Long time Underworld fans looking for an album of party classics and stadium chill out might be disappointed by Oblivion With Bells. Epic and universal it is not. Moodier, more personal and more emotional than the physical trip of past efforts, Oblivion... is best taken as a classic rock/pop album rather than a snapshot of modern techno or even much to do with ‘dance music’ at all. The album only contains one easy 4/4 hit, 'Crocodile', the first and best track, while what follows often favours traditional song structures and a live, organic approach. Hyde's untreated vocals are also generally at the forefront of the mix, just like in a ‘real’ band, emphasizing narrative rather than the metalanguage of Hyde’s trademark cut-ups. It's no surprise then that the album wears a lot of its influences - which are more earthbound and six-stringed than anything ecstatic - on its sleeve: there are a host of rock references here, such as a shout out to the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Barbed Wire Kisses and most obviously the appearance of Larry Mullen Jr., who contributes live drums to a track (appropriately) named ‘Boy, Boy, Boy’. ‘Oblivion With Bells’ is thus to Underworld what ‘Mezzanine’ was to Massive Attack: a gritty, live instrument-driven electronic album. And like ‘Mezzanine’, it's dark.
Opener ‘Crocodile’ sets the emotional tone. It’s a perfect beginning really, with a very moving Gregorian chant-like vocal from Hyde over urgent and deep rhythms, proving that Underworld can still produce moments of pure bliss. If only what followed were as good. The dark, Gothic would-be hit ‘Beautiful Burnout’ is too weary to dance to, saved only by the polyrhythmic finale of Underworld putting their Can influences to good use. The third track ‘Holding the Moth’ debuts Hyde's new raw voice, which unfortunately exposes the less convincing of his lyrics (As if realising this, the voice is treated towards the end). Yet overall, the track is a rather plain Chicago-influenced cut more suited to a Sunday café than a venue or a dancefloor. Cut from the same paranoid cloth as the rest of the album, it's not as colourful as it thinks.
Underworld have been prone to stacking the first half of their albums with dance tracks and leaving the second half for home listening, and ‘Oblivion...’ is no exception. ‘To Heal’ is more downtempo, taking its cues from the group's recent soundtrack work. It wants to be a fuller take on Spiritualized, but ends up, not entirely successfully or sincerely, a sentimental drone. ‘Ring Road’ pays homage to homegrown UK music, with the group sounding frighteningly like The Streets until Hyde's voice eventually strikes the zone. But when it does, the album kicks up a notch - suddenly there’s real feeling to it, the transmission of a clear idea. It's a powerful evocation of East London, and particularly Romford, with the universal theme to it of searching for place and identity. Underworld sound much better like this - looking for answers rather than already having them at hand.
The rest of the album continues in this searching vein. ‘Boy, Boy, Boy’ begins moodily, but like ‘Ring Road’, it depends on Hyde to find and stay in the right vocal grain for it to work. The most Mezzanine-like of all the tracks on the album, sporting Mullen drumming and a smoky, gritty guitar, 'Boy...' is a winner that proves the darker recesses of Underworld have all the best moments. ‘Cuddle Bunny vs Celtic Villages’ is decent, if misnamed, resembling more the beatless industrial ambiance of Chain Reaction rather than bucolic Britain. ‘Faxed Invitations’ is another standout. Based on the rhythms of modems and office equipment, it germinates gently, folding over itself and accumulating depth. Hyde's voice, roboticised, is pushed down closer to the rhythm where it works better. Finally ‘Best Mamgu Ever’ closes the album in downer trip hop style. It's akin to a heavier ‘River of Bass’ off ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’, despite being run through with picked guitar riffs and a buzzing vocal collage. The only true physical cut-up on the album, its finale drifts into dreaminess, a little hopeful, a little sad - an appropriate conclusion.
‘Oblivion With Bells’ may not be Underworld's best album, but it's certainly more sincere than their previous two efforts. Hyde and Smith ease off on the production and their dancefloor tendencies, instead betting on intimate emotion, sensitivity and fallibility. Pushing twenty years together, Underworld may not have the stranglehold on album techno as they once did, but neither are they the washed up Rolling Stones of techno they once feared they would become. ´Oblivion...' has something genuine there for both fans or newcomers looking for emotion rather than entertainment. Whether the audience will be willing to go with them, or will be disappointed Underworld are not trading off past legacies, remains to be seen.
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Tracklist: Underworld - Oblivion With Bells01. Crocodile
02. Beautiful Burnout
03. Holding The Moth
04. To Heal
05. Ring Road
06. Glam Bucket
07. Boy, Boy, Boy
08. Cuddle Bunny vs The Celtic Villages
09. Faxed Invitation
10. Good Morning Cockerel
11. Best Mamgu Ever
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