born.dirty Review: Underworld’s ‘Drift Series 1 – Sampler Edition’

Published: by Brian Ruskin.

Drift Series 1 - Sampler Edition, Born Dirty review

A time-honored tradition amongst music enthusiasts is to debate the running order and track selection of their beloved band’s albums, striving to achieve the “perfect” record. Which B-side should have been included?  What deep experimental cut could be dropped? What order works best for headphone introspection, or for the dance floor? With their massive DRIFT Series 1 compilation, comprising 40 tracks spread over 7 discs, Underworld have provided their fans with the ultimate challenge to the “choose your perfect track list” debate.  There are nearly infinite ways to rearrange and group such an impressive assemblage of music, the product of Underworld’s most prolific year ever, which saw Karl Hyde and Rick Smith gifting a new track each week with accompanying videos by Tomato’s Simon Taylor, and rarities from their past during the interim weeks.  Techno floor-fillers rub shoulders with avant-jazz jam sessions and moody ambient introspection. There’s something for fans of any and all sides of Underworld here, tied by Hyde’s unmistakable lyrics and vocals and Smith’s pristine production.

DRIFT Series 1, released November 1, 2018 – November 1, 2019, consists of five named Episodes, a disc of improvisational jams in collaboration with Australian experimental jazz trio The Necks, and the Sampler Edition which assembles 10 representative tracks into a traditional album, perhaps more digestible for the casual fan. The Episode titles – Dust, Atom, Heart, Space and Game – imply a connected theme or perhaps a trigger word for the duo to bounce around their ideas.  Some tracks and videos were still in flux right up to their deadline, so kudos to the band for keeping their promise and daring to release, get fan response, and in some cases rework the tracks for the final compilation. A few tunes, namely “Brilliant Yes That Would Be” and “Border Country” had already received a release or were being road-tested at live gigs. But mostly, each week was a blank slate and open question: which side of Underworld will be showcased next?

To warm listeners to the task of evaluating which tracks resonate best, 10 cuts have been culled into an LP-length DRIFT Series 1 Sampler Edition, capturing the essence of the band’s yearlong output.  Despite the name’s suggestion of a random selection, when Sampler Edition is considered in isolation from the weekly releases from which it is formed, it plays like a classic Underworld album: well-paced, carefully produced, including a few cuts destined to be live favorites, a requisite experimental instrumental, perhaps a head-scratcher or two, but also a familiarity and high bar that comes from a decades -old partnership that has received new creative energy through a disciplined release schedule and a drive to communicate more immediately with the audience.

Albums are often best recalled, and sometimes judged, by the strength of their opening salvo, and DRIFT Series 1 Sampler Edition starts off strong with four powerful tracks in the timeless Underworld style.  “Appleshine” kicks off the record with a midtempo two-chord melody over a simple yet sturdy bassline and eventually Hyde’s reverb-heavy, high register vocal, all reminiscent of the epic “Banstyle” from Second Toughest in the Infants. Clocking in at 8:36, the track takes its time to develop, layering horn runs, a 4-4 beat with increasingly splashy hi hats, and a plethora of noises and squelches filling in the space. This version of “Appleshine” (a longer “Film Edit” is included in Episode 2) is continuously mixed into “This Must be Drum Street”, which pushes up the energy with a motorik rhythm and rolling, eventually growling, electro bassline. While Karl inquires “Do you want to buy my car?” we also are treated to Rick’s voice during the bridge.  Inclusion of other voices has become more commonplace in recent years, as Karl’s and Rick’s daughters Tyler Hyde and Esme Smith have featured, as well as Iggy Pop on lead vocals for the 2018 EP Teatime Dub Encounters.  Still, it’s a treat to hear Rick’s Welsh accent grace the track and reinforces the shared duties of the duo.  Another quick mix into what is sure to be a live favorite and in the running for the group’s most uplifting song, “Listen to Their No” bubbles and pops with uplifting analog synth melody. “The magic’s never broken”, Hyde affirms, a testimony perhaps to Underworld’s long partnership, which has seen rough patches and lulls in releases but has been seemingly reinvigorated by the DRIFT process.  The final track of the opening run is “Border Country”, a collaboration with Ø [Phase], which again roars in just as the former tune fades out. Drums slowly build and even undergo a club drop, while stunningly layered vocals bring the track to a boil, giving the track a dark edge, a vibe shared by the two other DRIFT tracks coproduced with Ø [Phase] (the acid-tinged “Dexter’s Chalk” and cavernous “Give Me the Room”) .

Despite the assured start to Sampler Edition, a curious inclusion and possible misstep comes next. “Mile Bush Pride” is a mere 1:34 (shortened even from its terse episodic version), a minimal techno character sketch of two ravers. Aside from the duration, the track is also eerily similar to 2007’s “Holding the Moth” in terms of cadence, bassline, vocal delivery and in some cases, the words themselves. It’s an odd choice, given the wealth of more original-sounding and fleshed out material found amongst the Episodes.

