The Rhythm of Language

Underworld brings lyrics to techno

TVT Records' affable Adam Shore recently broke new publicity terrain with an amusing epistle that was equal parts critical theory, pep rally, and Machiavellian guilt trip. On stationery earmarked "from the ramblin' mind of Adam Shore," a letter eventually touting the techno band Underworld opened with an excerpt from an essay by Simon Reynolds in the British magazine The Wire. Arguing that "American rock criticism inhibits the rise of atmospheric/Ambient rock," Reynolds writes that U.S. critics are fixated on the notion of song-as-story and rock as mythic narrative, thus the music of "decentered, depersonalized abstraction -- TripHop, Jungle, dub, Techno, Ambient, post-rock -- gets ignored because there's nothing for critics to read."

After complimenting some critics for developing a "genuine curiosity" about the newest electronic/dance music, Shore takes the death-to-disco legions to task: "[E]xciting music is being made that you are missing. STOP MISSING IT! Support new clever music ... reflecting the reality and the technology of the now."

Adam, we hear and we obey. It's certainly true that reviewing lyricless, abstract music is a challenge many writers are unwilling or unable to meet; rather than struggle to describe the elusive sounds of a Tortoise or Black Dog, critics gravitate toward artists whose autobiographical clues, colorful personas, and nods to rock history offer easy analysis and identification. Likewise, club music is often dismissed as mere dance-friendly backdrop rarely deemed worthy of press, let alone dissection as art. More than just the rockist distrust of the groove, though, the music-makers' traditional anonymity often comes into play. Image may be everything for rockers, but techno artists and DJs have traditionally hidden themselves from the cold, cruel world. Recently, though, a wave of "personalities" has emerged into the arena -- figures like San Francisco's Hardkiss Brothers, junglist Goldie, DJ Krush, and, most prominently, Moby.

Though Karl Hyde of the U.K.'s Underworld calls Moby "kind of a cartoon character, really," both Underworld and America's great-white-techno-hope Moby have been championed and maligned for demystifying the genre and making it accessible to the alt.rock masses. While Moby has long been considered a sellout by purist techno fans for diluting his music with other genres, Underworld -- Hyde and Rick Smith (the duo once led a god-awful fop pop band called Freur) and DJ Darren Emerson -- is touted as techno's vanguard for playing live, posturing like rock stars, and incorporating real, not sampled, vocals: in short, for grafting the rock aesthetic onto techno. Guitar-smashing performances aside, Underworld's new Second Toughest in the Infants is about as "readable" as a krautrock record, the band's techno-colored dreams more about beats and textures than narrative thread.

"Our roots are in dance, and rhythm comes first," Hyde says from TVT's New York office, "although vocals and guitar were heavily integrated and not just laid over the top. What we do is try and take from the best of traditional instrument-oriented groups and DJs, the way that, say, a great jazz improviser takes motifs and walks with them. Being in a band that really plays doesn't make us any less groovy or less of a dance act than someone playing to a backing tape. The thing about most traditional rock bands is that they will rehearse and be in some ways more programmed than most techno bands, and certainly more so than DJs."

Lyrics have been somewhat taboo in techno, unless they were disembodied strings of sounds ripped from the mouths of divas, or looped phrases taken from another artist's record. Starting with its first release, Dubnobasswithmyheadman, Underworld was among the first to truly incorporate conventional lyrics into the genre, but they don't mark any real nod toward story. On pulsating, trippy songs like "Pearl's Girl," the vocals are blended in as just another rhythm-enhancing instrument, evoking a mood or sense of place rather than a story. Hyde doesn't even term himself a vocalist, but a "producer of sounds out of my mouth."

"My words are very specific to place and time," Hyde says. "I write everywhere I go, things I associate with where I am. Every song we've done is from a place. I could pinpoint it on a map. I get off on urban environments because they're so information-intense, so consequently my books just fill up with lists of events that happen along a train journey or a night in a bar, some alleyway in some city. Add water and reconstitute the place again." While "Stagger" conjures up London's Soho neighborhood, "Pearl's Girl" invokes the notorious red-light district of Hamburg, Germany.

Keeping Hyde's obvious fascination with seedy underbellies in mind, the producers of the film Trainspotting, an adaptation of Irvine Welsh's blackhearted novel of Scot ravers and drug addicts, were adamant about incorporating Underworld's music into the soundtrack. "Dark Train" is used to chilling effect during an overdose scene, while "Nux/Born Slippy" closes the film. Hyde says that the single had become something of an anthem for beer boys, which made him realize how easily any lyrics, whether hazy or concrete, are open to blatant misinterpretation.

"That really upset me," Hyde says, "because we meant to say the opposite thing about that kind of life. People can become just pieces of meat when they get off their face, and it was the film that actually put the song back into context. When this one character is revealed as just a nasty piece of work, the music kicks in. That moment was more powerful than a book of lyrics.

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