasswithmyheadman directly from their trusted record shop and danced on its notes for days after its release – sit for more than a song. The usually calm and collected hall, which generally barely tolerates even a shout too much, lashed back when the lights went down and danced from the beginning till the end of the gig.

From the dilated intro of the sensual ‘Dark and Long‘, it was instantly clear that Underworld still knew what to do: they knew how to treat their guests. Supported by a minimalist scenic design, but an astonishing and visionary strobe-light scenography, Rick Smith and Karl Hyde immediately dove into their most seminal work. Dubnobasswithmyheadman was revoked, reinterpreted and enriched like never before. Live and sampled sounds were plugged in together to create the identifying style of the Romford duo. Techno, rock, post-rave and synthpop joined forces once again, for the joy of the incandescent audience.

Underworld-9947 (Credit Victor Frankowski)

The antsy, abyssal at times, at others even shrilling Karl Hyde’s recitative pierced the heads of the listeners like 20 years ago, while the incessant beats played by Rick Smith were compulsive, rarefied and startling as if they were just written. It was astonishing to realise how much the show that went on stage could epitomise the contemporary state-of-the-art of electronic music – almost like if a single event could fully mirror an entire scene.

The evidence was quite clear during the 15-minutes-long version of ‘Mmm…Skyscrapers I Love You‘: when the electro soundscapes of the last three decades were handled, mixed and combined together to create a unique, almost hallucinogenic impression. The duo confirmed itself as a visionary act able to anticipate and foresee the future of music.

Next to their creativity, Underworld’s grit was also quite remarkable: after a two hour set which displayed their third album in full and after some inevitable stage setbacks (as written, the Royal Festival Hall is not used to these kind of shows), they found the energy to jump into the most recent past of their career. Next to the nine Dubnobasswithmyheadman tracks, next to the evergreen and enduring emotions sprung from ‘Spoonman‘, ‘Dirty Epic’ and ‘Cowgirl’, the duo also revived favorites like ‘Rez‘, ‘Minneapolis’ and ‘Bigmouth‘ which, in a while, further enthralled and triggered the audience.

But it was during the conclusive and unavoidable encore when the fans fully glorified the duo. On the notes, the beats and the breaks of ‘Born Slippu NUXX‘, arguably the most revered tune of the musicians, the audience depleted the remaining energies letting loose all their dancing instincts.

Exhausted, clammy but ecstatic, both the artists and the audience greeted each other with the promise to keep in touch and meet again during the spring. Because, though “they have been away for a while”, as Hyde affirmed, Underworld made a glorious comeback, showing the vigor of their opera and now they are on their way “to a new tension”.

Review: Marco Canepari

Photos: Victor Frankowski