Underworld became one of the most crucial electronic acts of the 1990s with a progressive synthesis of old and new, an approach that has served them well through the late 2010s. The trio’s two-man front line, vocalist Karl Hyde and keyboard player Rick Smith, have been recording together since the early-’80s new wave explosion. After the pair released a pair of obscure rock albums, they hit it big the following decade with new recruit Darren Emerson. Traditional song forms were jettisoned in favor of Hyde’s heavily treated vocals, barely-there whispering, and surreal wordplay, stretched out over the urban breakbeat trance ripped out by Emerson and company while Hyde’s cascade of guitar-shard effects provided a bluesy foil to the stark music. The first album by the trio, Dubnobasswithmyheadman (1993), appeared to a flurry of critical acclaim and reached number 12 in their native U.K. Second Toughest in the Infants (1996), the group’s following LP, updated their sound slightly, scraped the Top Ten, and remained on the chart for over eight months, thanks in part to a boost they received from appearing on the soundtrack of the seminal Trainspotting. Although that has remained the group’s commercial peak, Underworld continued to record challenging and well-received albums, as well as soundtrack material, amid numerous solo pursuits. Ninth album Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future (2016) earned Underworld their first Grammy nomination, after which they collaborated with Iggy Pop for Teatime Dub Encounters (2018).
The roots of Underworld go back to the dawn of the 1980s, when Hyde and Smith formed a new wave band called Freur. The group released Doot-Doot in 1983 and Get Us Out of Here two years later, but subsequently disintegrated. Hyde worked on guitar sessions for Debbie Harry and Prince, then reunited with Smith in 1988 to form an industrial-funk band called Underworld. The pair earned an American contract with Sire and released Underneath the Radar (1988) and Change the Weather (1989). Each album produced a single that reached the back half of the Billboard Hot 100, but Underworld disappeared shortly thereafter.
As they had several years earlier, Hyde and Smith shed their skins yet again, recruiting hotshot DJ Darren Emerson and renaming themselves Lemon Interrupt. In 1992, the trio debuted with two singles, “Dirty”/“Minneapolis” and “Bigmouth”/“Eclipse,” both released on Junior Boys Own Records. After they reverted back to Underworld, 1993′s “Rez” and “MMM…Skyscraper I Love You” caused a minor sensation in the dance community. Instead of adding small elements of techno to a basically pop or rock formula (as many bands had attempted with varying success), Underworld treated techno as the dominant force. Their debut album, Dubnobasswithmyheadman, was praised by many critics upon release later in 1993 and crossed over to the British pop chart, peaking at number 12. Hyde, Smith, and Emerson impressed many at their concert dates as well. The trio apparently relished playing live, touring Great Britain twice plus Japan, Europe, and the annual summer festival circuit, where their Glastonbury appearance became the stuff of legend.
Dubnobasswithmyheadman was released in the U.S. in 1995 after being licensed to TVT Records. During the rest of the year, Underworld were relatively quiet, releasing only the single “Born Slippy.” Finally, Second Toughest in the Infants appeared in early 1996 to much critical praise. The trio gained no small amount of commercial success later in the year when “Born Slippy” (specifically its B-side version, “Born Slippy .NUXX”) was featured on the soundtrack to Trainspotting, the controversial Scottish film that earned praise from critics all over the globe. In the U.K., Second Toughest peaked at number nine during a 34-week stay on the album chart. Underworld also remained busy with Tomato — their own graphic design company responsible for commercials from such high-profile clients as Nike, Sony, Adidas, and Pepsi — and remixing work for Depeche Mode, Björk, St. Etienne, Sven Väth, Simply Red, and Leftfield. Emerson continued to DJ on a regular basis, releasing mix albums for Mixmag! and Deconstruction. Underworld’s 1999 LP, Beaucoup Fish, entered the U.K. chart at number three. The band continued to tour the world, as documented in 2000 with the live album Everything, Everything, after which Emerson left to continue his DJ career. A Hundred Days Off, Underworld’s first LP as a duo since 1989, was released in mid-2002. One year later, the stopgap compilation 1992-2002 appeared.
By 2005, the duo had officially been joined by one of Britain’s most respected DJs, Darren Price (although he contributed to A Hundred Days Off), and his work also appeared on a series of online-only EPs Underworld released during 2005 and 2006. They also recorded new material for the soundtrack of the Anthony Minghella film Breaking and Entering. Their first “proper” full-length since 2002, Oblivion with Bells, appeared in 2007. It was followed in 2010 by Barking, an album that featured numerous guest producers including Paul van Dyk, Appleblim, and High Contrast. Underworld simultaneously released two more compilations, the triple-CD 1992–2012 as well as the single-disc A Collection (which featured previously unreleased collaborations with Brian Eno, Tiësto, and Mark Knight & D. Ramirez), in late 2011.
In 2012, Underworld served as music directors for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics, held in London. They wrote two songs (“And I Will Kiss” and “Caliban’s Dream”) for the opening ceremony, and 11 of their tracks were included on the ceremony’s official soundtrack album, Isles of Wonder. Underworld were granted the prize for Innovation in Sound at the 2012 Q Awards. In 2013, Karl Hyde released his debut solo album, Edgeland. The following year, he issued a collaborative album with Brian Eno, Someday World; the full-length was quickly followed by High Life, an excellent album that recalled Eno’s pioneering work with Talking Heads and David Byrne during the ’70s and ’80s.
Underworld announced plans to reissue their studio albums in remastered and expanded editions. A 20th anniversary edition of Dubnobasswithmyheadman appeared in 2014, available as a double CD as well as a super deluxe five-CD version, loaded with remixes and unreleased recordings. This was followed by a similar reissue of Second Toughest in November of 2015 (a bit short of its actual 20th anniversary), again as a two-disc edition, as well as an expansive four-CD configuration, including an entire disc devoted to charting the evolution of “Born Slippy .NUXX,” from studio demos and live incarnations to an iconic, era-defining anthem. In 2016, they returned with new music and a new label as Caroline International issued Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future. The album became their third Top Ten U.K. hit and was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Dance/Electronic Album. After a pair of non-album singles, Underworld worked with Iggy Pop on Teatime Dub Encounters, a five-track EP issued in 2018. Later that year, the duo kicked off an ambitious project titled Drift. Issuing material on a weekly basis, they split the series into “Episodes,” releasing Dust, Atom, Heart, Space, and Game into late 2019. A compilation sampler, Drift Episode 1, arrived in November. Originally planned to be the end of the project, it simply marked the end of the first phase as Underworld decided to continue with it for another year. To celebrate the accomplishment, they promoted the effort with live shows in Colombia, Mexico, Belgium, the Netherlands, and England. ~ John Bush