Apart from last year's soundtrack work with Gabriel Yared on Anthony Minghella's Breaking and Entering, and a few online-only releases, little has been heard from Underworld since 2002's A Hundred Days Off, whose enjoyable diversity implied either a loss of focus or a healthy search for new directions.
Oblivion With Bells, then, has a twofold purpose: to re-engage with the band's core strengths, and to suggest fruitful routes forward. On both counts it is a success, nimbly vaulting from dancefloor to chillout room to film set, often within one track. "Crocodile" opens the album in a brief haze of mirrored synth tones, before a pounding beat heralds a typical techno stomp, topped off with a Gregorian choir of Karl Hyde's stacked vocals. "Holding the Moth" shifts between mellow cool-jazz keyboard groove and pulsing bass-heavy beat as Hyde rattles off another stream of random observations: "With a glass eye on you, electric eye on you, who could dance like you, pleasure all day, can you feel it", etc.
Elsewhere, his eye is attracted to pricklier scenes: the exhausted subject of "Beautiful Burnout", tracked through a moody Euro-thriller backdrop; the wasteland of abandoned supermarket trolleys and lads in West Ham shirts glimpsed while cruising Romford's "Ring Road"; and the dangerous charm of "Boy, Boy, Boy", admired with the cool approbation of Morrissey or Gilbert & George: "Off with your head, you're a razor-wire beauty, you're going straight, but sometimes you've got to show them".
Just as Hyde tends to avoid the constriction of standard song formats, so has Underworld's music been distinguished by their willingness to cover new ground. Oblivion With Bells is not just a string of dancefloor bangers, tackling a more ambitiously varied terrain – sinister suburbs, bleak industrial zones, even wild, open countryside.
There's the dark, forbidding musique concrete of "Cuddle Bunny vs Celtic Villages"; the trancescape of "Glam Bucket"; the brief glow of organ pad and string-synth that is "To Heal"; and the tone-poem "Good Morning Cockerel", opening with two pianos playing across each other, slipping slowly into sync. They'd clear the dancefloor, but add vital changes to an album's topography.
There's always a danger that the album might seem patchwork, but that's averted by the concluding "Best Mamgu Ever", which lashes together the stylistic strands to convey the strength of a rope running through the entire album. The slinky charm of Oblivion With Bells makes it probably Underworld's best since dubnobasswithmyheadman.
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