“Schiphol Test” is up next, and it too will sound familiar to longtime fans, especially given the “push, push, push…” mantra and some lilting synths that recall “Most ‘Ospitable”.  However, the melancholy track is buoyed somewhat by a percolating bassline, rough string stabs and beautiful voice harmonizing.  Sadly, the Sampler Edition edits out the latter half of the episodic track which features the most introspective lyrics, as Karl implores “Whose words are these, written on walls, whose time is coming? …Tell me I’m not crazy”.

The lone instrumental on Sampler Edition is “Brilliant Yet That Would Be”, a glacially cool soundscape with droning pads and a shrieking, oft distorted synth line. Rick plays with dissonance on other cuts in DRIFT (e.g. the tonally similar, slightly grating “One True Piano Need Hand”), but this may challenge and abrade the casual listener. Indeed, most Underworld albums include an experimental vocal-free track and are among the most frequently targeted tunes for exclusion.  Nonetheless, “Brilliant Yes That Would Be” provides a welcome breather after an uptempo first half of the record.

“S T A R (Rebel Tech)” restores the electronic energy and is essentially a beat and vocal-driven dance number, with occasional glitches and odd noises but not much by way of melody. Hyde rapidly nursery rhymes through a litany of popular figures, some fictional and others real-life heroes. Clever and catchy, the music of the track is also significantly different from the Episode 5 version, which featured beats largely recycled from the back catalog.

Another quick segue introduces “Imagine A Box”, another fast, danceable number with an elastic and tone-jumping synth lead. Stepping down several pitches amid yelps and yips, the mood turns dark: “Oh God, it’s that’s song again.  Turn it on.” The track closes under a barrage of blasts as if from a laser gun. A slight complaint is that Karl’s vocals sometimes seem out of tune with the main melody, but obviously this was the intended effect, and does make some sense given the wobbly melody and chord changes.

The final song, “Custard Speedtalk” begins with jazzy percussion and analog blips and tones.  A soft touch piano countermelody and light guitar licks give the track a pastoral vibe, along with a bit of studio banter: “This is good. Rick?” Karl declares and looks to his partner for the next cue. Later, Hyde sings the praises of a possible romantic interest, while disparaging their current partner. At 9:43, it neatly bookends the album with “Appleshine”, both showcasing Underworld’s compositional and instrumental skills in tracks that stretch out but don’t overstay their welcome.

In sum, the DRIFT Episode 1 Sampler Edition sounds deliberately paced and balances familiar Underworld techno with some new flourishes, particularly the vocal work.  Karl Hyde has always used his voice as an instrument, but the layering and harmonizing are more prevalent and realized than ever.  Further, the choice to mix many of the tracks together (albeit by way of short fades rather than a DJ-style continuous mix) reinforces the concept of a unified album rather than a collection of singles (though in truth, that’s what the DRIFT series essentially is!).

Underworld has accomplished so much in their career, willing to defy expectations and try new projects (soundtracks, internet-only releases, scoring the 2012 Olympics, surprising collaborations, etc.) such that DRIFT Series 1 seems a natural, albeit ambitious, progression.  Jazzy improvisations from the duo (“Poet Cat”, “Tree and Two Chairs”) are complemented by long-form jam sessions with trio The Necks, where Underworld source material is looped and layered and expounded upon. There are DRIFT tunes decidedly not in the electronic dance music genre (e.g. the piano, guitar and wordless vocal cut “Molehill”, and the choral “A Moth at the Door”). There’s also quintessential dark techno with murky, stream-of-consciousness lyrics (“Seven Music Drone”, “Threat of Rain”, and “Roof Off”) and plenty of electro noodling (“Universe of Can When Back” is a blippy, old-school example, augmented by a searing sax solo). There’s rock, as well, as with “Two Arrows”, where heavy vocoding sounds like a fuzz guitar playing power chords, and “Hundred Weight Hammer” which casts a nostalgic look towards 90’s alternative. Certain moments will recall past favorites, whether by virtue of Karl’s words or delivery, but Rick keeps the music fresh, and always interesting, and few tracks feel derivative.  In fact, most of the songs arrive fully formed, not as sketches or demos, but as glossy, finalized output from a vast pool of creativity.

It’s not reasonable to expound on every track in this massive collection, but if there is a consistent theme to the DRIFT experiment, it’s a willingness and apparent enthusiasm to span genres and take cues from their past without retreading. On the gorgeous “Low Between Zebras”, guest Matthew Trevannion proclaims the overarching themes: “Drift, liberation, a happy wanderer, journeying without purpose, travelling directed by intuition, not target…unpredictable endpoint”.  This yearlong glimpse into the mindset of Underworld has indeed liberated the band to create without the predictable album/tour/hiatus as endpoint and gifted the listener with an extremely satisfying and varied collection to endlessly reconfigure and enjoy.

-Brian Ruskin is a longtime member and forum contributer at Born Dirty.  He releases quality, hand-crafted electronic bleeps and bloops as ESCALE, Mental Health Consumer, and Advances in Obsolete Technology.

The Drift Series 1 Complete box set is released today in the UK, on September 25 in the EU, and on October 2 in the US.  You can buy it at retail outlets or at the Underworld Store: