By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
AT THEIR BEST this season's most vaunted techno act, Underworld, is a perfectly functional band. If you're on the floor at a club and the DJ drops one of their handful of club hits (1993's "Cowgirl" for instance), you'll probably keep dancing. Off the floor, some of their deeper cuts even work as serviceable mood music. Take "Cups," from the British trio's acclaimed new album, Beaucoup Fish. Since frontman Karl Hyde's vocals are as mundane as the muted keyboards and soft-focus drum pulse that make up the body of the song, they hardly overwhelm. Put it on at home and the cut will massage your mind like aromatherapy. Close your eyes and breathe deeply and you'll drift into a pleasant sleep.
Only watch out, because your sweet dreams are about to be invaded by an evil boogieman. Well, not really--just some middle-aged bozo who thinks he's speaking for a lost generation by kowtowing to the inane punk postures of the Wrekked Train (from the Lo-Fi All Stars) or Prodigy's Keith Flint. The vapid, apocalyptic babblings that spew forth from Hyde evoke the kind of mangy bus-stop philosopher who wants your soul only half as much as he wants your pocket change.
Likewise, on the album-closing "Moaner," a simple, noisy cut that recapitulates the hard-core techno sound of Belgium circa 1992, Hyde launches lyrics of fury about...well, you know, stuff. Stuff like moshing and urban alienation and garbage and madness. But since Hyde makes no sense whatsoever, one can only guess that his hectoring vagaries--like those of the dreaded All Stars--are designed to take you into that vast post-rave nowhere where clear, simple pleasure is frowned upon and histrionic assertions of soccer-thug manliness signify as urgent social criticism.
The problem isn't just that his vocals are consistently half-baked; it's that they also fail as music. Hyde's irritated, tuneless rants are as pompous as they are sluggish, a fact that wouldn't be half as glaring if producers Darren Emerson and Rick Smith possessed a stylistic signature that might distract us from them. Sadly, even this duo's best moments--the hasty, insistent rhythms and trance textures of "Jumbo," or the shameless "I Feel Love" homage "King of Snake"--seem like anonymous, secondhand DJing.
For those of us who were converted to techno by its sheer energy--whether the positive soul power of diva house or the nihilistic intensity of gabber--this already criminally overrated "breakthrough" is painfully overwrought. Whether it takes influence from '70s disco or The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, turgid, masturbatory prog rock is still turgid, masturbatory prog rock, and it's a sad freak of premillennial bad taste that the worst music on Beaucoup seems like the dark child of both. So, ask yourselves, post-rave converts: Does the world really need a Jethro Tull with beats?