Underworld return for the first time in threeyears with Barking, and a potentially brilliant yet high-risk production strategy that could well have ended up the wrong tree. Having written the tracks in their Essex studio, they were sent to handpicked studio heads to be sexed up with an idiosyncratic twist.
At first, it seems like the tactic paid off. Controlled, Dubfire-produced opener Bird 1 begins from a bed of low bass, not so much progressing forwards as building up, adding spaced-out vocals and stabs of synth. Always Loved A Film grows seamlessly from its predecessor, despite the change of production to Mark Knight D Ramirez. Then, a minute in, the gathering cloud bursts. Fairly uplifting in its recorded form, this will be nothing short of euphoric live. At times the individual lines have a tendency to squelch into each other, but this fluidity is part of Underworld’s charm.
Not all the producer changes are so seamless, nor so well-advised. Frenetic lead single Scribble comes across as a little too energetic, verging on annoying. Only after a quick breather halfway through the track does it rebalance into something more stable.
Hamburg Hotel, touched up by Appleblim and Al Tourettes, begins atmospherically, becoming slowly overcome with unsettlingly paranoid chromatic spirals and the unhinged babbling of distorted speech. But then… nothing. All this pent-up tension just sits there, and while a brassy line can shift it about a little, it isn’t quite spiced to taste. Hallucinogens advised.
Most of the album is far less tedious. Trademark stream-of-consciousness vocals sit nicely atop an uncluttered, orderly background of Grace, while Paul van Dyk-produced Diamond Jigsaw, dusted off with shimmering staccato, is the track which most resembles a conventional song, and a decent one at that.
Elsewhere, Between Stars is an absolute tune. With its anthemic chorus, powerful, almost poetic lyrics (take the gorgeous assonance of throwaway line “shining down to Chinatown” and multiply by 10) and throbbing synths, this is a resounding success, and producers Mark K and D Ramirez can celebrate a job well done.
Rick Smith and Karl Hyde lack no talent for innovation. In a moment of rhythmic genius that has to be heard to be believed, a drum kick snaps the deep and philosophical meditation of Moon In Water into on-beat, strident electro pop vocals, while the vulnerability of acoustic piano provides a surprising opening to the album’s sunset. Simple slow-burner Louisiana isn’t rocket science, nor is it particularly ground-breaking. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting departure from the mayhem of the electro preceding it, and a pleasant track to go out on.
Given the production merry-go-round behind the album, it’s difficult to know with whom to lodge the praise and blame. It’s tempting to think that if all nine tracks had been produced by Paul van Dyk then this would have been an instant classic. As it stands though, Barking is a mostly-solid album let down by a couple of weak links. It’s not earth-shattering, and there are no new Born Slippys, but it’s well worth a listen.