CD Review of Oblivion with Bells by Underworld
Recommended if you like
Future Sound of London, 808 State, Paul Van Dyk
Label
ATO Records
Underworld:
Oblivion with Bells

Reviewed by Jason Thompson

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S
uffice it to say that Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, better known as electronica group Underworld, have been around long enough to outlast many of their peers without any signs of letting up. For fans of the group, this is definitely good news, but for everyone else who at least hasn’t heard one of Underworld’s tracks, it’s even better news, as their new album Oblivion with Bells is one of the finest electronica releases to arrive in quite a while, in terms of both song quality and production.

Even if you’re not overly “familiar” with Underworld, then you undoubtedly know them if you’re a fan of the film “Trainspotting,” as the group’s breakout tune “Born Slippy” is featured on the soundtrack. Some old-school techno heads may even remember the group under one of its aliases, Lemon Interrupt, and the fantastic track “Big Mouth,” possibly the only instance of a funky harmonica vamp being mixed into a techno track and working without a hitch. Oblivion with Bells follows a bit of a darker, slow-burning trajectory. Opening track and first single “Crocodile” is a beautiful piece of music, a hypnotic bit of trance-ambient work that will easily take those in the know back to 1992/1993, when techno was in its early golden era. 

That tune is then mixed into “Beautiful Burnout,” which pulsates a bit harder, but doesn’t pound in the least. It’s laden with lush percussion and vocoder elements, with the beats percolating away in the background while synth and piano melodies dance on top. This one then gives away to the simpler sounding “Holding the Moth,” which features such instructions as “Keep it simple, one foot in front of the other” spoken atop a muted bass line and classic backbeat which slowly evolves into piano loops and otherworldly sounds.

“To Heal” is one of the few missteps on the album. More of a soft interlude than a real song, it’s decent but doesn’t really add anything to the overall experience. Same goes for “Ring Road,” which features dull, robotically-enunciated lyrics. Luckily, “Glam Bucket” gets things back on track with its pretty, ambient style and swirling synth textures. “Boy, Boy, Boy” is also quite good, being reminiscent of 808 State during their Ex-El period. The tracks featuring sung lyrics rather than spoken ones definitely work better for Underworld.

Too bad, then, that “Cuddle Benny vs. Celtic Villages” is another mere interlude, draped in heavy synth pad sounds and not much else. “Faxed Invitation” works excellently afterward on the classic techno tip, featuring another dark mix of steady beats, tranquilizing synths that dot the foreground, and slightly intimidating vocals that don’t step over into the silly territory. Oblivion with Bells then closes with one final interlude, “Good Morning Cockerel,” before launching off with the slightly tribal feel of “Best Mamgu Ever,” which is certainly a fine way to end the album.

While it’s understandable why this type of artist relies on album interludes – to either give the listener a “reboot” of sorts, or to set up a different sort of “act” on the album that is to be taken a bit differently from the one heard previously. But the three on this album don’t really do either, and come off more as filler than actual working tracks. Some will undoubtedly like them, but to my ears, they just broke up the flow rather than carried it along. Nevertheless, “Crocodile” is one of the best electronica tracks to come along in a long time, and will certainly find itself fitting neatly within the classic Underworld canon. As a whole, Oblivion with Bells is a great entry in the band’s catalog. Not without its flaws, mind you, but certainly well worth picking up by old fans and new ones alike.

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